Minor League Aces Shutting Down

The Jackson Generals and Clinton LumberKings have fewer than 20 games left in their seasons, and with the playoffs not likely for either, we may have seen the last of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker for 2011.

Coming into the 2011 season, the Mariners had a couple of prospect pitchers that many fans were anxious to see perform. Richmond, B.C. native left-hander James Paxton had an interesting and well documented road to professional baseball, and with his 2010 layoff, many were unsure what type of production and stuff the one-time Kentucky hurler would show for the Mariners this year. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound Paxton showed a lot, and the only questions going forward are of the, 'how soon will he crack the big league roster' variety.

Paxton threw 95 innings at two levels (Clinton and Jackson) and combined for a 6-3 record, a 2.37 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and a 12.4 strikeouts-per-nine figure which included more strikeouts (131) than baserunners (118) for the season. His unorthodox delivery--which includes a long back side bend and at the top of his leg kick--proved to be challenging to hitters all season long, including in the Futures Game in Pheonix during MLB's All-Star break.

He showed a lot of improvement from the time of his late April debut to (what we now believe to be) his final start last Friday, most notably in his control and pitch efficiency. He walked only two hitters over 20 innings in his last three starts and averaged just 3.0 BB/9 in his seven Double-A starts after allowing 4.8 in his 10 Single-A starts. He needed just 90 pitches (61 of which were strikes) to get through seven innings in his last start after needing 89 to labor through 4 2/3 in his Jackson debut.

Paxton apparently had some discomfort in his back following his last outing, but word is that is minor. He was also approaching the number which the Mariners designated as his pre-season innings target (likely 100). James will probably head to the Arizona Fall League, along with fellow lefty prospect Danny Hultzen, when that league opens in early October as the M's try and get a better idea of how close he is to being MLB-ready.

2010 supplemental first-rounder Taijuan Walker also was removed from the active roster following his latest start, and the 19-year-old right-hander out of Yucaipa, CA is probably done for this year, too.

When he was picked in that 2010 draft, the most common phrase thrown around was "raw," for Walker, but this season he pitched like a veteran. After throwing just seven innings in four appearances for the Peoria Mariners last year, Walker made 18 starts for Clinton during 2011 and was simply dazzling at times.

A 2.89 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, an opponent's average of just .202, 10.5 strikeouts-per-nine and a gaudy groundball ratio were the result of Walker's uncanny ability to pound the bottom part of the strike zone with his heavy mid-90s fastball. His strikeout total--which, like Paxton, outnumbered his baserunners allowed total--was aided by his big-breaking curveball.

After throwing a complete game on July 13th, Walker didn't throw more than 5 2/3 in any of his last five starts, but that was likely due to his innings target (he threw 96 2/3 and was also probably set at 100). While he had a rough patch following that complete game, Taijuan had allowed just one run on eight hits in his last three starts (15 innings) combined.

The 2011 seasons put up by Paxton and Walker showed Mariners fans and the baseball world alike that these two talented arms will definitely figure into the future for Seattle. Expect them both to crack all of the 2012 Top-Prospect lists, and expect to be hearing a lot more about them in the future.

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