The Detroit Tigers have interest in signing veteran right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker, according to a report late Wednesday evening from Jon Morosi of FOX Sports. At only 28 years old, Walker is on the younger end of the free agents available to clubs this offseason. It’s a logical match — Detroit badly needs help in their starting rotation. Unlikely to be able to fill that need from within, it’s only natural that they should be sniffing around one of the middle tier players available at the position.
Walker spent the 2020 season pitching for Seattle and Toronto, traded midway through the year to help the Blue Jays in their playoff push. He finished the year with a 2.70 ERA over the course of 53.1 innings pitched.
Drafted 43rd overall by Seattle in 2011, Walker came to be renowned as one of the brightest prospects in baseball. He was projected to anchor the M’s rotation for years to come with his dynamic stuff and command. However, developing prospects has always been a tricky endeavor. The future some imagined for Walker hasn’t come to be during the course of his major league career.
He debuted in 2013, but didn’t pin down a regular role until 2015. After only two years in the major leagues, he was non-tendered by Seattle and found himself with a new team for the second half of his initial contract. It was with the Diamondbacks that he first found real success and was worth 2.5 fWAR in 2017. Again, his luck turned for the worse, and a UCL repair kept him off the field until 2020.
Walker’s successes are made especially impressive by being accentuated with the fact his previous two years were scuttled. However, his sparkling ERA and unattractive FIP are too disparate to have much faith that his surface numbers will survive a full season of baseball. That’s a conclusion shared by FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system. He’s forecast to play to a 4.99 ERA and 4.97 FIP, figures basically on par with his previous performances in believably large samples.
Walker is far from a lost cause, though. Even with little to no improvement, he’s an acceptable fourth starter. His relative youth offers some hope that he still has time to turn his career around. Of course, the team who signs him will hope for something better that a mere innings eater, but a pitcher capable of getting through the order multiple times without putting victory out of reach has value as well.
However, as FanGraphs’ Brendan Gawlowski nicely explains, he doesn’t need to make physical leaps to become a more productive player. An adjustment in his pitch mix could be just what the doctor ordered.
While most changeups perform well against opposite-handed hitters, Walker’s doesn’t. He might be better served by ditching it and feeding lefties a steady diet of curves and sliders (his behaves like a cutter). Second, for a righty with limited spin and only average velo, Walker has a surprisingly effective four-seam fastball. Given that his sinker mostly gets clobbered, it would seem fruitful to replace most of the latter with more of the former.
Furthermore, the Tigers may seem equally as attractive to Walker as he seems to them. Detroit’s newly assembled coaching squad rocketed the team from one of the worst-coached staffs in the league to one of the most intriguing. Pitching coach Chris Fetter has an unimpeachable reputation despite his youth, while assistant Juan Nieves is extraordinarily well-liked by his players and has plenty of experience at the major league level. Of course, we don’t know how Walker feels towards AJ Hinch, a factor which will hang over virtually any rumor this winter.
Nevertheless, signing a contract with Detroit guarantees more than just the dollar value. It guarantees playing time and the opportunity to work with some of the best coaches out there. Heck, the Tigers were even in the postseason conversation for a brief moment last year. For a player who will be seen as a reclamation project by many, that’s just about as good as it gets without sacrificing job security in the process.
A potential contract with Walker will probably be a short term deal. It’s common for a player in his situation to gamble on being able to improve themselves and get a much better haul down the line. That likely suits the Tigers’ decision makes just fine; they’ve tended to hand out one year contracts to stopgap players while building up the farm system.
Regardless of whether this potential union is consummated with a contract or not, the very fact that the Tigers are looking into Walker gives us an insight into their approach to this offseason. He’s a higher caliber of free agent that the team has pursued in recent years and his price tag will be higher as well. It’s encouraging that they’re willing to chase players with upside rather than simply handing out a few million to the older, more stagnant types that have filled out the roster in recent years.