Game 134, Taijuan Walker at Astros
Taijuan Walker vs. Brad Peacock, 5:10pm
I’ve read Dave’s concerns about promoting Walker now, and the 40-man spot that it ties up over the offseason (an offseason that’s going to require quite a bit of movement). I’ve also read Jeff’s piece about letting go and just enjoying watching Tai Walker pitch for the M’s. I started off clearly in Dave’s camp, but as the hours tick down towards 5, I’m more and more in the “who cares…woohoo!” camp. That’s not to ignore the 40-man spot, or Walker’s impending innings cap, or any of the perfectly valid reasons to be a tiny bit squeamish about this. But as I’ve written for the past few days, it’s been really hard – it’s been impossible, really – to actually look forward to an M’s game. And here I am, really looking forward to watching an M’s game. For a fan base that’s been as brutalized as this one, on the very day a major off-season acquisition was quietly sent packing for a basic minor league OF, that’s important. It’s important to be reminded that it’s possible to really care about this team, and the development of a core group of players who could actually compete someday. Is this a low bar to get over? Yes, it is, but that doesn’t mean we’ve cleared it very often.
Taijuan Walker burst onto the prospect scene a few years ago after being drafted as an exceedingly raw athlete out of Yucaipa, CA. Many talent evaluators and front offices were impressed with his arm, but everyone noted that he’d had very little advanced coaching, and how he’d adapt to life as a pro and to professional instruction was anyone’s guess. It didn’t take long to get an answer. Kevin Goldstein, then of BP, tweeted in the winter/spring of 2010-11 that Taijuan Walker was blowing everyone away in instructs, touching 98 and flashing a good curveball. Expectations were thus raised for the 2011 season, when the teenager hit Clinton. Goldstein covered his debut there against Cubs prospect Hayden Simpson, and prospect hounds like me started following each start he made in the Midwest League. The results were eye-opening, as Walker was able to generate strikeouts and grounders against much more advanced hitters. The following year, he skipped over the problematic California League (and High Desert) and had a solid start for AA Jackson before tiring down the stretch.
Late in 2012, he added a cutter to his arsenal, and he hit Spring Training ready to show it off. It became what many people considered his best pitch, and while it’s never been all that consistent when I’ve seen it in person, it’s a great weapon to pair with his overhand curve. His inconsistency is pretty understandable when you remember that he’s pitching more innings each year, learning a new pitch, changing his curve ball grip a few times, and moving levels. That inconsistency was one reason I thought the M’s would leave him in the minors this season, but ultimately they thought they’d seen enough when he put a few bad outings behind him and tossed a gem in what may be his final minor league game. In a few years, he’d gone from impossibly raw project to a worthy sidekick to Danny Hultzen to one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, and tonight he’ll hit the majors ahead of Paxton/Hultzen. His family will be there in Houston tonight, and most M’s fans know exactly who he is and why he matters.
Thanks to the paper transaction of moving Erasmo Ramirez to the minors (the MiLB season ends and rosters expand before he’s scheduled to start again), the M’s were also able to bring up Abe Almonte, the OF out of the Yankees system the M’s got for DFA’d reliever Shawn Kelley. Almonte’s had a brilliant season for Tacoma, and for a month or so has essentially BEEN the Rainiers offense. As an older corner OF with some injury history, he was a non-prospect when the M’s got him – he was essentially a faster Xavier Avery – but he’s put himself on the map by flashing a bit more power than you’d think and by consistently hitting line drives against some good pitchers. This is a huge break for Almonte, and it’s a move that makes sense for the M’s – they get an extra OF for the weekend, and while he’s taking a 40-man spot now too, the M’s aren’t in the position where they absolutely have to keep him. The M’s are probably looking at replacing say, Carlos Peguero’s spot with Almonte’s in any event. Almonte isn’t up here just to watch and soak up a big leaguer’s per diem – he’ll start tonight, playing RF. He’s a switch hitter, and while some like him there, he’s not a natural CF. He’s had great stolen base numbers, but he’s not a true burner – just a guy with a good first step.
Opposing the new-look M’s is Brad Peacock, the over-the-top righty who beat the M’s back in April. It’s been a rough campaign for Peacock, who spent a rough campaign in the A’s minor league system before coming over in the Jed Lowrie deal. His FIP’s at 6 for the year, and that earned him a demotion in June. He was excellent in the PCL, and he’s been much better since his return to the AL in early August, with four decent starts and 25 Ks in 25 innings. It’s not been missed bats that have hurt him, though, it’s home runs. As a fly-baller with extreme vertical movement on his 93mph fastball, this seems like it’s going to be a perennial problem, but he’s running a HR/9 over 2 for the year, and he’s given up 5 HRs in his 4 post-call-up starts. It’s not like he’s “fixed” that problem. Peacock’s also struggled against lefties this year, though that’s not a problem he’d dealt with in the minors. Like Brandon Maurer, it may be that Peacock’s change was perfectly serviceable in the minors, but not ready for prime time. Or, he may just have had rotten luck. We’ll see with tonight’s lefty-heavy line-up.
1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Ackley, CF
8: Almonte, RF
9: Blanco, C
SP: Taijuan Walker
It’s odd when you follow someone’s journey so closely and he makes his debut. *I’m* nervous. Can’t imagine what this is like for Walker. The whole following-his-every-move thing makes me think back to 2005, as Jeff did in his post. Back in 2003-4-5, many of us USSM readers came here to read Dave, JMB and DMZ recap each of Felix’s starts – at Everett, then in Inland Empire, and finally in Tacoma. Due to injuries and his low profile early in his career, there was nothing like that for Michael Pineda, and while Danny Hultzen started strong, that bizarre hiccup in AAA in 2012 stopped the momentum/wishcasting.
As one of Wlad Balentien’s biggest backers when he was coming through the M’s system, his jaw-dropping season in Japan has been pretty cool to follow. And if you thought there was a chance I wouldn’t link to this recap of it on LL, well, what’s that? You knew I would? Yeah, good call. Miss you, Wladdy.
The newly eliminated Tacoma Rainiers have a rejiggered roster with Taijuan Walker in the bigs, so Forrest Snow makes a spot start tonight. It’s been a weird year and a half for the local product, but he’s been lights out this month. Hopefully he can get back to where he was at the beginning of 2012, following a great Arizona Fall League stint. James Jones is up from AA to help replace Abe Almonte, Nick Hill will take Snow’s spot in the bullpen and Xavier Avery will join the team as well.