Taijuan Walker (center) and James Paxton answer questions with moderator Rick Rizzs during the recent FanFest at Safeco Field. Seattle Times staff photo.
It kind of got lost in the Ichiro/ChoneFiggins furor today, but Taijuan Walker faced live hitters for the first time today on the most remote field at the Peoria Sports Complex. It was the place to be. James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Erasmo Ramirez also threw there, which is why Jack Zduriencik, Eric Wedge , assistant GM Jeff Kingston and several front-office advisors, including Joe McIlvaine and Pete Vukovich, hung out there behind the batting cage.
I paid particular attention to Walker, because I had heard and read so much about him but had yet to see him pitch. It was easy to see what the fuss is about. His stuff drew oohs and aws from the hitters he was facing, which included Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan and Chone Figgins. What impressed me most was the easy life Walker had on the ball — he has a very smooth delivery, and the ball explodes out of his hand. Some of his pitches were so nasty that the Mariners players were just laughing and shaking their head.
I caught up with Ackley and Ryan afterward to get their impressions of Walker. Here’s what Ackley said:
“He looks great. Great fastball, great life on his fastball, and it looks like he has a good feeling for his off-speed, especially for a kid that young. It seems like he’s all the way…I mean, he’s close to ready, it looks like.
“You see that kind of stuff in the big leagues right now. I don’t know how far along he is in game-like situations, but just seeing him on the back fields, he looks like he has the stuff, and he’s only going to get better. It’s pretty scary to think about.”
And here’s Ryan, who got a litlle more technical:
“Very fluid, very easy – effortless. The ball comes out hot. He’s got some good tilt on the breaking ball, and I like the changeup. It’s hard to distinguish. It comes out the same slot as the fastball, and it just kind of bleeds down a little bit. If it was going left or right, you could maybe distinguish it closer to him, but it just comes out the same and fades a little bit. Pretty deceptive.
“He’s pretty far ahead of the game. The talent’s there, obviously. It’s just fine-tuning it and making sure the control is there, maybe learn a cutter or something. If the control’s there, I’m sure he could compete (in the major leagues) right now. You could tell he’s an athlete, too. I see him taking PFPs (pitchers fielding practice), and I see somebody athletic fielding a ground ball. Sky’s the limit, it looks like.”
Walker is just 19, with a mere 103 professional innings under his belt (which have yielded 122 strikeouts). He has no chance of making the team, no matter how dominant he is in spring training. But by all indications, Walker is going to climb up the minor-league ladder very quickly. There are obviously still a lot of potential pitfalls along the way, whether it be health related or stalled development, for whatever reason. But if Walker continues to progress like he has, he’s going to continue to make a lot of noise, and draw considerable attention.