The Seattle Mariners find themselves with an embarrassment of riches in the pitching prospect department: Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have been lauded by just about everyone in the prospect world -- from Peter Gammons to Baseball America to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo -- since the end of 2011. Seemingly everyone has made it known that this isn't your average prospect trio. This is -- as they've been coined by some -- "The Big Three".
Each pitched well in Spring Training and the hype continued to build. When the Mariners decided to assign all three of them to Double-A Jackson in the Southern League together, there was word that part of the reason that the club chose to do so was because of the relationship and good-natured competition that the group had developed while working so closely together and being so commonly linked over the past year or so. The thought seemed to be that they all knew that this group was something special, and that having them together could help drive each of them to succeed even more.
Jackson Generals Radio Announcer and Director of Media Relations, Chris Harris, told me as the season was starting, "The last time Jackson was this hyped about this team was back in 2002 when Mark Prior and Corey Patterson were coming up with the Chicago Cubs," who were Jackson's parent club at the time. "The hype and build up now reminds me of that."
A little over a month into the minor league season, the hype-generators aren't disappointing. Each of the three has had some difficulties with their command from time to time, but that should be expected. After all, in spite of all the hype, we're talking about a 19-year-old (Walker) a player in his first pro season (Hultzen) and a player that missed a full season between college and his pro debut last year (Paxton).
Although they have had those struggles with command, particularly of late, their seasons as a whole have been very, very good. The three have combined to go 8-6 in 22 starts, striking out 116, walking 59 and allowing just 73 hits and only five home runs in 109 2/3 innings. That's good for a 2.46 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 9.52 SO/9.
But as every Mariners fan feverishly looks at the Generals schedule to see when their scheduled turns to pitch again are, the real question on a lot of their minds is, "When will they be pitching in Seattle?"
The answer to that may not be as easy as just picking the guy with the best stats (Walker), or the most "veteran" (Paxton) among them. Because, as we all know very well, promoting a prospect is almost never just about that prospect being ready or haven proven himself for a good amount of time. It is often about roster space and the often uttered, seldom explained or understood "team control" or "service time" issues.
While Hultzen has just 37 2/3 innings and seven starts of professional pitching history on his side, he currently is the owner of one of the very precious 40-man roster spots for the Mariners. Neither Paxton nor Walker are on the 40 as of today, and while there could be some roster shuffling to clear up spots (perhaps most easily by George Sherrill and/or Franklin Gutierrez being moved to the 60-day DL), Hultzen is in the lead for consideration at this point because the club doesn't need to make a 40-man move to fit him in. Hultzen also signed a major league deal straight out of Virginia and the draft: five years, $8.5m. So he is already getting paid. Promoting him would mean nothing to the budget, whereas it would mean a prorated bump for the other two.
That is not to say that Hultzen is less ready than the other two or that he hasn't earned a promotion by his own merits. Through his first 6 starts he has certainly had trouble commanding his pitches at times (5.5 BB/9), but he is also allowing opposing batters just 4.1 H/9 while seeing them hit just .134 in over 100 at bats. Even in his "worst" start, on May 5th, Hultzen walked seven and allowed the first home run of his pro career in 4 1/3...but that home run was the only hit he allowed.
Hultzen -- the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft -- is one side of the minor league match-up of the day today as he pitches against D'Backs prospect and UCLA product Trevor Bauer -- the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft -- to open up the Generals - BayBears series in Jackson tonight. And while Hultzen is absolutely impressing with his 1.91 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and league-best oAVG, Bauer is otherworldly right now. He leads the Southern League in ERA (1.68), Wins (7) and strikeouts (60) while ranking 2nd in the circuit in innings pitched (48 1/3).
But even before the question of "who comes first" gets answered, the other very important question needs to first be, "who leaves"? As in, who clears out of the big league rotation to allow one of these phenoms to get a look? Certainly veteran Kevin Millwood hasn't been sharp in the early part of this season, but one of the very reasons that he is on this team is to provide veteran leadership. Does Eric Wedge simply change his tune on the value of that and send Millwood packing to make room for one of these special talents? He very well could, but Millwood had his best start in his last game, and it certainly isn't a foregone conclusion that is what will happen.
Even if Millwood ends up being released soon, or if another spot opens up due to an unfortunate injury to a rotation member, young right-hander Erasmo Ramirez is in Tacoma, stretching himself out for a starting role. As of today, in mid May, I'd venture the guess that Ramirez is first in line if an early season opening -- perhaps from something like the line drive off of Blake Beavan's elbow, for instance -- presents itself. And with the way he introduced himself to Triple-A the other night, Andrew Carraway may be next.
So while Mariners fans are anxiously awaiting the arrival of "The Big Three", none of them may be the first starter called up, and they all may still be a ways off -- maybe even September. As of today I'd handicap the race with Hultzen first by a wide margin, Paxton second, then Walker. That could change, of course, but in terms of ability, experience and polish, that makes the most since. But whenever they do get to Seattle, you can bet that their talents will shine, and that the big club will be in a better position in the AL West, and much closer to seeing "the plan" come to fruition.