Walker strong after careful use in first full year

Walker strong after careful use in first full year

Walker strong after careful use in first full year
At the start of the 2011 season, MLB.com unveiled Top 10 prospect lists for all 30 Major League organizations on Prospect Watch. Over the course of the season, those lists changed due to graduations to the big leagues, trades and performances. With the season completed, MLB.com will review how the prospects on those lists fared in 2011.

Sending a young prospect from Southern California to Iowa to make his full-season debut might sound like cruel and unusual punishment, but the Mariners were careful with Taijuan Walker.

"It wasn't that bad," Walker said. "It was still a little chilly. For the most part, it was pretty good."

Seattle didn't send its 2010 supplemental first-round pick to Clinton in the Midwest League until early May. Part of it was climate-related, but the Mariners also wanted to make sure they didn't load up too many innings on the teenager's arm.

Organizational Reviews

So Walker made his debut on May 5 and was shut down after a start on Aug. 10. He amassed 96 2/3 innings before he turned 19, and what quality innings they were. Walker finished with a 2.89 ERA, a .202 batting average against and 113 strikeouts (vs. just 39 walks). He also looked like he had more in the tank, allowing just one earned run over his final 15 innings of work.

"It was tough being shut down, but I understand why they did it," Walker said. "I'm young, I was 18 at the time. I hadn't thrown that many innings before.

"It was hard watching, especially when we made it to the playoffs. Not being able to pitch then was tough, but I was out there supporting my team."

It's all about the long-term and big picture, and Walker gets that. It's why he's been working on his changeup in the instructional league before getting some down time back in California. Just in the one season, he has a much better understanding of what it takes to succeed on the mound.

"I threw quite a few [changeups], more towards the end of the season," Walker explained. "It's getting better. I'm a lot more comfortable with it now, but it's still not where it needs to be.

"Probably the biggest thing I learned was being a pitcher, not just going out there and throwing. Pitching sequences, learning the game, things like that. I think it went really well. I learned a lot from my coaches and other teammates. It was a great experience."

Top 10 prospects review

While certainly no one was happy about the Mariners' 67-95 finish in the big leagues in 2011, there were some positives. Most of them came from homegrown players ascending to the parent club and making contributions.

Mariners' top 10 prospects
A look at how the Mariners' Top 10 Prospects list looked at the beginning and end of the 2011 season:
No. Preseason Postseason
1. Dustin Ackley, 2B Walker
2. Michel Pineda, RHP James Paxton, LHP
3. Nick Franklin, SS Franklin
4. Guillermo Pimentel, OF Francisco Martinez, 3B
5. Taijuan Walker, RHP Pimentel
6. Mauricio Robles, RHP Chance Ruffin, RHP
7. Johermyn Chavez, OF Chavez
8. Dan Cortes, RHP Cortes
9. Blake Beavan, RHP Liddi
10. Alex Liddi, 3B Robles
Players in bold were removed from the list after reaching the rookie eligibility threshold.
At the start of the year, Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda were the Nos. 1 and 2 prospects, respectively. Pineda made the rotation out of Spring Training and threw 171 very solid innings, leading all rookies with 173 strikeouts.

Ackley came up in mid-June and established himself as the team's everyday second baseman. He hit very well until a .219 tail-off in September, but both Ackley and Pineda should call Safeco Field home for quite some time.

Joining that dynamic duo in the graduation class was Blake Beavan. The big right-hander, who came from the Rangers as part of the Cliff Lee deal, came up in July and made 15 starts, showing some very effective stretches of pitching and setting himself up as a mainstay in the rotation.

There's more pitching to come. While Walker might be further down the road, lefty James Paxton jumped two levels and is now on the fast track. A rotation headed by Felix Hernandez and filled in by young arms like Pineda, Beavan and Paxton should have Mariners fans hopeful for a turnaround sooner rather than later.

Organizational Players of the Year

MLB.com's Preseason Picks:
Nick Franklin, SS: It was predicted Franklin would repeat his 2010 campaign and go 20-20 for the second season in a row. He didn't really get the chance, as a scary injury suffered when he was hit in the face with a bat allowed him to play just 88 games all year.

Walker, RHP: Even if he wasn't going to be there the whole season, the thought was Walker would throw well enough with Clinton to be among the system's leaders in ERA and strikeouts. He didn't have enough innings, but his 2.89 ERA would have been at the top of the organization and he struck out 10.5 per nine innings.

MLB.com's Postseason Selections:
Vincent Catricala, 3B/OF: The 2009 10th-round pick topped the system with his .349 average and 106 RBIs, finishing second in homers (25) to Alex Liddi. And before anyone thinks he was all High Desert-aided, his OPS was higher once he got to Double-A than it was in the California League.

James Paxton, LHP: It's really a toss-up between Paxton and Walker, but Paxton gets the nod thanks to his double-jump from the Midwest League to Double-A, his lower overall ERA (2.37) and his higher strikeout rate (12.4/9).

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.