Heading into the season, there were high expectations stemming from Seattle Mariners camp, particularly surrounding Taijuan Walker, as the 21-year-old right-hander and top prospect was expected to take the No. 3 place in the starting rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. But those plans were abruptly put on hold once Walker started to experience some stiffness in his shoulder during spring training. The team shut him down completely for a week in late March, and though his return to full strength has been slow, he was inching closer to rejoining Seattle's rotation. Unfortunately for Walker and the Mariners, that progress has hit an obstacle.
Slated to start for Triple-A Tacoma on Tuesday night against the Salt Lake Bees, Walker had trouble getting loose during pre-game warmups. Greg Johns at MLB.com reported that Walker was again feeling stiffness in his throwing shoulder and he was scratched from the start for precautionary reasons. It remains unclear how this will affect Walker’s time table to return to the Mariners’ rotation, but Johns did not that Walker had not been experiencing any lingering issues leading up to the start. According to general manager Jack Zduriencik, Walker will be re-evaluated Wednesday.
"He just says he felt stiff," Zduriencik told reporters. "What you don't know about this is if you sleep on it wrong or however things work like that. When a guy's stiff and he's a guy like this you just figure let's take as many precautions as we can."
Prior to Tuesday's scratch, Walker had started a Double-A game on April 9, tossing five scoreless innings for the Jackson Generals, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out ten. Over two rehab outings in the minors, Walker has struck out 17 hitters in 9 1/3 innings against just one run allowed on two walks and seven hits.
Seattle Mariners fans are all too familiar with seeing shoulder soreness from their young pitchers. Left-hander Danny Hultzen had initially been expected to step into the team’s rotation alongside Walker this season, before he too felt discomfort in his shoulder and had trouble loosening up prior to a start in early July. Further evaluations determined that Hultzen needed surgery to repair a torn labrum and a partial tear in his rotator cuff. He’s expected to miss the entire 2014 season.
How this setback will affect Walker’s ability to get back on the mound remains to be seen. Seattle has already been coping without Iwakuma in their rotation to begin the season, and James Paxton is on the DL as well due to a lat injury. Along with that, fill-in starter Blake Beavan was forced to leave Tuesday's start against Texas early due to what he called tiredness in his pitching arm. Walker, the No. 6 prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three starts and 15 innings for Seattle last season, his first in the majors.