PEORIA, Ariz. – The last time Taijuan Walker had set foot in the Mariners’ spring training clubhouse was April 2016. But on Wednesday morning, as Mariners pitchers and catchers reported for their physicals, Walker was back in the place where he appeared in his first major league camp.
The Mariners announced Wednesday night that Walker had signed a one-year contract. Earlier in the day, multiple sources confirmed that Walker was coming back to the team that drafted, developed and gave him his first opportunity in the big leagues to fill out the final spot in Seattle’s starting rotation. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Walker will earn $2 million in salary with performance bonuses that could push it to $3 million.
Walker provided confirmation, tweeting out an old picture of himself in a Mariners uniform with the caption “Let’s gooo!!” and some emojis.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Walker, reliever Austin Adams (knee surgery) was placed on the 60-day disabled list.
“We’re excited to bring Taijuan back to Seattle,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a statement. “We believe our opportunity and his skill set are a great match and know that, if healthy, he can be an impact Major League starter for us.”
The projected starting rotation for opening day is now:
- Marco Gonzales, LHP
- Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
- Kendall Graveman, RHP
- Justus Sheffield, LHP
- Taijuan Walker, RHP
Beyond Gonzales taking the ball on opening day, the slotting of the rotation is still up in the air and could be dependent on opponent and schedule.
There were some rumors that Walker might throw in front of Mariners front office executives in a private bullpen session on Wednesday. He did something similar on Monday with the Cubs. But it appears Seattle was comfortable signing Walker without the extra session, having scouted his two public bullpen sessions a few weeks ago.
After talking with the clubhouse attendants and hanging out in the clubhouse, Walker was seen talking with new Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth.
This reunion has been months in the making. Seattle first approached Walker about a possible return early in the offseason.
The M’s had a standing offer of a major league contract and a spot in the rotation. Walker tested the free-agent market but ultimately returns to the team that drafted him with the 43rd overall pick of the 2010 draft out of Yucaipa (California) High School.
Once a prized prospect for the Mariners and part of the “Big 3” along with Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, Walker is now 27 and a year away from free agency.
He made his MLB debut on Aug. 30, 2013, and pitched in parts of four seasons with the Mariners, posting a 22-22 record with a 4.18 earned-run average in 62 starts and three relief appearances. He was traded along with infielder Ketel Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Nov. 23, 2016, for shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Mitch Haniger and left-handed reliever Zac Curtis.
After a decent first season with Arizona in 2017, posting a 9-9 record with a 3.49 ERA in 28 starts, Walker dealt with injury issues. He made just three starts in 2018, pitching a total of 13 innings before elbow issues ended his season and eventually required Tommy John surgery. His return from the surgery last season was sidetracked by shoulder issues, specifically a capsule sprain in May. He pitched one inning in 2019.
Despite Walker’s limited participation the last two seasons, the Mariners felt he was a solid low-investment, high-reward signing to fill out their rotation. Walker is in his final year of arbitration eligibility and will be a free agent after the season. The rebuilding Mariners offer him a chance to build up his résumé in a low-pressure situation. They can exhibit patience with him in his performance and early season limitations in a way contending teams cannot.
It will be interesting to see how the Mariners handle the usage of Walker and fellow starter Kendall Graveman, who also signed as a free agent in the offseason. Like Walker, Graveman had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and pitched sparingly.
General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have suggested that the need for multi-inning relievers for the bullpen has increased. With the Mariners likely to control the usage of Graveman and Walker early in the season, and the unpredictability and past inefficiency of Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield, an untested and largely inexperienced bullpen could be relied upon to soak up excessive innings.
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