Walker, Zunino should be only untouchables

 The Seattle Mariners may or may not land right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Whether or not that occurs does not impact the value of the M’s young pitching collection, namely right-hander Taijuan Walker and southpaw James Paxton. It doesn’t make them more expendable and it doesn’t mean it “frees them up” to be traded.

I get the sense, based on nothing but the lack of movement on additional position players, that the Mariners may be treating Paxton and Walker equally. I think that’s a mistake.

I get Walker. He’s still very young, has good present stuff, is very athletic… you know the drill here. I understand Mike Zunino being kept off the block, too; catchers are very, very difficult to find. So difficult that the value of solid catchers cannot be understated. The rest of the “prospects” and young, unproven talents in the organization? I don’t see any reason to make them truly untouchable in trade talks.

There is a chance Paxton turns out to be better than Walker, but it’s clear the 21-year-old has the bigger upside and his timetable isn’t that far behind Paxton’s, if it is at all. Making both untouchable or near-untouchable — AKA, being afraid to trade them — makes little sense to me.

The Mariners drafted both pitchers. The principal scouts that did so are still in the organization. The club has drafted pitchers since then — Danny Hultzen and Edwin Diaz, for example — and will continue to make solid choices on amateur talent. In an organization where the cupboard is still barren at the big-league level, particularly in terms of outfielders — true, two-way outfielders who aren’t a liability on defense and don’t come with considerable injury concerns — one would think this offseason is an opportunity to pick an untouchable, Walker, and see if there is a player on the trade market the club could acquire in exchange for a package headlined by Paxton.

That isn’t to say trading Paxton and others for just any decent outfielder is a good idea, but protecting Paxton as if he’s a surefire ace (not even Walker is that) and showing a strong reluctance to move him to acquire the right outfielder would be absurd and utterly ignorant. I don’t know the Mariners are employing this stance, I’m just saying they absolutely should not be.

Tanaka or not, this club will grow dangerously close to running out of options to make the team watchable on offense, let alone any kind of kinda-sorta first-half contender. Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison will not fix the lineup. Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley cannot be expected to combine to equal such significant improvements — all of a sudden, on the parts of Saunders and Ackley after two years of struggles — and Kyle Seager absolutely cannot be relied upon to be one of the three best hitters — in my opinion. Right now, he’s the second-best bat, meaning two more hitters are necessary or Cano1 is nothing but a PR move.

If I could get Matt Kemp from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Paxton, Nick Franklin and, say, John Hicks, I’d pull the trigger so fast that not even William Henry McCarty could react fast enough to hit the kill switch.

It’s a risk, but one the Mariners cannot afford to decline. I don’t know if that specific deal, or one like it, would work for the Dodgers, but if that kind of value can net Kemp, it’s a no-brainer. He’s healing up this winter, a bit faster than some expected, too.

It doesn’t have to be Kemp, however, and it doesn’t have to be an outfielder, per se, although that is the weakest position on the roster as of today. Seattle is in no position to hoard prospects and sit around and wait for five or six young players to figure it out in 2014. The clock is ticking, both on the offseason and on Cano’s value to the baseball team.

Right this second, the club has not improved a whole lot. Kendrys Morales is gone — and it appears there is almost no chance for him to return, considering Hart and Morrison join Justin Smoak as 1B/DH types, at least some of the time — so the improvement is essentially the difference between Cano and Morales. It’s a nice bump player-for-player, especially since Cano is a solid glove at second and Morales was a DH in 2013, but in the grand scheme, the 25-man still is mediocre.

I repeat my statement from December: Make Cano count. Label the elite off limits, use a few of the other young talents and prospects to get what the club doesn’t have. That’s one of the two reason they were signed in the first place. Don’t pretend there was just one. Don’t pin the hopes of vast improvement in 2014 on the status quo finding the magic potion.

Paxton isn’t going to turn into Sandy Koufax or even Cliff Lee. Kemp might turn into Kemp of 2011, though.

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Jason A. Churchill

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