By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — He’s just 20 years old.
The reminder is needed each time Mariners pitching prospect Taijuan Walker saunters by, speaks or takes the mound.
Walker, rated as the No. 2 prospect in the organization and 18th overall in baseball by esteemed Baseball America, has filled what was a lanky 18-year-old body with muscle. He’s 6-feet-4 inches tall and 220 pounds now after weighing 190 when the Mariners drafted him 43rd overall with a supplemental pick in 2010.
His voice is deeper and calm more evident. Tattoos are scrawled all the way up his arms that were previously a bare canvas just a couple years ago. Even the back of his left hand has script stung into it by a tattoo needle. “Family is everything” it reads. Those three words are part of multiple tattoos that encase his non-throwing arm and pertain to the travails of his family life.
The platinum-blonde hair hiding under his cap completes his look.
The ability in his right arm is the reason Walker is in Peoria with a goal of cracking the Mariners’ rotation. He’s part of what is expected to be a boon of young pitching for the M’s — along with Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and others.
Among the youngsters huddled into the back middle section of the Peoria locker room, there is a lot of diplomacy when discussing spring training. Among the standard dispatches from them is that they are going to do their best and do what is asked.
Walker wants to make the rotation. Now. He’ll even say so.
“It’s definitely the goal,” Walker said. “All I can do is work hard control what I can control. If they’re ready to call me up, I guess I’ll be ready. If not, I’ll just go down and work on the stuff I need to work on and be ready.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik smiled when told Walker took a more direct route with his comments than some of his teammates.
“Confidence is a wonderful thing,” Zduriencik said. “I think any guy coming in here should have their sights set on that. This is what you’re playing baseball for, to compete and get to the highest level. When players have a lot of confidence in themselves and they feel like, hey, this is what I’m intending to accomplish, what’s wrong with that? That’s a good thing.”
Walker threw his first live batting practice of the spring on Tuesday. He worked a lot of breaking balls, especially his new spike curveball, during the session against Mike Morse, Kyle Seager and others. He’s trying to find his curveball again after losing touch with it last summer in Class AA Jackson.
His changeup became evasive, too, and after being promoted to Jackson, he finished with a 4.69 ERA in 25 starts. Walker’s WHIP in Tennessee swelled to 1.374 from 1.117 a level down the prior season at Class A Clinton.
Walker was firing a lot of fastballs and wondering what had happened to his secondary stuff.
“I lost a little confidence in the month of June,” Walker said. “I wasn’t mentally tough when I should have been. But then I worked through it.
“I think the biggest thing was, I learned about myself. I took that and started to get mentally tough again. It’s going to be a tough game. You’re going to fail a lot. I just took that and worked that in and kept going instead of giving up.”
He called his Class A pitching coach Rich Dorman. Walker worked with former Jackson pitching coach and Major Leaguer Lance Painter. There was little background to draw from since Walker didn’t start pitching until he was a senior in high school.
That’s why he is adamant about his curveball in his first session at camp with hitters. Walker’s fastball has been clocked at 98 m.p.h. He needs to frame it with crisp secondary pitches to advance.
The Mariners are not ruling out the upward movement. Zduriencik said he doesn’t put restrictions on anyone at spring training and is happy to watch the fight for roster spots play out. Manager Eric Wedge seconded that.
“Even if you are young, stranger things have happened,” Wedge said.
Which is what Walker wants to hear.
The Mariners had five players in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list released Tuesday. Catcher Mike Zunino was 17th, Walker 18th, left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen is 29th, shortstop Nick Franklin is 79th and right-handed pitcher James Paxton is 87th. Three teams had six players in the rankings.