There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
One of the better exercises Jim and I have undertaken in this Pipeline Perspectives series has been when we go head-to-head about two specific prospects or a particular position. We've debated speedsters (Billy Hamilton vs. Delino DeShields), shortstops (Xander Bogaerts vs. Francisco Lindor) and third basemen (Miguel Sano vs. Kris Bryant), to name a few, over the past year.
So we figured it was time to go back to that bread and butter. Our Top 100 Prospects list, re-ranked at the end of July, has two pitching prospects in the top 10: Taijuan Walker of the Mariners, ranked No. 7, and the Nationals' Lucas Giolito, who comes in at No. 10. In this week's Pipeline Perspectives, I'm explaining why I still very much believe in Walker, while Jim goes with Giolito in a debate over who we believe is the best pitching prospect in the game right now.
If things had gone according to plan, Walker really wouldn't even be in the conversation. A healthy 2014 would have put the right-hander in Seattle's rotation for most, if not all, of the season. Even though that didn't happen, Walker does have 30 combined Major League innings, somewhat close to the rookie cutoff of 50 innings pitched we use for inclusion on any prospect lists. In other words, we don't have too much more time to discuss him as a prospect.
The only thing that has held Walker back has been shoulder soreness. And he's come back from that, albeit cautiously. Yes, he didn't set the world on fire during his three Major League starts this year, but he also wasn't embarrassed in any of them. He struggled with his control, but that's nothing out of the ordinary.
In the Minors, the numbers don't look too sexy -- a 4.91 ERA in 55 Triple-A innings -- but that truly doesn't concern me. Walker is still working his way back and has been a little on-again, off-again in terms of results.
But we're not debating what kind of Triple-A pitcher either of these talented right-handers is going to be. We're looking long-term, and based on reports on how Walker's stuff has been, all signs point to him heading in the same direction he was heading before the year started. A future as a front-line starter still awaits.
Recent reports had Walker's fastball sitting in the 92-93 mph range and consistently touching 95 mph. He's combining his electric heater with a hammer of a curveball, and his changeup, which has been his third pitch and continues to improve. Walker has given up a few too many long balls, but his command will be fine as he logs more innings and puts the sore shoulder clearly in his rearview mirror. When all is said and done, Walker is still a big, athletic, projectable power pitcher with the chance to have three above-average to plus pitches. There's a reason he was ranked the No. 6 prospect to start the season and why he only dropped one spot in the re-ranking despite all of his missed time.
Keep in mind, too, that Walker is still relatively new to pitching. He was a basketball star in high school, and multi-sport guys can't focus on just baseball as amateurs. Walker has come a long way as a raw thrower, though he's still developing into a complete pitcher.
Sure, Giolito made a huge jump up the rankings, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery and having a very successful full-season debut. His raw stuff is definitely off the charts, and I look forward to seeing him use it at higher levels.
Walker, on the other hand, has already shown an ability to dominate hitters at every level. His most recent start, on Sunday, could be a sign that he's ready to finish the season strong: seven innings pitched, two hits, one earned run, one walk and 13 strikeouts. Even if this year was more of a washout in terms of his Major League contributions, Walker should be ready to claim a spot right behind King Felix again in 2015.
Walker is still very much ahead of the curve, and he's celebrating his 22nd birthday today. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he is 5.8 years younger than the average pitcher in the Pacific Coast League. Giolito? He's 2.8 years younger than his South Atlantic League counterparts. That's not a final nail in this argument, but anyone who thinks Walker is "stalling" in Triple-A needs to think again.