Spring Training is less than a month away! Let us keep you company until the first pitcher-and-catcher workouts on Feb. 18 with a team-by-team countdown of reasons to get excited for the 2016 MLB season. Today: The Seattle Mariners.
The Mariners already have a king: His name is Felix Hernandez, he won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award and he's amassed 2,142 strikeouts before his 30th birthday.
But 23-year-old Taijuan Walker is poised to have a breakout season in 2016 and just might prove to be the "Fresh Prince" to Seattle's King Felix.
In 2014, MLB.com ranked Walker as the top prospect in the Mariners organization and the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball. He flashed his talent in eight appearances for the M's that year, capped off with a six-strikeout, complete-game performance against the Blue Jays in his final start.
Walker opened 2015 in the Mariners' rotation and pitched to a 4.56 ERA with 157 strikeouts and 40 walks over 169 2/3 innings. The surface numbers may not jump out, but he did show glimpses of greatness -- like when he one-hit the Twins on July 31 while striking out 11.
Walker has always been dripping with talent and now appears poised for a breakout entering his second full big league season. But if the workhorse frame and the mid-90's heat don't have you drooling, then maybe his backstory will get you on board. The right-hander grew up in Yucaipa, Calif., helping to take care of his younger siblings while his mother, Nellie, worked as a process server at night.
The kid could have played basketball in junior college -- or even professionally in the Philippines -- but opted for a career in baseball instead. Every once in a while, he gives us a glimpse of the baller he could have been by posting dunk videos to YouTube.
His relationship with his mother is stronger than ever. When Nellie lived in New York, she'd FaceTime Taijuan to help him cook her recipes. As she told MLB.com:
If that wasn't adorable enough, Walker's mom has since moved to Peoria, Ariz., right around the corner from the Mariners' Spring Training facility. She and Walker hang out all the time now, and -- oh my goodness, they dress their French bulldogs up together and it'll melt your heart:
Walker's mom is a breast cancer survivor, and that's not the only hardship his family has faced. Last year, when his brother underwent brain surgery to have a tumor removed, the family came together and tracked Walker's start from the hospital.
Please keep my little brother in your prayers as he undergoes brain surgery today! Love you Dede We are all here for you baby bro @dayday44- Taijuan Walker (@tai_walker) August 11, 2015
He knows about the Mariners lineage and represents past greats with some particularly stylish kicks:
With King Felix sitting comfortably on his throne, the return of Hisashi Iwakuma and the addition of innings-eater Wade Miley, a breakout season from Walker could be just what the Mariners need to make a run at the AL West. Good thing you got to know him before he makes it big.