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Dyeing for a chance

Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker, 20, came to baseball late, but he appears to have all the tools to be a great one. (Associated Press)
Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker, 20, came to baseball late, but he appears to have all the tools to be a great one. (Associated Press)

M’s top pitching prospect needs to do more than change his hair color

PEORIA, Ariz. – Taijuan Walker can’t get the big head because that would mean more jokes about his hair. Felix Hernandez keeps the 20-year-old pitching prospect humble, using Walker’s new blonde look as fodder for comedy. Walker dyed his hair last month, and the playful pestering hasn’t stopped. King Felix even has used Walker’s locker to poke fun. He posted pictures of Dennis Rodman and Wesley Snipes’ old Simon Phoenix character in “Demolition Man” to show Walker what he looks like now. The kid can only look at the Mariners’ ace, grin and shake his head.

“Felix!” he exclaims. “Always messing with me.” Of course, the hope is that this is a sign of chemistry developing between two players who could carry the M’s starting rotation soon.

But for all Walker’s talent and athleticism, he needs more time. You look at him, all 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds of intrigue, and dream the biggest dreams. Walker has it all, except for experience.

The more you watch him during spring training, the more you realize that it could take up to two more years before Walker becomes a major leaguer. It would still put Walker, who was selected No. 43 overall out of Yucaipa High School in Southern California in the 2010 draft, in the big leagues at a ridiculously young age. But he’s not like Hernandez, who threw 191 innings for the Mariners as a 20-year-old.

Walker is a former basketball player who committed solely to baseball later than your typical high draft pick. You can become mesmerized by his stuff and the effortless way he throws a baseball. But his Cactus League performance has included flashes of his limitless ability, followed by hard lessons for a pitcher who can’t yet control everything he throws.

Walker pitched two innings in relief during the Mariners’ 11-7 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday at Peoria Stadium. He allowed one run and two hits, but he threw two wild pitches, the second of which allowed Dayan Viciedo to score the only run he surrendered. Walker did settle down after that, and he posted a 1-2-3 fourth inning to end on a positive note.

Walker has a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, and on Sunday, he hit 95 mph. He has a solid changeup that can be refined. But he’s struggling to throw his curveball effectively, and big-league hitters have exposed that issue. In his previous outing, he struggled, but despite the wild pitches, he looked better this time.

“Overall, I felt good,” said Walker, who has a 5.14 ERA in seven innings. “I’m still working on my curveball, trying to get it down.”

Walker is the top pitching prospect in the Mariners’ pitching-rich farm system, but he hasn’t always had it easy.

A year ago, in Class AA ball in Jackson, Tenn., Walker fell off after an encouraging start and finished 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA.

“You’ve got to be mentally though,” Walker said. “It’s a hard game. You have to make sure you can accept failure because it’s going to happen. It has taught me a lot so far, especially this spring.”

Mariners manager Eric Wedge sees the promise and the rough patches when he looks at Walker.

“He just continues to develop as a young starting pitcher, and obviously, there’s no dismissing his stuff,” Wedge said. “But when you talk about pitch-ability and experience, that’s what he needs to continue to move forward with.”

And so Walker will keep working. He has been humbled, by the game and by the King. Don’t laugh him off as another stereotypical flaky blonde, though. He can change the hair back, but right now, he’d rather refine that curveball.