Analyst: Mariners’ Big 3 losing some luster

Aug 11, 2013, 2:47 PM | Updated: Aug 12, 2013, 1:32 pm

By Brent Stecker

For the last several seasons, the buzz about the Mariners’ farm system has focused squarely on three big-time pitching prospects – Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

The prevailing thought has been that some combination of the trio would help fill out the Mariners’ rotation behind All-Stars Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma – if not this year, then at least in 2014. So far the team has yet to call any of the hurlers up, however, and it appears it will be a while yet before they take the mound at Safeco Field.

walker

Taijuan Walker has been the lone bright spot of the Mariners’ prized pitching prospects in 2013, as he has a sub-3.00 ERA and averages over a strikeout per inning in the minor leagues. (AP)

So what has happened to the Big 3 this season? Prospect Insider’s Jason Churchill addressed that on “Seattle Sports at Night” last week, and it’s more bad news than good.

“I do think that that luster is gone a little bit off the Big 3 as a whole, particularly Hultzen with the injury and Paxton with the fact that he just can’t repeat (his delivery) and throw strikes consistently,” Churchill said.

Most worrisome is that Hultzen’s 2013 has been derailed by nagging shoulder problems. Even though he’s 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA and 31 strikeouts for Triple-A Tacoma, the 22-year-old has appeared in just six games since spring training.

As for Paxton, 24, the big left-hander has shown flashes of brilliance mixed in between extended struggles. He’s 7-9 with a 4.42 ERA and a .279 opponent average in 118 innings for Tacoma. He’s battling delivery problems, which have prevented him from maintaining success.

“(Paxton) started the year really slow, and he’s had five or six real good starts and he had them right in a row and it got a lot of people excited,” Churchill said. “It convinced a lot of people inside and outside the organization that he was turning a corner, but his last two outings (he reverted) back to what was going on before, which is a tough delivery to repeat. He’s a big, tall, 230-pound guy, and there’s a lot of moving parts. He has this teeter-totter kind of a delivery, and that’s real difficult to repeat consistently and throw strikes. He had removed a little velocity off of his fastball to pound the strike zone, and he was doing that for those four and five starts prior to his last two, and it’s just not working here right now.”

That inconsistency has taken some of the shine off the native of British Columbia.

“He was a guy that was gonna have to work on that delivery to smooth some things out. (Making the MLB in) 2013, 2014 was probably always the plan, but I still think at this point the probability of him being a starter long term has probably worn down a little bit,” Churchill said. “I think at some point probably next year the organization will have to consider, ‘Hey, do we want to leave him in the starting rotation and continue to try to develop him, or do we want to think about getting some value from him at the big-league level in a relief role?’ But there’s no reason to give up on him right now, (because) we’re talking about a 24-year-old kid, and we’ve seen far too many times, players including pitchers flip that switch at 26, 27 years old.”

Walker, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, has had a much better 2013 than Hultzen and Paxton. He has a combined 2.88 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, with 136 strikeouts in 125 innings.

“Walker’s development’s come along pretty well,” Churchill said. “He’s actually struggled his last two or three times out, hasn’t had real clean outings, but the stuff is there. He’s certainly not running out of bullets.”

The Mariners are moving ahead with struggling veteran Aaron Harang in their rotation, but Churchill doesn’t believe either Walker or Paxton pose a threat to his job.

“I don’t think you want to go into a situation where you designate Harang for assignment sometime in August, and then you have to spend the last four to six weeks relying on a Taijuan Walker or a James Paxton,” he said. “That could be detrimental to their development, and it certainly doesn’t help your ballclub if the young guy goes in there and struggles like that, because you don’t want to leave him out there to kind of take one for the team. If you get into a scenario with Harang where he’s struggling like that, you can say, ‘Hey, you know what, we don’t have anybody to go to. You just have to take one for the team and go four or five innings for us.'”

September call-ups are looming, though, and there’s a likelihood that the pair will find its way into the Mariners’ clubhouse by then.

“I do think there’s a chance we’re going to see one of both of those two, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, at the big-league level this year,” Churchill said.

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