Drafted with the 48th overall pick of the 2010 MLB Draft, Taijuan Walker has developed into one of baseball’s top pitching prospects. With his size, arsenal, and delivery, the righty certainly looks like a future ace. Last year we got a small taste of what he can do, but we never saw him fully unleashed at the major league level. Many signs point to 2014 to be his true rookie season, and he’ll be one of the most watched of the year. He should be an exciting player to watch, but the question still remains: Does he belong on your fantasy roster?
Walker is a tall, flame-throwing right-hander with an impressive arsenal. He works primarily with his hard fastball, which averaged 94.3 MPH in his 3 MLB starts last year. He clocked in at a 98 MPH max, and was able to hit that velocity multiple times throughout his starts. Though command was a question coming into 2013, Walker had decent command of his fastball by the time he made it to the bigs.
Walker also throws his cutter a considerable amount, using it 18.5% of the time in his MLB outings last year. The pitch has a noticeable hard break that averages 90.7 MPH and can touch up to 93 MPH. The cutter was developed pretty recently and Walker currently has some command issues with it, but the pitch has a lot of potential if he can continue improving it.
Additionally, he can deal a slow curveball with some serious movement. The pitch averages 73 MPH and shows swing-and-miss potential. However, he still needs to work on his command for this pitch as well. He’ll also occasionally throw a change-up that sits around 87 MPH. His curveball has more potential than his change-up, but both pitches can still come in handy for him while facing major league level competition.
Though he may stand to add some weight, Walker has a pretty ideal frame and it works to his favor in multiple ways. His height allows him to throw down hill and his weight is what makes him so durable. He also has very smooth and consistent mechanics, which further this notion of durability.
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His 2013 numbers looked greatest in Double-A Jackson as he recorded a 2.46 ERA and 1.048 WHIP through 14 starts. However, they seemed to take a hit in Triple-A Tacoma, where he recorded a 3.61 ERA and 1.413 WHIP through 11 starts. His 8.5 hits allowed per 9 innings and 4.2 walks allowed per 9 made his numbers look unimpressive. Pitching in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) is as tough as it gets in the minors, as the league heavily favors hitters. His Triple-A numbers should be taken less seriously than his numbers elsewhere.
In his 3 major league starts in September, Walker recorded a 3.60 ERA and 1.000 WHIP. Impressively, he walked just 4 batters in these 15 total innings (that’s 2.4 BB/9). Opposing batters slashed just .204/.250/.296 against him and he did not allow a single home run in any of these outings. Overall, his first few major league starts were very solid.
Walker struck out 160 batters in 141.1 minor league innings in 2014, giving him a dominant K/9 rate of 10.2 strikeouts per 9 innings (or a K% of 27.4%).
In his 3 starts at the major league level, his strikeout rate fell to a pedestrian 7.2 K/9 (a K% of 20%). Yet if we look at this on a game-to-game basis we can separate the good from the bad. Walker struck out a total of 4 batters in his first 2 MLB starts on 8/30 and 9/04. In his third and final start of the season on 9/09, he struck out 8 batters in just 5 innings.
In those first two starts, he relied on his fastball and cutter to get him just a below average amount swings and misses. Yet in his final start, he was racking them up with his off-speed stuff as well. Though his command wasn’t perfect on either pitch, he was able to do enough with his curveball and his change-up to produce whiffs. Batters swung and missed on 17.9% of his 84 pitches in his final start, which was well above the league average 9.3%.
A better use of his arsenal is what allowed him to strike out so many batters in that outing, and it’s what he will need to do in order to boast big strikeout numbers in the future. If he can make proper use of his curveball and change-up, the K-potential is sky high.
Throughout all of 2013, Walker totaled a solid 156.1 innings between Double-A and his September call-up to the majors. This was a 29 2/3 inning increase after his full season with Double-A Jackson in 2012 when he pitched only 126.2 innings.
In his 156.1 total outings throughout 2013, Walker averaged 5.58 innings per start. This was likely an attempt to stretch Walker out and allow him to continue pitching, as he never exceeded 6.1 innings in his final 8 games of the season.
With 386.2 professional innings under his belt and no serious injuries to speak of, Walker is ready to take on a larger load of innings. But there may still be some limitations in the next season or two.
The Mariners organization will likely put some sort of cap on Walker’s innings in 2014. It’s reasonable to imagine that the cap will be somewhere around 180 to 190 innings for the season. Whether they let him pitch freely until he hits this limit, or choose to stretch him out, all rests on how the Mariners are doing in the race for a playoff spot.
Missing out on the innings potential of a veteran starter is something Walker owners will just have to live with in 2014.
What to Expect
Walker is currently listed as number 4 on the Mariners online depth chart. While nothing’s official yet, barring injury and the signing of multiple starters, I expect him to make Seattle’s rotation from the start of the 2014 season. In the event that he does not, I do expect him up by the all-star break at the latest.
If he can get 28 or more big league starts in 2014, I could imagine an ERA somewhere around 3.40, something like a 1.200 WHIP, and around 180 K’s. As always, wins are tough to predict, but I’m not counting on any more than 13 from a lineup that has really failed to produce wins in recent years. I believe he can rank in top-30 among starting pitchers by the season’s end, making him a great sleeper in re-draft leagues. I would feel comfortable using a late-round pick on him, and even a middle-round pick on him if I had to.
Beyond next year, it’s possible we’re looking at an ace that can keep a low ERA and strike out well over 200 batters. Along with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Walker should be a part of a very good Mariners rotation for years to come.
Keep up with DSE’s Top-50 Fantasy Baseball Prospects to find out where Taijuan Walker ranks!