Outlook: Walker has potential to be future ace

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker threw a 40-pitch bullpen session Wednesday and began testing his shoulder with curveballs for the first time since being shut down for a week with bursitis earlier in Spring Training.

Walker, 21, is the Mariners' premier pitching prospect and is ranked the No. 6 prospect in baseball this spring by MLB.com. He'll open the season on the 15-day disabled list, but said he felt strong again in his third bullpen session and is hoping to progress soon to facing live hitters in batting practice or a simulated game.

"It still needs a little work, but I felt, for my first time throwing curveballs off the mound, I did pretty well with it," Walker said after snapping off about 10 benders.

The youngster has been itching to get back into game action and did the best he could in that regard Wednesday.

"I faced some imaginary hitters," he said. "I was in that mindset, that game mode, and it felt really good. So I was pumped about that and I let loose a little bit."

Walker said he didn't put any names or faces to his pretend foes, just pictured a right-hander and then a lefty in the box.

Did they get any good swings at his offerings?

"No, I think I had two strikeouts," Walker said with a grin. "Only needed six pitches."

Walker said he "had a smile on my face again" after his session, but the last few weeks haven't been easy for a youngster who came to camp hoping to crack the opening rotation before his shoulder began hurting.

"It's tough," he said. "Every day when I wasn't throwing for seven days I wanted to pick up a ball and just chuck it and see how it felt. But I know I just have to listen to what the trainers say. They're really good at what they do, and know I'll be healthy when I'm ready."

Walker said he's scheduled to play catch Thursday to see how the shoulder responds, then will see what's next. In Walker's mind, pitching to live hitters can't be too far away.

"I think so," he said. "My last three bullpens have been really good. The one before this was one of the best of my career, just the way I was locating, and my arm strength is up there pretty good, too. So I think I'm pretty close."

McClendon urges Hart to be patient with progress

Hart on adjusting to new city, joining promising team

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon had Corey Hart working in a Minor League game Wednesday to get some extra swings in as he works back from a year off due to two knee surgeries, but the skipper likes what he's starting to see from the two-time All-Star outfielder.

Hart is hitting just .129 (4-for-31) in his first 11 Cactus League games, but has said from the start of camp that he understands it's going to take time to regain his timing and he just needs to be ready by the regular season.

The soon-to-be 32-year-old veteran was allowed to lead off every inning in his Minor League appearance and homered in his first at-bat.

McClendon, the hitting coach with the Tigers the past seven seasons, said he sees progress in Hart's swing and approach the last few outings.

"It's starting to get better," McClendon said. "I liken it a lot to what I went through with Victor Martinez last year. After a year off, it's tough. There's times where as a hitter you get frustrated because you're used to a certain point and you're not there.

"I told him, he's got to understand the journey, he's got to respect the journey and he's got to enjoy the journey. At some point, he's going to get it back. Don't try to speed up the process because that's only going to make it worse. I like what I saw last night, now we need to get him more at-bats. He's real close to being where we want him to be."

McClendon has backed off from an early-camp projection that Hart might be able to play up to 140 games in right field this year. He's started three Cactus League games in right field so far, with seven at designated hitter, and that trend might carry into the regular season.

"I'm not sure [he can play 140 games in right]," McClendon said. "We have to be careful. We have to make sure he can start the season and he can finish the season. That might be asking a bit much, as far as playing right field. But can he play 145-150 games total, I think, with a combination of right field, DH and maybe a little first base."

Cano returns after dealing with family matter

King Felix, Mariners appreciate addition of Cano

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Robinson Cano rejoined the Mariners on Wednesday after a five-day absence and went 1-for-4 with two RBIs in a 9-7 loss to the Brewers, extending his spring hitting streak to seven games and leaving his batting average at a healthy .556.

Cano flew to the Dominican Republic on Friday to deal with a family situation and missed four games, but returned to lace a run-scoring single in the third inning and brought home another with a groundout in the seventh.

The five-time All-Star second baseman said he stayed sharp by working out and hitting batting practice every day with his father, Jose Cano, who was a pitcher in the Yankees, Braves and Astros organizations and had a brief Major League stint with the Astros in 1989.

"Everything is fine," Cano said Wednesday morning after arriving back at the Mariners complex. "I took care of things and now I'm ready to get back. We've still got two weeks, so there's plenty of time to get everything right."

Cano also missed four games earlier in camp after having root canal surgery and returned with three hits his first game back and went 8-for-11 over his next four games before having to leave for the Dominican. He said he stayed tuned up during his first layoff by hitting black beans with a broomstick in order to keep his eyes sharp.

Did he do the same while in the Dominican?

"Yep, I've been doing that since I was a kid," Cano said. "And sometimes we use bottle caps. They really move and you have to watch them all the way. And if you hit 'em, they go a long ways."

Cano has had a sharp eye since the start of spring, after signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. He's now 15-for-27 with two doubles and eight RBIs in 10 games.

"Robbie was fine," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I thought he swung the bat good, he moved good in the field, said his legs felt great. He didn't really miss a beat."

Worth noting

• Right-handed reliever Stephen Pryor threw very well in his latest live batting-practice session Tuesday, according to McClendon, and will throw to hitters again in the next few days as he continues returning from shoulder surgery.

"He threw the ball pretty darn good," McClendon said. "I think he was 89-92 [mph], no complications, felt great. We're very pleased with his progress."

Felix Hernandez will make his start Thursday in a Class A Minor League game at the Peoria Complex while Erasmo Ramirez takes the hill against the Cubs in Mesa, Ariz. Why? McClendon gave Hernandez his choice and the veteran said he'd prefer to stay home and pitch rather than make the long bus ride to Mesa. He'll get one more Cactus League start Tuesday against the Royals in Surprise, Ariz., before opening the regular season March 31 in Anaheim.