Drayer: Now a veteran, Taijuan Walker ready to give back in Mariners reunion
With the Mariners, it almost seems like the option to come home is always there. Familiar faces from the past have a way of showing up in Peoria this time of year. Taijuan Walker appears to be happy to be that guy in 2020.
“It feels good,” the right-handed pitcher said Thursday in his first meeting with the Seattle media since returning to the team.
While most of the faces he encounters in the Mariners’ clubhouse are new, the surroundings and many of the staff and front office members are familiar. That was a major factor in choosing to return to Seattle on a one-year deal Wednesday when he appeared to have other options.
“I’m comfortable here,” he said. “I haven’t pitched in two years, so I wanted somewhere where I can come in, kind of take my time, I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to really go out and prove anything in spring training, just get a good game plan in, take it easy through spring.”
Walker won’t be forced to try and win a spot in the rotation. His performances won’t mean the difference between making the postseason or going home. He won’t be faced with that pressure as he goes through his first year after Tommy John surgery, and that in the long run should be good for him. It also doesn’t hurt that the Mariners’ new head athletic trainer was the assistant trainer for the Diamondbacks, who Walker spent the past three years with.
“KT (Kyle Torgerson) being here, I was with him two years rehabbing,” Walker said. “I’m comfortable with him, he knows my body, he knows what I have to do to stay healthy, that was a big part of it too.”
While the Mariners will be careful with Walker and bring him along slowly if necessary, they expect something back from him as well – something in addition to performance. At just 27 years of age but with five years service time, Walker is a veteran – a veteran who has spent at least parts of seven seasons in the big leagues.
While Walker has always been the young guy – or one of the young guys – on a staff, manager Scott Servais would like to see him take a step forward as one of the guys others look to.
“Taijuan has learned what it’s been to be the No. 1 prospect-type guy. He’s dealt with some injuries in his career. He’s got a lot to offer the young guys here,” he pointed out. “And he knows the M’s.”
Servais spoke with Walker on Wednesday and perhaps there was a little push in this direction. Perhaps that push would have been needed in the past. At times, there were frustrations with Walker and the pace that the 2010 first-round draft pick took in his development and his offseason work.
For his part, Walker says he is a different person now when it comes to his work. The change of scenery gave him the opportunity to take a closer look at himself.
“I definitely had a lot of stuff to learn,” he said of his time with the Diamondbacks. “I don’t think I did a good job here (in Arizona) doing what I needed to do to become the best pitcher I could be. Definitely I slacked off. I didn’t really put the work in. When I went over there, there was just opportunity and fresh faces for me. It kind of clicked right away. I was the new guy so I wanted to fit in.
“I didn’t want to be the standout guy who wasn’t working, was lazy and stuff. I couldn’t really slack off. We had good vets that kept on on me. Just having Zack Greinke over there, a bunch of guys who were really hungry and ready to work, I just wanted to fall in line with them.”
Older, wiser, more mature on and off the field by his own description. The former kid of the Mariners rotation is now a husband and a father of a 2 year old. His home team has been instrumental in his nearly two-year comeback from injury.
“My wife was great,” he said. “She definitely kept me motivated, kept me in it. Especially having a family, a young one too, he (son) was definitely the biggest motivation. It was tough the first couple of months and it was boring but having a 2-year-old definitely kept me on my toes.”
With the injury behind him, Walker is looking forward to finally getting to take the field every fifth day once again after pitching a total of one inning in 2019.
“I’m 100 percent right now,” he said. “I’ve thrown four bullpens, I’m letting it go pretty good. Now it is just about being smart about it. I feel like I could go out and pitch if I need to in a game, but we are going to get a game plan and go from there.”
It is a good opportunity for Walker to re-establish himself before hitting the free agent market once more, but he insists that this relationship will be a two-way street. No longer the young guy, he’s ready to give back off of the mound.
“In Arizona, I was around some really good vets and I learned how they went about their business,” Walker said. “They helped me a lot and now my focus wants to be helping the young guys come up. If they have any questions, if I can help in any way, that’s kind of my goal now moving forward in my career.”