McClendon expects Walker to open year in Seattle
With three big league starts under belt, top prospect could make rotation out of spring
SEATTLE -- Mariners players, front-office members and fans might have different opinions regarding where 21-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker should start the 2014 season.
Manager Lloyd McClendon, however, has a very strong opinion. On Thursday at the team's annual pre-Spring Training luncheon at Safeco Field, he said he doesn't just want Walker to be in the team's five-man starting rotation. He expects it.
"Yes I do," McClendon said. "I'd be very disappointed if he's not."
It was a somewhat bold statement, considering Walker came into last season at 20 years old and as one of the top-ranked prospects in baseball. Walker, who comes in at No. 6 among the MLB.com Top 100 Prospects, started the year with Double-A Jackson, progressed to Triple-A Tacoma and wound up making three big league starts (five innings apiece) beginning Aug. 30.
This is not exactly a resume that guarantees placement in the next year's starting rotation, but things seem to be lining up for Walker. The Mariners let lefty Joe Saunders go to free agency and have only penciled in ace Felix Hernandez and No. 2 starter (and 2013 American League Cy Young Award finalist) Hisashi Iwakuma as definites for the rotation at this point. The team would like to add a veteran starter to the mix, and it still has quite a few options available on the free-agent market.
That would still leave Walker to scrum it out with young contenders Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi for the last two slots, barring any trades.
Walker, with his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and mid- to upper-90s fastball, is the current gem of the system, though, so much so that general manager Jack Zduriencik virtually assured that the team won't trade him for Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price or similar high-profile players who would only be with Seattle for two years before testing free agency.
"I'm not going to give up these kids," Zduriencik said. "We've been too patient as an organization."
Zduriencik also said he viewed Walker as a candidate for the rotation heading into Spring Training, but McClendon's words were stronger, perhaps because he's already lived through a similar situation.
McClendon joined Jim Leyland's staff with the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2006 season and saw 23-year-old Justin Verlander make 30 Major League starts after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2004, breeze through the Minor Leagues in 2005 and make two starts that summer at the big league level.
Verlander was expected to be a key part of the rotation despite his age and lack of experience, because he had the stuff to do it. He rewarded the team, which played in the World Series, with a 17-9 record, a 3.63 ERA and the AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Walker, who was at the luncheon along with catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Stefen Romero, smiled as he said McClendon's forceful words put "a lot of pressure" on him, but he added that he won't approach camp with the attitude that he has anything won, but that his experience starting games in the Majors last year will help.
"I'm going to Spring Training to compete," Walker said. "Just prepare, go out there and have fun. ... I'm going out there with more confidence. I know what to expect from big league hitters, know what to expect in the clubhouse with media and stuff like that.
"It was a long season. I definitely got tired. But I think those three starts in the big leagues definitely gave me a boost of energy. Now I know what to expect for the coming season."
And so does McClendon.