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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 12, 2012 at 1:02 PM

Tempting to keep Taijuan Walker, but Mariners wise to wait

walkerfanfest.jpg

(Taijuan Walker answers questions at FanFest in January. Seattle Times staff photo).

The Mariners never had any intention of keeping Taijuan Walker on their big-league roster, no matter how dazzling he looked. And he did look dazzling much of the time. But when he was sent down over the weekend, following an overpowering outing against the Diamondbacks that apparently had scouts buzzing, I was reminded of something the Washington Nationals general manager said a couple of springs ago about Stephen Strasburg during his first camp. It was something to the affect of, we need to send him down quickly, before we get tempted to keep him.

No doubt something like that was going on with the Mariners, who made the decision Sunday to demote not only Walker, but at the same time James Paxton and Danny Hultzen. All three opened eyes all spring with their stuff, poise and performance. Here’s a national perspective from Ken Rosenthal of FOX after checking out Saturday’s game, in which each of the Big Three pitched.

Had they continued to pitch in Cactus League games, there was a good chance any or all of the trio would have turned in more dominating performances that would have had fans clamoring to see them on the Opening Day roster. But even though Jack Zduriencik said going into camp that Hultzen and Paxton would have a chance to win a job, they really didn’t have a realistic one. It was just too big a step for Hultzen, without throwing a pitch yet in the minor leagues, or Paxton, who sat out most of the 2010 season.

Walker might have turned out to be the most tempting of all, had he been given a longer look, because his stuff can be just unreal at times. But of the three, he’s the one who had the least chance of making the team. The Mariners wisely realized that a 19-year-old, even one as uber talented as Walker, needs more seasoning before being thrown into the major-league fire. It’s not like they are lone wolves on this philosophy, either. There hasn’t been a teen-aged starting pitcher to open the season in a big-league rotation since Dwight Gooden in 1984. And only a handful of teenagers have started games, period, in the intervening 28 years — including current Mariner Felix Hernandez, at 19.. But Hernandez, don’t forget, started his breakthrough 2005 season in the minors and didn’t get called up until August. Same with Edwin Jackson, the last teen-ager before Hernandez to start a game (at age 19, for the Dodgers, on Sept. 9, 2000). Since Gooden, in fact, the only other teen-aged pitchers to start games are Matt Riley (Sept. 9, 1999 for the Orioles), Todd Van Poppel (Sept. 11, 1991 for the A’s), and Wilson Alvarez (July 24, 1989 for the Rangers).

Yes, perhaps Walker has the talent to be another Gooden, who went 17-9 and was Cy Young runner-up as a 19-year-old rookie, won the Cy Young with a 24-4 mark in his second year, and was the ace of a World Series-winning Mets team his third year. But there are not many Dwight Goodens, and teams are much more protective of their precious young arms nowadays. Whether or not Gooden’s early start helped lead to his self-destruction is a question for another day.

A more apt comparison for Walker than Gooden could be C.C. Sabathia, whose development was in part nurtured by Carl Willis and Eric Wedge , the Mariners’ current pitching coach and manager, when they were all in the Cleveland organization. Like Walker, Sabathia was drafted out of high school as a 17-year-old (with the 20th pick of the 1998 June draft; Sabathia’s 18th birthday came on July 24 of that year). Walker was a supplemental first-rounder in the 2010 June draft (43rd overall; his 18th birthday was on Aug. 13 of that year).

Both pitched minimally their first year — five games in the Appalachian League for Sabathia, four games in the Arizona rookie league for Walker. In Sabathia’s first full season, in which he turned 19 in July of 1999, he started 16 games (68.1 innings) at A ball. In Walker’s first full season last year, he started 18 games (96.2 innings) at A ball. Both showed signs of dominance (10.0 strikeouts per nine innings for Sabathia, 10.5 for Walker).

In 2000, when Sabathia began the year at roughly the same age Walker is now, he began at Class A, moved up to AA, and made a total of 27 starts, all in the minors. Though his record was just 6-9 with a 3.57 ERA, Sabathia struck out 159 in 146 1/3 innings and allowed just 123 hits.

Now the Indians deemed Sabathia to be ready. He made the rotation out of spring training in 2001, at age 20, and was brilliant. He went 17-5 in 33 starts (180.1 innings), struck out 171, and was the runnerup to Ichiro for American League Rookie of the Year. Sabathia’s career since then speaks for itself — a Cy Young award in 2007, and unquestioned statuses as one of the top pitchers in the majors.

I could see Walker on pretty much the same timetable as Sabathia, meaning that this is his growth year, before the Mariners turn him loose next season. We’ll see. He has to stay healthy, of course, and continue to make strides, but there’s no question Walker is a prodigy. He’s on the fast track to the majors — but not too fast.

Before I left Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I talked to Zduriencik about the temptations of keeping Walker on the roster. His answer was telling not only for Walker, but Hultzen and Paxton as well. Remember, the Mariners hadn’t yet played a Cactus League game when we spoke, only a couple of intrasquads.

“Here’s the thing: You have to be careful of with any young kid. You have to realize it doesn’t really matter how talented that player is. Their abilities might be better than players you have on your ballclub. But is the emotional aspect of being in the big leagues? it’s the innings they have under them in the minor leagues to come up here and be able to sustain 180 innings, 170, whatever kind of innings you want to put on them. And what’s the best for that player.

“That’s really where the acid test is on any of these guys. Even with Danny Hultzen. Let’s say he throws three perfect innings next time he goes out of the mound or whatever. He’s never thrown a pitch in a big league ballgame. He’s never thrown a pitch that counts in a Mariner uniform, except now this is a spring training game, and the Arizona Fall League. But a championship season, he’s never been involved in. And Paxton had a year layoff, a little over a year layoff.

“These are things you have to balance, and you really have to do what’s best for the player. You’re not going to deny anybody if they step forward and make a major statement. But there’s more to considering than just their talent level.”

The Big Three is inching closer to The Show. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Hultzen and/or Paxton starting in the major leagues at some point this year. And Walker won’t be far behind.

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