Back when the recently promoted Taijuan Walker was drafted by the Mariners, Baseball America described him as, "a gamble worth taking." He was incredibly raw; he had spent most of his athletic time on the basketball court and failing to be an infielder -- pitching wasn't new to him, but he was far more potential than he was actual product.
Fast-forward to 2013. Walker is now 20 years old rather than his drafted age of 17. He's thrown 371 professional innings in the Mariners' minor-league system. He's had his ups and downs, but has also struck out nearly 10 batters per nine while outright dominating the opposition at times. He's survived the pitcher-hating Pacific Coast League, even, and did so before he even hit the legal drinking age, posting a 3.61 ERA with 10 punch-outs per nine there. There remains work to do, as there is with anyone in possession of his youth, but just like Baseball America said a few years back, Walker is a gamble worth taking.
If Walker were to be left down on the farm at this point it would be for service time purposes more than anything -- the next steps in his development likely have to come against big-league competition. The Mariners have decided that experience against major-league hitters means more than making sure he's under team control a little bit longer, and given that they are in desperate need of pitching in 2014, you can understand why Walker would be getting a trial now instead of later, even if it's not your strategy of choice.
Just who is Walker, though? He was the 20th-ranked prospect in the game heading into 2012, and moved up to 18th prior to the 2013 campaign. In Baseball America's midseason update, Walker jumped all the way to seventh, putting him behind only the Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley.
Walker has a mid-90s fastball that hits 97, and complements it with a curveball and a change-up. There remains work to be done with both his control and his command -- Baseball America reported in the winter that Walker's fastball would sometimes flatten out a bit too much, leaving it susceptible to the opposition -- but there's a lot to love here. His stuff is good enough that he should get through September without much trouble just based on raw ability, with the real test coming his second time through the league, once everyone knows what to expect from him.
Walker has tossed over 141 innings this year, about 15 more than he managed in 2012, leaving him in a position to see your standard 30-ish inning jump in workload from year to year. That puts him in line for 170-180 at age 21 in 2014. As with Felix Hernandez before him, you would expect the Mariners to show some restraint and to protect their young hurler, as his future is their future -- they won't get very far without both the King and Walker, not with the lack of pitching available on the open market, not with the cost attached to what is there. His current workload does set them up to both protect and use him, though, so they're already ahead of the game in that regard.
It's far too late for Walker to save the 2013 Mariners, but he's a significant piece of what could very well be general manager Jack Zduriencik's final year at the helm. If Walker can help repair the rotation, keeping it from being the utter drag it was on this year's club, then that could extend Jack Z's tenure -- it'll take more than just Walker, of course, but he's a significant step in the right direction.