Mariners fans everywhere rejoiced when the reunion between the team and Taijuan Walker was announced earlier in the week. But what does his future in Seattle hold?
For months, Mariners fans clamored for a reunion tour with Taijuan Walker, one of the most well-liked team members over the past decade, thanks to his love of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Pokemon, as well as his fun personality. Those fans got their wish on the first official day of Spring Training.
Naturally, the topic of conversation surrounding Walker was about his health and role for the upcoming season. The most common question asked was, ” Is he healthy enough to make the Opening Day roster”, followed by, ” is he a lock for the rotation if he is healthy”?
But perhaps the most interesting question is the one that hasn’t been asked with much frequency yet. Perhaps the real important question is what is the future relationship of Walker and the Mariners?
I think it is safe to assume that if Walker stays healthy and can post a similar season to his last fully healthy season in 2017 (2.5 fWAR), Walker will be a name talked about in the context of trades. After all, Walker is a free agent after the 2020 season and Seattle is in the midst of a rebuild.
But what is a slightly above-league-average starting pitcher (again, assuming a similar output to his 2017 stats) with only 2 months of club control remaining fetch on the open market? Perhaps the best comparison from last year’s deadline is Tanner Roark, whom the Reds traded to the Oakland A’s for Jameson Hannah.
Hannah is a solid prospect, but projects more as a 4th outfielder than an everyday option. And keep in mind, Roark had been remarkably more consistent than Walker will have been, posting 30 or more starts for 3 consecutive seasons when traded.
In all likelihood, a good and healthy Walker may net the Mariners a Braden Bishop type of prospect at the high-end or perhaps a couple of Juan Querecuto types instead. Now, those types of prospects are worthless, but they don’t have much of a chance to be major, impactful pieces in the near future.
What if, instead of simply auctioning Walker off for the table scraps of a contenders farm system, the Mariners actually treated him like a longer-term asset and tried to extend him through 2021 or 2022?
The last time we saw a healthy Walker, he was on the verge of a serious breakout and his floor is that of a #5 starter. He is still young (27) and doesn’t turn 28-years-old until the middle of August. The upside in Walker is still present, though the likelihood he ever reaches it has certainly diminished.
Walker may bring more value to Seattle as an extension candidate than as a trade piece, assuming health. Walker is hoping to use a solid season in Seattle to get paid next winter. However, this doesn’t mean Walker can’t get paid by Seattle. Tanner Roark got 2-years at $24 million ($12 mil AAV). Kyle Gibson got 3-years, $27 million ($9 mil AAV). Both Gibson and Roark qualify as #4 starters, or at the very best, fringe #3 types, which is where Walker would fall if he can repeat his 2017 numbers.
An extension for Walker would likely slide somewhere on this scale, meaning extending Walker shouldn’t cost Seattle more than $12 million a year. At this price, Walker is a safe bet to return value and, in theory, could actually see his trade value rise for the summer of 2021, while giving the Mariners a security blanket while their young arms continue to develop.
Obviously, this is a discussion that will be easier to frame in June and July, when we know if Walker is healthy and have a decent sample size to gauge where he stands in relation to other arms around the game.
But don’t assume that Walker is a one-and-done player for the Mariners. With his age and upside, Walker can, in fact, pitch himself into the future plans of Seattle. It won’t be easy and isn’t likely to happen. But with a talent like Walker, you can’t be sure.