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Sunday, April 1, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Mariners have high hopes for pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker

By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter

When Taijuan Walker first heard the comparisons to Dwight Gooden, he wasn't flattered or intimidated.

Befuddled is more like it.

"Actually, I didn't know who he was," Walker admitted sheepishly earlier this spring. "I don't know too much about baseball. But I looked him up. It's pretty awesome what he did."

Walker focused more on basketball than baseball while growing up in Yucaipa, Calif. — one reason he lasted until the 43rd pick of the 2010 draft. But now that he's devoted himself to pitching, Walker is fully in phenom mode, a 19-year-old right-hander with preternatural poise on the fast track to the majors, just like Gooden nearly 30 years ago.

"I think we've really got something special," Mariners minor-league pitching coordinator Rick Waits said of Walker, echoing the increasingly breathless praise emanating from scouts.

The beauty for the Mariners is that Walker is not alone in predictions of grandeur. A trio of young prospects — left-handers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton in addition to Walker — has emerged as the organization's "Big Three," upon whom much of Seattle's hopes for future success are focused.

All are 23 or younger and were drafted within the past two years. All are targeted for the major leagues in the very near future. All have power arms and a mounting repertoire of pitches.

"There's no denying their stuff," manager Eric Wedge said.

And, increasingly, they are bonding with one another as they move up the ladder. The Mariners clearly want a cohesion to develop among them, and are doing what they can to facilitate it. The three had their lockers together in spring training, frequently pitched one after another in the same games, were reassigned to minor-league camp on the same day, and might well be slated for the same Class AA staff in Jackson, Tenn., to open the season.

"It would be pretty cool to go up (to the majors) together, too," said Walker. "They're going to do something special with the Mariners, and I'm just glad to be part of it.

"It's a lot of fun to be with these guys here and be able to share the experience and talk," added Paxton midway through spring camp.

"We have a good friendship right now, and it's getting stronger," Walker said.

Paxton and Walker were briefly teammates last year at Class A, but grew closer during spring training. They quickly welcomed Hultzen, last year's No. 2 overall draft pick, into the fold.

"It's cool to be grouped together like that, because that deflects the attention from us each individually, which I kind of like," Hultzen said. "There's always other guys with you, kind of going through the same thing. It's nice to have two guys that are doing the same thing you are."

Hultzen, Paxton and Walker are hardly the only pitching prospects in the organization — Erasmo Ramirez is making his case to expand the group to a "Big Four;" but the Mariners envision those three as their version of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the A's trio that tormented the Mariners for years.

Paxton, 23, was taken in the fourth round in 2010 by Seattle after the Blue Jays failed to sign him as a supplemental first-rounder in 2009. He didn't sign until last February, but despite more than a year removed from organized baseball (except for four starts with an independent team), Paxton thrived in the minors. In 17 starts between Clinton and Jackson, he was 6-3 with a 2.37 earned-run average, with 131 strikeouts in 95 innings.

Waits said the key for the 6-foot-4 Paxton is developing a feel for his changeup.

"He reminds me of a young Andy Pettitte," Waits said. "Andy wasn't the polished pitcher at 19 or 20 he was at 23. I think the main thing is, both those guys love to work. They love to put the time in. They listen and they apply. And they're not afraid to go after hitters."

While most analysts expected the Mariners to take a hitter in last year's draft — specifically, Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon — the Mariners instead focused on Hultzen, an All-American at the University of Virginia, with the second overall pick.

Though he signed too late to pitch in the minors last year, Hultzen was dominant in six starts in the Arizona Fall League. Scouts rated him as the pitcher in the draft closest to the majors.

"What a tremendous talent," Waits said. "He has probably the best fastball command of any pitcher I've had out of the college draft."

Hultzen, 22, could conceivably crack the Mariners' rotation before the season is over but will try to put that out of his mind.

"I, along with every other minor-leaguer ever, wants to get up as soon as possible," he said. "But I realize that may not be in the cards for me. Whenever it is, if it happens, it will be awesome. I'm not trying to rush or anything like that."

It's hard not to rush Walker, given his overpowering fastball, knee-buckling curve and rapidly improving changeup. But unlike Gooden, who made the Mets' rotation out of spring training as a 19-year-old in 1984, the Mariners are being more cautious with Walker. It's not easy, however. In his debut season as a pro in 2011, he held opponents to a .202 average while striking out 113 in 96-2/3 innings.

Waits said of Walker, "He knows how to slow the game down. He has the right heartbeat. He's a very smart guy, and probably one of the better athletic pitchers we have in the whole organization. But what he's really good at, he's open. He listens. He tosses it around in his head, and he applies it."

Walker admits it's hard to be patient.

"I want to be up there now," he said. "That's my goal. As soon as I can ... but I have to be patient and wait my turn. Whenever they call me, I'll be ready."

Catcher Adam Moore, after observing the trio in camp, was impressed with their maturity beyond their years. He thinks they are all close to being ready.

"They're always asking questions and looking around," he said. "They just look like they belong."

Injuries can beset any pitcher, of course, and many a would-be phenom has backtracked on the road to the major leagues. The Mariners, however, believe they have a special trio that belongs at the highest level, in the not-distant future.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry

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