The Mariner who is perhaps more important than even Robinson Cano

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The Mariner who is perhaps more important than even Robinson Cano
The Mariner who is perhaps more important than even Robinson Cano

PEORIA, Ariz. – Taijuan Walker is 21-years old, is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, throws a fastball deep into the 90s, and loves his mom.

The rest, he's working on. But, were he to look out across the career that's coming, the life that's coming, he'd surely allow it is best to start with a broad set of shoulders, easy velocity and a woman nearby he calls, "My hero." You'd take your chances, too.

So it was on Monday morning he stood in the outfield here, 60 feet or so from Felix Hernandez, surrounded by a couple dozen other Seattle Mariners. Soon, Walker and Hernandez would throw from a mound for the first time this spring, Walker a little later than most because his shoulder had been sore, Hernandez a little later because that's how he does things.

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They'd both throw without incident. Walker, his mechanics smooth and damn-near elegant, would stop at 20 pitches, confer with his pitching coach, throw five more, get a nod and a handshake from his catcher and a favorable review from his shoulder. Hernandez would continue to throw.

"Felt great," Walker would say, and keep everyone's hearts from hammering for a few days anyway.

But it was something in the outfield – a simple toss, a simple gesture – that spoke to what could become of this young Walker, and what in turn would come of this beleaguered, wandering franchise. For Robinson Cano is going to walk through that door on Tuesday morning and immediately become the Mariners' best position player since Junior, and Hernandez is about as good as they make a pitcher anymore, and still the organization is as fragile as the shoulder of an overenthusiastic young pitcher.

The Mariners will mature into something presentable because Walker, in a mere game of catch, floated a changeup at Hernandez, and Hernandez did not approve. Not of the mechanics of it. Not of the results. Hernandez had held his glove at his right knee, as though low and away from a right-handed hitter, and the ball had arrived – sloppy and imprecise by his standards – at his left knee.

Hernandez throws his changeup with a circle grip. Walker splits his. Still there is a right way and there is every other way. Hernandez shook his head. He held the ball well out in front of him, as to say, "Get it out here, out in front of you," and then swept his hand down, "Finish it." Then he nodded at Walker, "You'll get it."

Later, Hernandez said, "It's gonna help him."

Walker nodded back, Hernandez put his glove at his right knee. Dutifully, Walker hit the glove.

"Yeah," Walker said later, "I drag my arm a little bit sometimes. Gotta get it out front."

These are the Mariners, who threw $240 million at one man in their attempt to be relevant again, but will only find relevance an inch, a detail, a decision, a pitch at a time. In Walker, and James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer, and Brad Miller and Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino and Kyle Seager and others, they're young men being led by another new manager, this time Lloyd McClendon. And every time someone insists on the right way, the Mariners will cover a little more of that ground, because the other way – from the general manager's office down – has put them in this place.

"We've got some arms," McClendon said Monday, "that everybody in baseball would do backflips to get.

"You know, I just find it amusing when people say, ‘What else are you going to do?' That's not chopped liver in that locker room. … Just 'cuz you're young doesn't mean you can't be good."

He added, for emphasis, "Miguel Cabrera had to get his first at-bat sometime."

Cabrera struck out, and that, of course, would only reinforce McClendon's point, that it is time, that these opportunities are made and not born, that the cycle has to end with someone some day.

These are the words of spring. The words of change. The Mariners are OK, perhaps still overmatched in the AL West, but better. So a big kid with a big fastball gets through a day with a smile, and a veteran holds him to the ideal when nobody else is watching, and that can only be progress. Walker's family came out to the complex to watch his 25 pitches, which Walker found sweet and charming, and he more often than not hit the mitt, which was good, and he felt strong in his shoulder, which was the goal.

That was Day One. He'll need a lot more like it. The Mariners will, too.

"Six weeks from now, I want to be confident, real confident, in everything," Walker said. "All my pitches. So I can help my team, help my team win. I want to help Seattle any way I can. Also, I want to get better mentally. Everything. I want to be ready."

On that, the Mariners will take their chances.

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