Why Taijuan Walker Is the Mariners X-Factor This Season

Can the dark cloud that has hung over the Seattle Mariners finally clear up for sunnier days? Is this finally the year that playoff baseball returns to the Pacific Northwest? Realistically it may be.

Last year, the Mariners were the darling pick around the league. After coming up just one game short of the playoffs in 2014, many experts had the Mariners not only making the playoffs, but winning the World Series. Naturally, the Mariners failed to live up to expectations yet again, and finished the season 76-86, an 11-win drop from 2014.

Interestingly enough, it was the Mariners pitching, which had been their bread and butter for years that let them down. The bullpen was abysmal, and even Felix Hernandez wasn’t royal last year. It didn’t help that Robinson Cano registered a miserable first half, and no one was able to come up with the big hits outside Nelson Cruz and occasionally Kyle Seager.

This year, there’s optimism though. The new-look Mariners feature 19 new players on their 40-man roster, headlined by names like Nori Aoki, Adam Lind and Wade Miley. With new faces, a new manager at the helm and Jerry Dipoto running the show, this may be the Mariners’ year, but there’s one player that the Mariners need more than anyone to step up and make an impact and that is young starter Taijuan Walker.

A few years ago, the Mariners had four top-tier prospect pitchers in the form of Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer, James Paxton and Walker. Hultzen hasn’t been able to stay healthy and Maurer was dealt to San Diego after struggling as a starter, although he did pitch well out of the pen. Paxton has shown flashes of being great, but has also struggled to be consistent and to stay healthy, finding himself on the DL often. Walker has also battled injuries, though not as much but his main issue has been pitching well every day on the bump.

At times, he looks like he could be a Cy Young candidate with his dominance. The issue is at other times, the Louisiana native looks lost and has a tendency to get shellacked. In April and May of last year, he was rocked in nearly every start. Then all of a sudden in June, he was lights out and couldn’t be touched.

The difference between James Paxton and Taijuan Walker is mainly that the former is already 27 years old while the latter is only 23. It’s fair to expect that Felix Hernandez will return to his Cy Young form, but the Mariners need another dominant starter.

Hisashi Iwakuma doesn’t quite fit the dominant mold, and is more of a reliable-type starter. Wade Miley is a workhorse, and Nate Karns is a middle of the rotation type hurler.

That’s where Walker becomes so important. It’s unlikely the other three starters can reach a dominant level, and it’s unknown whether Paxton will even make the rotation. Walker has shown the ability to be dominant, and if he can string together an entire year of great starts it’s going to make the Mariners so much better. They simply cannot succeed with one dominant pitcher, and a bunch of decent or inconsistent starters. If Walker can eliminate the poor starts, and increase the shutdown starts, he can be what the Mariners need to succeed. If he can’t then the lack of solid starts from the rotation could be the Mariners’ downfall.

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