Seattle Mariners

Mariners: Paxton and Walker remain linked as pitching cornerstones

The two pitchers sat side-by-side atop the dugout Saturday while answering questions from fans as the Mariners kicked off their two-day FanFest at Safeco Field.

James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, the lefty and the righty, have long been linked as key elements to the organization’s now-brightening future.

That they remain so linked stands as perhaps the Mariners’ top achievement in an offseason where general manager Jack Zduriencik and his lieutenants shored up an often toothless lineup.

Other clubs, seeing the Mariners’ need for additional run production, spent much of the winter trying to pry loose Paxton or Walker (or both) in proffered deals for proven hitters.

“Certainly, I get calls on those guys all of the time,” Zduriencik said. “And it’s just common sense. They’re talented kids, they’re very inexpensive and they’re under years of (club) control.”

The Mariners’ acute need for offensive pop forced club officials to weigh offers until early December, when they signed free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who led the majors last year with 40 homers, to a four-year deal for $57 million.

Landing Cruz effectively took Paxton and Walker off the board — even before Zduriencik further bolstered the club’s attack by acquiring outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in trades with the Padres and Cubs.

“Someday,” Zduriencik admitted, “maybe you’ll look up and say, ‘Wow, you had this deal on the table, and you didn’t do it. Maybe you should have.’ But philosophically, that isn’t what we wanted to accomplish.

“We wanted to give these guys a chance. We wanted to know what they are for us, and we think they’re going to be really good. We had opportunities to move them, but we just didn’t want to.”

Paxton, 26, and Walker, 22, are each coming off injury-interrupted seasons, which places a premium on simply staying healthy.

Walker revamped his offseason conditioning by scaling back on weightlifting, which the Mariners believe contributed to his shoulder problems early last season.

“I got away from upper-body (work),” he said, “because I don’t want to get too tight up there. I’m doing a lot of stretching and work on my lower-body core.”

Trainer Rick Griffin amplified the point.

“The thing about Taijuan is he’s still growing,” Griffin said. “When he lifts weights, he gets big very quickly. He learned that last year. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

Paxton missed nearly four months this past season after straining a back muscle in his second start. He returned in early August and compiled a 3.19 ERA over 11 more starts through the end of the season.

“I learned how important it is to pace yourself in workouts,” he said, “and know what you need to do between starts.”

Toward that end, Paxton remained in Kirkland this winter and committed greater attention to his yoga program in conditioning workouts at Safeco.

“Hot yoga,” he said. “I’m sweating buckets in there. It’s a workout as well as stretching. ... I’ve always done it in the offseason. This year, I’ve tried to focus on it a little bit more and do it a little more often.

“I’m trying to really loosen up those muscles.”

While Paxton appears a lock for the rotation, Walker must win a job once the Mariners open workouts Feb. 21. Other candidates for the five-man unit’s final spot include Roenis Elias and Erasmo Ramirez.

“The more competition, the better,” Walker said. “It brings the best out of everyone who is fighting for a spot.”

Walker offered a flash of what his best could be last September by compiling a 1.96 ERA in five outings after returning from Triple-A Tacoma. He then delivered two strong starts in the Arizona Fall League before heading home.

“I just wanted to get started on my offseason routine,” he said, “to make sure I was ready for spring training. Everything is healthy. I’ve been playing catch and long toss. It’s all going real good. I’m getting ready.”

So is Paxton. That link is stronger than ever.

THE SAFECO EFFECT

Lefty J.A. Happ hopes the Mariners are correct in suggesting he’ll benefit from Safeco’s more pitcher-friendly dimensions after spending his previous eight seasons in Philadelphia, Houston and Toronto.

“I don’t know how much of that will come into play,” he said. “I hope it does. I hope it’s a benefit. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be, but that’s not something you’re thinking about when you’re out there.

“Maybe over the course of the year, it will prove some benefit, hopefully.”

The Mariners acquired Happ, 32, from the Blue Jays in a Dec. 3 trade for outfielder Michael Saunders. Happ is 51-53 with a 4.24 ERA in 164 career games, including going 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA at Toronto in 2014.

“This guy is a legit No. 2-3-4 (starter) in anybody’s rotation,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I think coming here from Toronto is going to help him immensely.”

FANFEST CONCLUDES

The 17th annual FanFest concludes its two-day run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Safeco Field.

Admission is $10 for adults, but there is no charge for kids aged 14 and younger. Parking at the Safeco Field garage is $10 ($5 for those who purchased a spot in advance).

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