Drayer: If anyone can relate to top Mariners prospects, it’s Taijuan Walker
Mariners spring training is full of names and faces you may recognize, some belonging to players who for the most part have yet to have a chance to make an impression to fans and others who have a chance to make a new first impression. That’s where our new series comes in.
Shannon Drayer, Mariners insider for 710 ESPN Seattle, is catching up with the highly touted prospects, recent acquisitions and more under-the-radar players in Peoria, Ariz., throughout spring training to provide insight into who are the 2020 Mariners are beyond.
Today, the spotlight is on Taijuan Walker, who at one point was the jewel of Seattle’s farm system but now returns after three seasons with Arizona as a veteran with something to prove following Tommy John surgery.
Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker
As we watch numerous young “future stars” here in Mariners spring training, the imagination can run a bit wild. Away from the grey, wet northwest winter, 19-year-old prospects look even shinier under the sun. They are young, athletic and show no signs of the grind that is everyday baseball. You look at them and wonder, what will this player become?
When we first saw Taijuan Walker, he was one of those guys. Along with Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, Walker was one of the “Big Three” early in the previous decade, a collection of prized arms in the Mariners system. Drafted out of high school in the first round in 2010, he was younger than the other two, and while perhaps raw in his pitching stood out as by far the best athlete. Videos of the 6-foot-4 Walker dunking a basketball were not hard to find.
I had forgotten how athletic Walker is but was quickly reminded on Day 1 of pitcher fielding drills this spring when he won the last man standing contest, outlasting his teammates in fielding rag balls off the bat of a coach, starting with his back turned to the hitter. It was pretty spectacular to see a man his size so quick on the mound, but it was really nothing for Taijuan, who almost always has been the most athletic player on the field.
Finding himself back with the Mariners was the end of a painful journey. Being non-tendered by the Diamondbacks rather than brought back in his comeback from Tommy John surgery was a surprise. Landing with the Mariners felt like the right thing to him, however. Everything happens for a reason.
Walker has found that life changes quickly – and often for the better. In the three years he was away from the Mariners, he got married, bought a house, got a new puppy and had a child. He is currently in the process of adopting his wife’s 13-year-old nephew. The guy who was always the young guy on the pitching staff now has a family of his own. There is still a bit of that young guy there, however, as revealed when he talked about being forced to stop playing ball for the first time in nearly a lifetime because of a torn UCL suffered in 2018, resulting in the Tommy John surgery.
“In a way it was good to have time for myself. I got to find out what kind of person I want to be growing up… or to continue to grow up to be,” he said with a laugh.
A lot can be learned in downtime, and a lot can be learned in change. Walker has been faced with both and believes he has come out better for it. When he looks around camp he sees guys that look a little bit like him the first time he set foot in big league camp.
“There’s so much potential, there’s so much talent, they all have it,” he said. “I think the biggest part is being so young and having talent, being top prospects, you can lose sight of the goal in what you want to do. I know I did, I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but especially when you get a taste of success in the big leagues. I got up here, there are so many players coming after your job, you have to stay hungry, keep working at it. Look at the guys who have been doing it for a long time and how hard they work. They are good for a reason.”
Walker looked hungry throwing a live BP on a backfield Monday in Peoria. Coming back from Tommy John, every pitcher has doubts they need to let go of. Walker was grunting on every pitch, letting the ball fly, expressing disgust when he didn’t hit his spots. There were big smiles all around in the post-session discussion with catcher Tom Murphy and pitching coach Pete Woodworth. There is no telling what tomorrow brings on the mound but Monday looked like a step in the right direction.
While he stumbled on the field due to injury since leaving the Mariners, it’s been great to see that aside from being a little older and, yes, perhaps a little wiser, he’s the same guy who quickly became a fan favorite.
Let’s catch up with Taijuan Walker.
Previously in the Get To Know Your Mariners series: Julio Rodriguez