Notes: Taijuan impresses; Dunn, too; injuries

March 10th, 2020

PHOENIX -- For , his nearly 20 family members in attendance and the Mariners fans who tuned in, Monday’s matchup with the Brewers offered a sense of nostalgia.

Walker faced Major League hitters in a Mariners uniform for the first time since September 2016, making his Cactus League debut for the club that selected him in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft. It marked a minor milestone for the towering right-hander, who is a step behind as he works toward the Opening Day rotation.

Walker overcame a homer to his first batter, Lorenzo Cain, and a followup single by Brock Holt, but from there, he settled in smoothly. Walker showed off his new spike curveball with a strikeout of Christian Yelich, whiffed Cain in his second try and punched out Holt and Keston Hiura as part of a 1-2-3 third inning to cap his 43-pitch outing.

“It felt good. First two hitters, a little nervous, but I just wasn't executing,” Walker said after the Mariners’ 2-1 loss. “I was just trying to feel my way through. And then after the second hitter, I just relaxed and just started being aggressive.”

The radar gun read 95 mph in the third inning, Walker mixed in a few two-seamers and threw one slider, which he plans to build on. But perhaps the biggest piece of promise was how confident Walker feels about his new-look, spike curve, with the former MVP Yelich as its first victim.

Walker has always had an effective mix of his fastball and split-changeup, but the curve that had loopy behavior when he left Seattle three years ago now has legitimate break, and it could be an emerging weapon.

“Probably a million times better. ... I'm finally at a point with it where I'm comfortable with it and feel like I can throw it for strikes and throw it for swing-and-miss,” Walker said of his curve.

“Taijuan's curve is quite a bit different,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We talked about some mechanical changes that he's made. He's shortened up his arm stroke. He always had a good curveball. This one is much more consistent. It's got more bite and more finish to it. Because his arm stroke being a little bit shorter, he's able to get his arm out in front and get on top of it. It's going to be a key pitch for him.”

Despite his late start this spring, Walker is on track to begin the season as Seattle’s No. 5 starter, which would set up him for the March 30 home game against the Twins. Before Monday, Walker threw three live batting practices and one simulated game, so he’s not drastically behind, but his workload will still need to be managed after the season starts.

Walker and Kendall Graveman (the other veteran free-agent starter the Mariners signed) are both healthy, but they’re also building toward a full-season workload for the first time since Tommy John surgeries in 2018. Even if they’re regulars in the Mariners’ rotation to begin the season, it’d be naïve to expect them to regularly pitch deeper than five innings.

“I think I'm just a little bit behind -- not too much,” Walker said. “I think, come the season, I feel like I probably be in the back end of the rotation, so I'll still get that extra start at the end of Spring Training. I think that'll be perfect.”

Dunn sharp, too
Right-hander , whose bid for the fifth spot took a hit when Seattle signed Walker, also turned in a strong outing against the Brewers. The Mariners’ No. 7 prospect struck out five of the 11 batters he faced -- including Yelich, Avisaíl García, Jedd Gyorko and Justin Smoak.

Dunn gave up a single to his first batter, then he allowed only one more baserunner via a walk in what Servais called “probably the best outing he’s had so far this spring.”

If Dunn doesn’t break camp in the rotation, there’s a strong shot that he could land a spot in Seattle’s bullpen as a multi-inning reliever.

From the medical tent
• Outfielder Julio Rodriguez (Mariners' No. 2 prospect and No. 18 overall) left Peoria mid-afternoon feeling under the weather. The touted 19-year-old likely would’ve played in Monday’s game against the Brewers.

• Infielder Dylan Moore has been dealing with a sore calf since late last week. Moore was out of Monday’s lineup, but he will maintain baseball activities and could return as soon as Tuesday against the Angels.

• Infielder Sam Haggerty has been nursing a sore elbow for a few days. He is currently resting as he awaits a second opinion.

Up next
Top Mariners pitching prospect Logan Gilbert (MLB Pipeline No. 38 overall) will make his second Cactus League start Tuesday when the Mariners visit the division-rival Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium, live on MLB.TV at 1:10 p.m. PT. Gilbert threw two scoreless innings and gave up one hit while striking out one in his debut against the Giants way back on Feb. 27. The 6-foot-6 righty could crack Seattle’s starting rotation as soon as this season.