Jack Zduriencik was the New York Mets’ farm director in 1995, the year the team began to roll out Generation K — right-handers Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson and lefty Bill Pulsipher.
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The three ballyhooed prospects all suffered pitching-related injuries within a year and never reached their potential in New York.
Zduriencik, then, knows all about the risks of talented young pitching. Yet 17 years later, here he is again, the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, heavily invested in another trio of gifted prospects — right-hander Taijuan Walker and lefties Danny Hultzen and James Paxton.
Sure, Zduriencik remembers Generation K. But he references a more recent trio, one that provided its team with far more pleasure than pain: Right-hander Tim Hudson and lefties Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. The Oakland Athletics rode that group to four straight postseason appearances in the early 2000s.
The beauty of the sport is that no one can predict whether Walker, Hultzen and Paxton will turn out more like the Mets’ prospects or the Athletics’. The Mariners have other young pitchers — including right-handers Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Erasmo Ramirez — who could develop into major league starters. Whatever the final names, Zduriencik needs some combination of them to produce.
Consider the starting pitchers that Zduriencik has traded in the past 20 months — not just lefties Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard, both of whom were potential free agents, but also righties Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister and Michael Pineda, all of whom were under club control for at least four years.
Combine the latter three with ace righty Felix Hernandez, and the team would boast a powerhouse rotation right now. But Zduriencik, trying to improve a thin base of young talent, went the other way and received multiple pieces in each trade.
Most of the players Zduriencik acquired are still prospects, so the deals cannot yet be fairly judged. But the trades of Fister and, in particular, Pineda, reflected Zduriencik’s faith in his emerging young pitchers.
Walker. Hultzen. Paxton.
Here come the Mariners, boom, bust or in between.
Saturday night, capacity crowd at the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Salt River Fields. One by one, the Mariners’ Big Three make their Cactus League debuts against a D-backs lineup that includes right fielder Justin Upton, catcher Miguel Montero, center fielder Chris Young and left fielder Jason Kubel.
Ramirez, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound righty from Nicaragua, starts the game. He is only 21 but further along in his development than the Big Three, while possessing less upside. Ramirez throws 94 mph with rare strike-throwing ability. On this night, he works three scoreless innings, and 23 of his 28 pitches are strikes.
Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick out of Virginia in the draft last year, is next. Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo compares Hultzen to a young Mark Buehrle. When that comparison is related to an M’s official, the official says, “Hultzen has better stuff.”
True enough. Hultzen throws in the mid-90s and has quality breaking pitches. And his overall maturity — he escapes a two-on, none-out jam in the second of his two scoreless innings — could accelerate his rise.
Paxton, a fourth-round pick in 2010 after failing to sign with Toronto as the No. 37 overall choice in ’09, is a different kind of lefty. At 6-4, he’s inches taller than Hultzen and bears a resemblance to Andy Pettitte on the mound.
Against the Diamondbacks, Paxton pitches the seventh and eighth innings after most of the regulars are out of the game. He walks his first two hitters but allows a run only because of a wild pitch. He ends up striking out four in two innings.
Then there is Walker, the highest-rated of the Mariners’ prospects — and most intriguing.
Walker, 19, is a freakish athlete. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he played basketball at Yucaipa (Calif.) High School and was mostly a shortstop in baseball until his senior year. Thus, he was hardly a safe choice when the Mariners selected him as a pitcher with the 43rd overall pick in 2010.
But here’s the thing: Walker is so athletic, he developed a clean, smooth delivery with, seemingly, little effort. He throws his high-90s fastball and power breaking ball with, seemingly, little effort. Hultzen said that some of the Mariners recently stacked a bunch of boxes in the team’s weight room — and watched Walker leap on top of them with, naturally, seemingly little effort.
“The first time I caught him, I said, ‘You know what? That kid is going to be the best,’ ” Olivo says. “Throwing 98-99 with control, good breaking ball, up and down. It’s amazing when you see a kid like that, 19 years old.” Hold on: Isn’t King Felix the best?
“Felix is the best,” Olivo says. “But I think that kid can be in there."
Walker actually reminds Hernandez of someone.
“Me,” King Felix says, smiling. “When I was 19, I was the same guy. Athletic. Throwing gas. Confident.”
Walker needs only 15 pitches to retire the side in his only inning. He strikes out veteran infielders John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist and retires Gerardo Parra on a fly to right.
McDonald notes that Walker pitched at the top of the strike zone, but adds, “If first impressions mean anything, he’s worthy.”
Yes, it’s spring training — early in spring training, at that. But the night ends with a 7-1 Mariners victory. The four young pitchers combine to pitch eight innings while allowing one run on four hits, striking out eight and walking three.
What was it manager Eric Wedge had said the day before?
Now pitching coach Carl Willis is talking.
“I was very fortunate to see CC (Sabathia) at 17,” says Willis, who previously held the same position with the Cleveland Indians. “I don’t want to make comparisons, because that’s unfair to these kids. But they have that special ability.”
No disrespect to Willis, Wedge or anyone else with the Mariners, but numerous teams throughout Florida and Arizona share the same excitement about their top pitching prospects. For all the talk, all the hype, few actually will become stars.
What, then, makes the Mariners believe that they’re onto something special? Veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood hints at it when he compliments the young pitchers as humble, respectful, hard-working. Zduriencik, too, raves about their respective makeups.
“The thing I like about these kids more than anything is what they have outside of their pitching ability. They’re all very intelligent, all very poised,” Zduriencik says.
“You see a lot of pitchers — we’ve seen it forever — guys with great arms who never reach their potential, never figure out the other parts of it. These kids have the ability to do that. It’s kind of innate with them. That’s why I think it’s going to be pretty exciting.”
The Mariners will not contend this season, not when their offense is a work in progress, not when the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels are so loaded. But if nothing else, the team’s young talent is more plentiful now. Forty of the 64 players in camp possess one year or less of major league experience, Wedge says. Fifty have five years or less.
Not all are pitchers, of course. Second baseman Dustin Ackley and catcher Jesus Montero should form the core of the Mariners’ future offenses. (And, yes, the M’s believe that Montero will catch regularly, though not this season.) The team is deep in third-base prospects. Nick Franklin, a switch-hitting middle infielder with power, might be only a year away.
“We’re going in the right direction,” King Felix says.
Still, so much depends on the Big Three.
If they become the Mariners’ version of Hudson, Mulder and Zito, the team’s rotation will move into the elite category and the threat of losing Hernandez as a free agent after the 2014 season will not be as daunting.
But if the plan goes awry — and too few of the Mariners’ other prospects develop – the talk will turn back to all of the starting pitchers that Zduriencik traded and the mistakes in evaluation that were made.
Such is the risk/reward proposition with young pitchers. Their promise is so vast, a GM will suppress painful memories and take the same leap each time the opportunity arises.