PEORIA, Ariz. — When James Paxton and Taijuan Walker were included in the Seattle Mariners' major league camp last spring, it served as a reward for their performance in the minors with no real expectation that their major league debuts were imminent.
This year, the top two pitching prospects in the organization aren't just in camp to get experience throwing against a major league roster. They know the Mariners want them to win jobs coming out of spring training to solidify the back end of the rotation.
That changes the game a little bit.
"After having that time in the big leagues and feeling that I belong I come into this camp feeling like I think I can do it and I have a chance of starting the year with the club," said Paxton, a tall 25-year-old left-hander. "I feel good about where I'm at right now and I'm looking forward to getting out there and competing."
Paxton and Walker are the biggest names among a foursome of young pitchers vying for rotation spots. Erasmo Ramirez has the most experience of the young group and could end up in the rotation as well, and Brandon Maurer started last season in the rotation before being sent to the minors.
But Paxton and Walker are the focus. They have been followed and analyzed in the farm system. They both had brief stints with Seattle at the end of last season that only ramped up their future hopes. Paxton made four starts, going 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA. Walker made three starts with a 1-0 record and 3.60 ERA.
"It was great I thought," Walker said. "Just getting in the big leagues where you want to be to the highest level you can be at, going out there and just facing big league hitters, the travel, the big league clubhouse, just seeing how it all is, just getting g taste of what it was all like. It was definitely motivation."
There concern that Walker is falling behind. He showed up for camp with a sore throwing shoulder and has been limited to throwing off flat ground so far. The hope is to get him throwing in the bullpen soon but he's not scheduled as one of the starters for the first week of spring training games.
"I wouldn't say I'm concerned at this particular time," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "Obviously, he's a little bit behind. I remember we were in spring training 1990 and we had three weeks to get ready and we got ready to play baseball in three weeks. So I'm not that concerned as we speak right now. I don't know what's going to happen in the next week but we'll see."
Because of that success last September, both went into the offseason knowing that winning a rotation job would be possible. Paxton worked on strengthening his legs and making sure he can locate a fastball that comes tumbling downward thanks to his 6-foot-4 frame and high release. Walker, regarded for a few seasons as the top arm in Seattle's farm system, worked on getting his off-speed pitches to match his strong fastball.
The expectations placed on Walker were amplified when McClendon said in late January he would be disappointed if Walker was not part of the rotation when the regular season began.
"I wanted to come into camp and fight for a spot because we have a lot of great pitchers fighting for those spots," Walker said. "No matter what he said I wanted to come in here fighting for a spot because nothing is ever guaranteed and no spot is given to you. You have to go out and work for it or someone is going to take it."
Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik has been cautious with both pitchers through the minors and stressed it should not be viewed as a setback if the 21-year-old Walker, specifically, is not part of the rotation when the regular season begins.
"I would not be disappointed if things didn't quite come together like you would like to because he is a young guy yet," Zduriencik said on Wednesday. "There is always many factors that tie into any player making your club. I think at the end all of us feel Taijuan is going to be a really good pitcher. It's a matter of when. Is it April 1? Is it June 15? Nobody knows."