Teams can fall a little too in love with their prospects (unless you’re a new GM and those prospects were brought in by the previous regime). They tend to over-value them in trade negotiations, and give them countless chances they wouldn’t otherwise give free agents on team-friendly, short-term deals. Fans, well, what’s bigger and more all-encompassing than “love”, because that’s what they’ve got for their team’s prospects. Shut up! The Angels should be so lucky to trade us Mike Trout for Stefen Romero! And so on and so forth.
It’s with good reason, though, as prospects are little nuggets of hope. With established veterans, you pretty much know what they are, and you pay accordingly. We’re all aware of the ceilings of guys like Cano, Cruz, and Aoki. But, with prospects – guys just starting to get their feet wet, all the way up to guys with some experience, but haven’t entrenched themselves in the Bigs – the sky is the limit. Most of the time, prospects fizzle out. Sometimes, guys bust through into established roles in the Major Leagues. And, every once in a great while, guys will hit it big, and it’s in this case where you – as a fan – are so desperate to get in on the ground floor.
Prospects who hit it big are cost-effective superstars, essential to a team’s chances in having a long, sustained run of success. Even though there’s no salary cap in the MLB, you can’t literally bring in 25 free agents to fill out your roster and expect to win every year. You need cheap guys under team control to round out your squad, and fill in around them with free agent veterans and the like.
For so many years under Bavasi and Zduriencik, the model failed. Prospects never developed, and veterans came in and took dumps all over our hearts. For every winning season, there were at least three losing seasons, and ultimately the model needed a total revamp.
This year, the Mariners seem to have the right mix of veterans, and now they’re starting to see some real potential and production out of their prospects. There are still plenty of growing pains, but if we can work through those over the course of the next couple months, we might be in for a fun stretch of baseball this fall.
The prime area I’m talking about here is in the starting rotation. Walker, Karns, and now Paxton, are essentially still prospects, in that I don’t believe any of them have reached their ceilings. We’re going to need them to pop if we expect to remain in contention, and hopes have never been higher.
Remember the Big 4 of Walker, Paxton, Hultzen, and Maurer? Remember how they were all together, kicking ass in the minor leagues, and we all pointed to the future of the Mariners’ starting rotation as being in the conversation with those Braves teams of the 1990s? Well, such is baseball, Hultzen is all but out of the game, Maurer has been converted to a full-time reliever (in another organization, no less), Paxton has spent the majority of his career injured (and the majority of this season in Tacoma), and Walker is still trying to figure out how to transition from a guy who throws electric stuff into an actual pitcher.
Remember the original wave of hotshot pitching prospects the Mariners over-valued, around the turn of the century? Headed by a still-young Freddy Garcia, we had Gil Meche, Ryan Anderson, Joel Pineiro, and to a lesser extent, Ryan Franklin. Remember what happened with that group? Garcia was an okay ace-type pitcher (but far from an elite, Randy Johnson type). Meche flashed early potential before suffering arm problems, then was sort of mediocre before leaving in free agency. Ryan Anderson never made the leap to the Bigs, thanks to injuries and general ineffectiveness (the hype of him being touted as “The Little Unit” or whatever trite comparison to Randy Johnson probably didn’t help much either). Pineiro also flashed a lot of early potential before regressing to mediocre (and then bouncing around the league as a starter/reliever for the later years in his career). And Franklin had a nice little assortment of pitches, but none of them were top shelf, and he spent the majority of his Mariners career being mediocre before converting to a reliever full time and having a lot of great success in the National League. The claim to fame for this group is that 4/5 of them (Garcia, Meche, Pineiro, and Franklin) combined with Jamie Moyer in 2003 to be the only starting 5-man rotation in my lifetime, in all of Major League Baseball, to make every single start for a team in a season. While it amounted to 93 wins (on the back of a still-awesome offense), it didn’t lead to a playoff spot, nor any sustained success going forward (as the Mariners, in 2004, would win 30 fewer games).
So, with that in mind, I don’t want to sit here and make this out to be more than it is. Hell, earlier this week, I was just bitching about each and every one of these starting pitchers for their recent failures. But, on the heels of Paxton’s eye-opening performance on Monday, Walker came out last night and pitched 8 shutout innings, with 0 walks and only 3 hits (all singles). Considering Walker’s been as culpable as any of our starters for this team’s recent struggles, it was nice to see him bounce back against a pretty solid Indians team.
Moreover, don’t think I didn’t notice the timing in all of this. Granted, the broadcast mentioned a “Get Your Shit Together, Or Else” meeting between the pitching coach and all the starters recently, but I like to think there’s a little friendly rivalry going on between Walker and Paxton, the last two standing from that notorious Big 4. Walker is a fiery, competitive guy, who wants so desperately to be great. But, he doesn’t have any peers on this team. Felix, Iwakuma, and Miley are all veterans. Karns is new to the team, even if he’s in a similar boat experience-wise. But, Karns hasn’t had to endure the hardships of a go-nowhere organization like Walker. Paxton, however, does have that in common. Paxton is Walker’s true peer and true rival (even though, I highly doubt they’re actually enemies). There was a lot of heat on Paxton after his most recent start, and I’m sure it didn’t sit well with Walker – who had a tremendous amount of heat on him coming into this season, from local as well as national media types.
I’m not saying I necessarily predicted this or anything. But, after watching last night’s game, I don’t know how I could’ve missed it. Walker looked like a man possessed. We’ve seen him nibble and get too cute with his offspeed stuff, trying to find an appropriate mix-and-match system that works for him, with frequently middling results. We’ve also seen him snap back into Default-Taijuan mode, where he pumps teams with a crazy percentage of fastballs, controlling the strike zone, and using his overpowering arm to win a game. But, last night’s game was something else. He looked like he wanted to throw baseballs THROUGH the opposing team’s bats. He was focused, in control, and utterly dominant.
Now, if only he could do this every time out, we’d be in business.
Will Paxton’s presence be the spark that keeps Walker on his toes and his head in the game? Will they together push one another into new realms of greatness we haven’t seen from either guy to date in their careers? Will Karns take a look at what’s going on and say, “Hey fellas! Wait up!”? Will Miley’s shaved-off beard take 99% of the blame for his prior struggles this season, or 100% of the blame? As you can see, I have no idea how to end this thing, so I’m just going to stop … here.