M’s could be set with starters, but don’t rule out a Taijuan Walker reunion
For the second year of a multi-year rebuild, the Mariners have enough starting pitchers to go into a season where letting young players get to develop in major league games is the priority.
This offseason, the Mariners have signed 29-year-old former A’s starter Kendall Graveman to a one-year deal with a club option for 2021, made minor deals to acquire younger, unproven pitchers Nestor Cortes, Phillips Valdez and Nick Margevicious, and reportedly added veteran southpaw Wei-Yin Chen on a minor league deal to compete for a rotation spot in spring training.
In Seattle’s rotation mix, those names are added to top returning pitcher Marco Gonzales, who signed a four-year extension earlier this week, second-year lefty Yusei Kikuchi and prospects Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.
The Mariners could take those nine options into spring training, which begins March 12 when pitchers and catchers report, but there’s a possibility they could add another one with a familiar name. It’s not really a long shot, either.
Taijuan Walker, the former Mariners top prospect who was a key piece in the trade that brought Mitch Haniger to Seattle from Arizona, is a free agent coming back from Tommy John surgery. The 27-year-old right-hander was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks after the end of the 2019 season, and a reunion could make sense for both the M’s and Walker.
Seattle has shown a preference this offseason to buy low on bounce-back candidates – Graveman missed the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Seattle also recently signed reliever Yoshihisa Hirano, Walker’s former teammate in Arizona who saw his ERA and WHIP both balloon in his second MLB season after making the jump from Japan. Walker would definitely fit in that category, especially if the Mariners could sign him to a deal that would allow them to make a choice on keeping him on a team option in later seasons like with Graveman.
Walker is still very much an unknown commodity despite having started 97 MLB games since making his debut with the Mariners in 2013. He’s yet to have a true breakout season – his best to date was his first with Arizona in 2017, going 9-9 with a 3.49 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 28 starts (151 1/3 innings). He struggled with keeping hitters from getting on base that year, however, issuing 61 walks and finishing with a 1.33 WHIP, and he made it through just 13 innings in three games in 2018 before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament that necessitated Tommy John surgery and the long rehab time that comes with it.
Walker worked his way back just in time to pitch a single inning in the final game of 2019 with Arizona, even registering a strikeout of Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer on a splitter.
Arizona decided to move on ahead without Walker, however, and this week he held a workout where 20 scouts watched him throw, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. And while Nightengale reported that Walker’s fastball didn’t get any higher than 88 mph, that’s not really a concern for two reasons – he recovered from the torn UCL to pitch in a game and hit 94 mph last fall, and pitchers build up their arm strength going into and through spring training.
The question now is where Walker will land. MLB.com Mariners reporter Greg Johns first noted that Seattle had interest in December, and he added late last month that the interest from the M’s was still “believed” to be there. The Twins are another team to have been linked to Walker, and the number of scouts reported to be at his workout indicate there are other teams possibly willing to sign him.
Minnesota is expected to be a major contender in the American League this year, and its starting rotation looks pretty deep with José Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey, Rich Hill and reported addition Kenta Maeda, so Walker might be hard-pressed to find opportunities to pitch for the Twins. The Mariners, however, could provide Walker with plenty of opportunity to show he’s back to full-strength, as he would likely slot in as Seattle’s No. 3 starter and wouldn’t find himself in a spring training battle for a rotation spot.
Walker was once the Mariners’ prized prospect, a first-round pick who was called the “Fresh Prince” to Félix Hernández’s King. Years later, Seattle could be the place that provides him the chance he needs to revive his career.