Walker to start Monday, Romero sent down

 It’s official: Taijuan Walker will make his 2014 debut for the Seattle Mariners on Monday night when the club opens a three-game set against the Houston Astros. After Erasmo Ramirez was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma on Wednesday, the promotion of the M’s top prospect appeared to be imminent, but it was not confirmed by manager Lloyd McClendon until Sunday. Outfielder Stefen Romero was sent down in the corresponding roster move which means right-hander Brandon Maurer  will remain with the big club in his new bullpen role for the time being.

Walker, 22 in August, was expected to start the year in the M’s rotation after a strong 2013 campaign split between Double-A and Triple-A and a trio of major league starts in September. However, the right-hander has been battling a myriad of shoulder issues since late February when an MRI revealed inflammation in his throwing shoulder, which McClendon described at the time as “nothing serious”. Obviously, as four months have passed without a major league start for the top prospect, the situation was very serious, but it looks like Walker has finally come back to full health and put those struggles behind him.

The consensus was that Seattle would be in no hurry to promote their No. 1 prospect back to the big leagues after the club elected to option him to Triple-A upon his activation from the disabled list earlier in June instead of adding him to the major league roster. That move looks like it has paid off as Walker has allowed just four earned runs across 20 and 2/3 innings in his last three starts for the Rainiers including a complete-game shutout in his last outing. That shutout probably had more to do with Walker’s recall than Ramirez’s control issues did since the club appeared committed to ensuring their top prospect was completely ready for a return to major league action.

Perhaps the brain trust had pencilled in another minor league start or two for the 21-year old in case things didn’t go quite so well for him during Wednesday’s start, but his dominating 109-pitch performance was likely enough for them to determine Walker’s next start should be against major league hitters. The Astros may not feature a plethora of All-Star calibre batsmen, but their lineup definitely isn’t as futile as it’s been in year’s past due with the like of Jose Altuve and George Springer now playing key roles.

On the opposite end of the Walker call-up, Romero was optioned to Triple-A after an 0-for-3 performance in the M’s 3-0 win over the Cleveland Indians on Sunday. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill opined on Saturday that Seattle should keep the extra arm, Maurer, in the bullpen and send Romero down to make room for the impending call-up, and the move really does make sense.

Although the M’s bullpen has actually thrown the seventh fewest innings in the majors entering Sunday’s games with 229, it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep the resurgent Maurer on board considering Felix Hernandez has now thrown 128 and 1/3 innings and Roenis Elias is at 104 and 2/3 innings and it’s not even the All-Star break yet. Not that there’s any reason to slow down Felix all that much at the moment since he’s been exceptionally dominant this year and has pitched eight or more innings on six occasions after one-hitting the Indians in eight innings on Sunday. But for the 25-year old Elias who threw only 130 innings in Double-A last year after 148 and 1/3 innings of work at Single-A High Desert in 2012, it’s possible the team may want to suppress his total innings this year around the 180 mark if at all possible — though that’s complete speculation on my part.

Nevertheless, Maurer has certainly impressed in his first two relief appearances in which he has allowed just one hit in three innings while striking out six. He could also potentially serve as a long man in the bullpen for the moment as his previous experience as a starter should allow him to give the M’s three innings of relief work if it’s necessary. Again, that’s more speculation on my end. There’s really no reason to not give the experiment more time to see if Maurer can be an effective piece out of the bullpen for the club this year.

Keeping the extra pitcher does leave the M’s with a short bench, but the quartet or John Buck, Cole Gillespie, Willie Bloomquist, and Endy Chavez are at the very least satisfactory for right now. Of course one of the four will find themselves in the lineup everyday while the designated hitter role remains vacant. For what it’s worth, both Corey Hart and Justin Smoak are currently on rehab assignments and could be ready for activation by the end of the coming week though nothing is certain just yet.

Back to Romero, who returns to the minors after posting a  .196/.236/.324 line with a 53 wRC+ in 159 plate appearances so far this year in his first taste of major league action. He did manage to hit three home runs, six doubles, and two triples in that time, but he walked just four time compared to 40 strikeouts. As I’ve mentioned previously, the 25-year old appeared to be overmatched at the big league level at times and considering he only had 411 plate appearances at the Triple-A level prior to making the club out of Spring Training this year, it’s not entirely surprising since he wasn’t considered to be an exceptional talent.

Romero did provide the M’s with a right-handed bat to balance a very left-handed heavy lineup, but he managed to hit just .204 with a 48 wRC+ in 98 plate appearances against left-handed pitching. Unfortunately the argument for keeping the former 12th-round draft pick with the big league club as a platoon option holds little ground as he actually hit slightly better against right-handed pitching: a .192 average with a 71 wRC+ and two of his three home runs on the year.

Not much is lost for the young outfielder, however, who entered the year as the Mariners’ No. 12 best prospect according to Churchill in this year’s edition of the Prospect Insider Handbook. An excerpt from Jason’s scouting report on Romero:

“His major league average bat speed works, but does limit him to medium power overall. He makes consistent contact and is best served at covering the plate and hitting liners to all fields.”

Romero goes down to Tacoma to work the kinks out, and Taijuan Walker makes his long awaited season debut for the Seattle Mariners. The bullpen’s been strong, and although they could use another one in a bad way, the bats are coming around and the team boasts a plus-50 run differential which is one of the best in all of baseball. If the M’s rotation can get the boost that Walker can potentially add, and that needed bat comes into play, games in late August could be meaningful again for the first time in far too long.

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Tyler Carmont

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