The Big Four, a Year Later

Lending more credence to the "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect" mantra, we look at the drastic difference that a year can make in the lives of the top four pitching prospects for the Seattle Mariners.

A couple of nights ago in Tacoma, the 2014 Triple-A debut (and possibly only Triple-A start of the year) for Taijuan Walker ended before it ever got going, with Walker indicating that he couldn't get loose while stretching. Last week, lefty James Paxton left a start in which he was shutting down the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after feeling something during a pitch in his lat behind his throwing shoulder. This spring Brandon Maurer was shut down for a bit with a sore back, setting his timeline back to where he is just getting back to pitching in the rotation for Tacoma this week. Late last April, lefty Danny Hultzen "couldn't get loose" before a start and after different periods of different approaches to making him feel better, he went in for major surgery on a few of the most important areas for a pitcher in October and is out for the entire 2014 season.

Say it with me now: TINSTAAPP.

There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

The Seattle Mariners -- in desperate need of good arms to put in the rotation now -- seemed to have an embarrassment of riches in that department less than 365 days ago. Hultzen, Walker, Paxton and Maurer were dubbed "The Big Four", headlining a system as guys that looked like surefire big league starters close to breaking through. But the injury bug has bitten them very hard. And while it is probably too early to fully enter into panic mode with the young pitching talent in the organization -- oh yeah, Victor Sanchez just hit the DL in Jackson with forearm stiffness -- Seattle has to wonder when it is going to catch a break with one of these young guys.

Walker has been shut down, for the second time this spring, for two weeks with what is being termed a shoulder impingement. It doesn't say the word in there, but a shoulder impingement is the rotator cuff being pinched. Rotator cuff injuries to pitchers, while not the death sentence they used to be to their careers, still are not good. Walker is only 21 and is still a rookie, but he is the prize jewel of the Mariners' system; the prize pick in the Jack Zduriencik/Tom McNamara draft era for Seattle. If it ends up that he needs to be shut down for the season -- not that signs point to that now, but not out of the question considering what we're talking about here -- it would be a major loss for the club.

Paxton is currently on the 15-day DL and he could very well be ready to go full-tilt again once he's back. But the club classified his injury the exact same way that they initially classified Stephen Pryor's a year ago; a lat strain. Pryor ended up needing surgery to repair a torn lat. That injury and the ensuing surgery is incredibly rare, as Pryor's was only the fourth documented procedure of its kind on a big league pitcher. But could Paxton suffer a similar fate? Sure he could.

Maurer's back injury kept him out of action in spring training for about a week and the right-hander who broke camp as a member of the rotation with the big club in 2013 was pitching out of the bullpen for Tacoma until this week. And he still isn't up to full strength, throwing a season high of just 55 pitches last Thursday (in an amazing performance out of the bullpen). Back injuries aren't as serious as arm injuries for pitchers, obviously, but Mariners' fans certainly remember the issues that back problems caused for Randy Johnson back in his day.

Hultzen -- at least for now -- is the most serious case of Mariners' prospect pitcher injury here. Seen as near-big league ready when the Mariners selected him No. 2 overall back in 2011, Hultzen was diagnosed very similarly to Walker about this time last year, initially leading to a few months of rest, but ultimately ending up with surgery to clean up damage to his labrum, repair a partial tear in his rotator cuff and fix a torn capsule in his shoulder. That trifecta isn't something that many pitchers have come back from.

The injury to Sanchez -- who came in at No. 9 on the annual Top-50 M's prospect countdown here a few months ago -- may be nothing but standard fatigue, but it is just another case to add to the growing list of pitcher injuries that happen to the most highly regarded pitchers in baseball.


Let's hope that saying doesn't become to familiar to Mariners' fans as this season rolls along.

Looking for more Mariners news, articles and player interviews? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse site Editor Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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