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Originally published Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 8:57 PM

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Of hair and humility: The development of top Mariners' pitching prospect Taijuan Walker

Taijuan Walker can't get a big head because that would mean more jokes about his hair. Felix Hernandez keeps the 20-year-old pitching prospect...

Seattle Times staff columnist

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Taijuan Walker can't get a big head because that would mean more jokes about his hair.

Felix Hernandez keeps the 20-year-old pitching prospect humble, using Walker's new blonde look as fodder for comedy. Walker dyed his hair last month, and the playful pestering hasn't stopped. King Felix even has used Walker's locker to poke fun. He posted pictures of Dennis Rodman and Wesley Snipes' old Simon Phoenix character in "Demolition Man" to show Walker what he looks like now. The kid can only look at the Mariners' ace, grin and shake his head.

"Felix!" he exclaims. "Always messing with me."

Of course, the hope is that this is a sign of chemistry developing between two players who could carry the Mariners' starting rotation soon. But for all Walker's talent and athleticism, he needs more time. You look at him, all 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds of intrigue, and dream the biggest dreams. Walker has it all, except for experience. The more you watch him during spring training, the more you realize that it could take up to two more years before Walker becomes a major-leaguer. It would still put Walker, who was selected No. 43 overall out of Yucaipa High School in Southern California in the 2010 draft, in the big leagues at a ridiculously young age. But he's not like Hernandez, who threw 191 innings for the Mariners as a 20-year-old.

Walker is a former basketball player who committed solely to baseball later than your typical high draft pick. You can become mesmerized by his stuff and the effortless way he throws a baseball. But his Cactus League performance has included flashes of his limitless ability, followed by hard lessons for a pitcher who can't yet control everything he throws.

Walker pitched two innings in relief during the Mariners' 11-7 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday at Peoria Stadium. He allowed one run and two hits, but he threw two wild pitches, the second of which allowed Dayan Viciedo to score the only run he surrendered. Walker posted a 1-2-3 fourth inning to end on a positive note.

Walker has a mid- to upper-90s fastball, and on Sunday, he hit 95 mph. He has a solid changeup that can be refined. But he's struggling to throw his curveball effectively, and big-league hitters have exposed that issue. In his previous outing, he struggled, but despite the wild pitches, he looked better this time.

"Overall, I felt good," said Walker, who has a 5.14 ERA in seven innings this spring. "I'm still working on my curveball, trying to get it down. I think it's just more of a confidence thing and just going out there and throwing it instead of trying to place it in there. I feel confident in it. I've just got to throw it more."

Walker is the top pitching prospect in the Mariners' pitching-rich farm system, but he hasn't always had it easy. A year ago, in Class AA ball in Jackson, Tenn., Walker fell off after an encouraging start and finished 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA. It was a rough season on and off the field. Walker found out his mother, Nellie, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He struggled mentally and with his command, but grinding through difficult times could help his development. Walker says the game is teaching him valuable lessons.

"You've got to be mentally tough," Walker said. "It's a hard game. You have to make sure you can accept failure because it's going to happen. It has taught me a lot so far, especially this spring. I've got a lot of innings, so going out there and pitching against major-league hitters, you have to be strong and be able to go out there and compete."

Walker realizes he's only 20, but he came to camp expecting to earn a job in the Mariners' starting rotation. That is his mentality, even though it's an extreme longshot.

He doesn't want to put too much pressure on himself, but if he approached this camp as someone simply looking for experience, he figures he wouldn't be as competitive.

"Being 20 and playing at the big-league level, you can't get too far ahead of yourself, but at the same time, you're out there competing still," Walker said. "So you can't always fall back on, 'I'm only 20. I'm still young.' You can't really fall back on that when you're trying to compete and help your team win. So, with me, I just try not to do too much, but at the same time, I'm trying to go out there and fight and work hard."

Mariners manager Eric Wedge sees the promise and the rough patches when he looks at Walker. He's progressing, Wedge says, but short of dying his hair orange, it will be hard for Walker to get the manager's attention when it's time to make cuts.

"He just continues to develop as a young starting pitcher, and obviously, there's no dismissing his stuff," Wedge said. "But when you talk about pitch-ability and experience, that's what he needs to continue to move forward with."

And so Walker will keep working. He has been humbled, by the game and by the King.

Don't laugh him off as another stereotypical flaky blonde, though. He can change the hair back, but right now, he'd rather refine that curveball.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

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