PEORIA, Ariz. — The official line this spring is right-hander Taijuan Walker is pitching to keep his job in the Seattle Mariners’ rotation.
This narrative positions Walker in a three-way battle with James Paxton and Nathan Karns for the final two slots behind Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Walker, Paxton and Karns each have options remaining, which means they can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. And none of them have sufficient service time to guarantee their major-league salaries.
“It’s always compete mode,” Walker said. “At any given time, someone can come and take your spot. In baseball, you’re never safe. You really have to go in every year with (the approach) that you’re competing for your spot.
“Obviously, there are guys like Felix, who have been around 10 years and have done it for a long time. But being a younger guy, you’ve still got to go out and compete.”
True enough: Walker isn’t protected in the same manner as Hernandez, Miley and Iwakuma. Even so, club officials routinely characterize Walker as a cornerstone in a roster that is built to win now.
“Going in,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “Taijuan Walker made great progress at the last half, even last two-thirds of last year. I think you started to see some of what he was capable of and we want to see him take one of those jobs.”
That suggests, at minimum, Walker ranks first among equals in any competition with Paxton and Karns. Put another way, Walker has a job to lose, while the other two must prove they deserve a spot.
“Taijuan is 23 and coming off a pretty good year last year,” manager Scott Servais said. “He should be wanting to take his game to the next level. We’re excited about the path that he’s on. He’s going to be a key for us. No doubt.”
Dipoto characterized Walker as “a guy I think has the chance to shoot the moon.”
It’s easy to see why.
Walker, 23, showed signs last season of harnessing his long-predicted potential. He went 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA over his final 20 starts. He also walked just 17 batters in 1262/3 innings in that span.
“I just got real aggressive,” he said. “I just kind of went right after the hitters. Made them put the ball in play. I really didn’t go for the strikeout. I really tried not to get to three balls. I tried to attack early and tried to get the easy, quick out.”
The turnaround was particularly impressive because Walker righted himself after a disastrous start — 1-5 with a 7.33 ERA through nine games — without requiring a confidence-restoring trip to Triple-A Tacoma.
“The first month, month and a half,” he recalled, “I just wasn’t there. Giving up a run, or two runs, early kind of shut me down. After those two months, I kind of realized I’m going to give up runs.
“But when people get on base, I’ve just got to prevent how many runs I give up. My (approach) became if I give up one run, OK. But that’s it. That’s all they get.”
Walker had 15 quality starts in his final 20 outings. He gave up fewer than two runs on eight occasions. His biggest bugaboo became a tendency to give up home runs because he was, as his walk rate confirms, always around the plate.
His solution: A straight change-up. He began throwing the pitch in winter workouts, and he plans to spend this spring working to perfect it.
“I throw a lot of four-seamers (straight fastballs),” Walker said. “I felt like a straight change would really work because my (old) change was like a split-change. It had two-seam spin to it. I just wanted to work on the four-seam change.”
As much as anything, Walker’s willingness to spend the spring working on a new pitch speaks to his unspoken status within the rotation.
Pitchers looking to win a job typically stick to their best stuff in order to impress — especially when dealing with a new manager and coaching staff. Instead, Walker is trying something new that might initially have some rough edges.
“I’m excited,” he said. “There definitely is a lot of change. The manager, the GM, a bunch of new teammates. But it means a fresh start for everyone. Just come into the season with no expectations and get ready to play some baseball.”