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Fantasy baseball Prospect Watch: Mariners' Young Arms

Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP

Mariners' prospect Taijuan Walker is one of three regarded pitchers that could contribute in Seattle soon.

If you are anywhere on the East Coast, you might think staying up to watching Seattle baseball isn't worth it right now, save for the nights Felix Hernandez is pitching. That figures to change by next year.

The Mariners have some of the best pitching prospects in baseball just one step away in Triple-A. Some more starts like they posted this past week and we could see them bolster Seattle's rotation down the stretch of this year.

First, James Paxton logged six shutout innings with a season-high 11 strikeouts to just one walk June 22. Then, Taijuan Walker made his Triple-A debut with six shutout innings June 25. And, finally, the No. 2 overall pick from 2011, Danny Hultzen, made a triumphant return from shoulder woes with six shutout innings Thursday night.

The Tacoma Rainiers are already in first place in the Pacific Coast League by four games heading into Friday. A few more weeks like this and that dominant rotation is going to be moving the Mariners up the standings in the AL West instead.

Baseball in Seattle is about to become a lot closer to must-see TV.

With Hulzten finally back on the hill, he should be the leader of the change, or charge. The 21-year-old lefty out of the University of Virginia is now a combined 5-1 with a 2.14 ERA and .178 batting-average against in six starts in the minors this season. He has struck out 39 in 33 2/3 innings, including eight in his Arizona League rehab start.

"I got some good work down in Arizona," Hultzen told MiLB.com. "Now I'm just trying to do what I was doing before, so it was nice to be able to do that, nice to be back competing in Tacoma," he said. "I'm feeling good. It's good not to worry about how my arm feels, just get back to pitching. I want to make sure I finish strong, do my best to prevent any other injury.

"I think any time you miss time, it's hard and it's difficult to watch every day, not being able to be out there. I was taught a lesson, never to take for granted what we're doing."

Before his shoulder issue cropped up in mid-April, it was possible Hultzen was on the fast track to Seattle. Now, he will get at least a month to prove healthy and worthy of a call-up. Owned in just 16 percent of CBSSports.com's leagues, Hultzen is a solid add in all leagues where you can wait until August for a potential impact starting pitcher. The time off for the shoulder might have been a blessing in disguise for fantasy owners hoping for a big impact in crunch time. Hultzen won't be affected by an innings limit late in the year, like all of the other young starting prospects.

That includes Walker, who has already logged a combined 90 innings between Double- and Triple-A. Despite his 5-7 record, Walker has been impressive, posting a 2.30 ERA, .191 BAA and 100 strikeouts in his first 15 starts. Having topped out at 126 2/3 innings in Double-A last season, Walker might be limited to 160-180 this year. That leaves just over 70 more innings on his season.

While some might rate the 20-year-old right-hander ahead of Hultzen long term, he is less likely to be impacting fantasy leagues come mid-September. It doesn't make him any less likely to get a call-up before his 21st birthday Aug. 13, particularly if he continues to pitch like he did in his Triple-A debut. Owned in 21 percent of leagues, Walker might just be a month away.

"It's right there, and it's very exciting," Walker told the Tacoma News-Tribune of his proximity to Seattle now. "But at the same time, you have to take it one day at a time and one start at a time. I've been doing that a lot. I know last year, knowing it was still so close in Double A, I kind of got ahead of myself, and I think that kind of hurt me. This year I've just been taking it really slow."

Paxton knows how slow the process can be. The 24-year-old is the elder statesman of the terrific trio. He has endured some struggles, having been working in Triple-A every fifth day from the start of the season, but he is pitching his best ball right now.

The 2010 fourth-round pick hasn't allowed an earned run his either of his past two starts, which included that eye-opening 11-strikeout performance. For the season, he is 4-5 with a 4.75 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 72 innings. His age and lack of health issues make him a candidate to arrive in Seattle before the other two, but he is going to deal with an innings limit question. Paxton has topped out at 106 1/3 innings last season in Double-A, mostly because a high walk total runs his pitch counts up quickly.

With the strikeouts and walks, Paxton might be only a five-inning pitcher once he does get called up to Seattle. That makes him owned in just five percent of leagues. Baseball America rated Paxton the fourth-best Mariners prospect coming into the season for an organization it ranked No. 2 overall in baseball for its prospect strength. Catcher Mike Zunino, Walker and Hultzen are the only ones rated above Paxton, who slotted one spot ahead of Nick Franklin. That's some company.

We would be remiss to not bring up shortstop Brad Miller when talking about Mariners prospects. The 23-year-old ranked No. 9 in the organization by BA and he got the call to the majors after extending his hitting streak to 22 games in Triple-A.

Miller was on fire with Tacoma. After hitting .294/.379/.471 for in 42 Double-A games, he has gone .356/.426/.596 with six homers and 28 RBI. Combined for the season, Miller has hit .319 with 12 homers, 53 RBI, 53 runs, six steals, a .399 on-base percentage and .521 slugging percentage.

"It's been fun. I'm just trying to stay at it, hit balls hard," he told MiLB.com. "Basically I'm just being aggressive, trying to execute and go up there with that mind-set and staying on it. That's pretty much been it. To be able to come in and contribute right away has been awesome, been a lot of fun."

If you are looking for a shortstop sleeper in AL-only or deeper mixed keeper formats, Miller is your man. Miller and Franklin look like a dynamite 1-2 punch of the middle for the Mariners long term, perhaps the reason they moved Dustin Ackley to the outfield recently.

Yeah, baseball in Seattle is getting much more interesting to fantasy owners by the day. Hultzen, Walker and Paxton will be leading the next wave of excitement.

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