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2/24/2013 2:55 P.M. ET

After rough '12 finish, Hultzen comes back strong

Left-handed prospect added muscle, worked on control in offseason

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Danny Hultzen had two goals during the offseason. After running out of gas at the end of his first pro season, the Mariners' top left-handed pitching prospect wanted to get stronger and get back to throwing strikes.

And while it's early in Spring Training, there seems little doubt the 23-year-old is on track to ace both those efforts.

Hultzen, Seattle's No. 2 prospect and No. 18 overall prospect, put 10-15 pounds of new muscle on his 6-foot-3 frame this winter and looks visibly stronger. And from a strike-throwing standpoint, the 2011 first-round Draft pick made his Cactus League debut Saturday and threw seven pitches -- all strikes -- in zipping through a 1-2-3 fifth inning against the Padres with two punchouts.

While Hultzen's finish last year -- a 1-4 record and 5.92 ERA in 12 starts at Triple-A Tacoma -- caused his star to lose a little luster in some eyes, the Mariners feel his run-in with reality will help over the long haul.

"He looks good," said Mariners skipper Eric Wedge. "It's not his first time around. Some of the things he went through are going to help him. I'd much rather have a player struggle in the Minor Leagues for the first time than get up here and do it. It's just tough to do on this canvas.

"When you talk about Danny, he's walking around much more comfortable in a big league uniform. You can tell he has a year's worth of experience underneath him and quite frankly, he's better. You watch him pitch right now, he's better than he was at this time last year."

Hultzen is more at home in the Mariners clubhouse this spring.

"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "I remember last year feeling a little bit wide-eyed and not knowing what to expect."

Hultzen has always been business-like in his approach. He came out of Virginia with a good approach and three quality pitches -- a 93-mph sinking fastball, an excellent changeup and a solid slider. He overpowered the competition at Double-A Jackson, going 8-3 with a 1.19 ERA in 13 starts.

Only after getting bumped up to Tacoma did the wheels start to wobble. In hindsight, that probably wasn't surprising, given that he never got an extended break between going from college to the Arizona Fall League to Spring Training and then his first full season of pro ball.

"I hate to make excuses, but the physical toll of the year had something to do with it," Hultzen said. "Then the mental part of it was just being mentally drained from the year. I think at some points I was trying to do too much. I was trying to be too perfect or throw the ball too hard or just kind of outdo myself a little bit.

"That took a toll on me, too, because when you're trying to be too perfect, you usually aren't. But all in all, even though the numbers were bad, I'm kind of glad it happened because it was a really, really good experience to go through something like that. You learn how to fail and pick yourself up after those tough circumstances."

The memory of those late-season struggles pushed Hultzen hard over the offseason.

"I lifted a lot of weights, and put on probably 10-15 pounds," he said. "I've gotten over trying to get a six-pack and trying to look good. I'm just trying to put on weight and get as strong as possible. I don't really care how I look, I just want to be as strong as possible. So, that's something I really focused on.

"And then throwing-wise, it's just getting back to throwing strikes. I'm not trying to be too perfect. Obviously, you want the ball in the corner low, but if you try to put it there, it's usually not there. So I'm just trying to throw strikes."

Mission accomplished in his spring debut as he erased the Padres' Jeff Baker on three straight pitches, did the same to Jeff Decker and then got Gregorio Petit on a first-pitch groundout. His fastball checked in at 91-93 mph and he broke off a couple nasty sliders, as well.

His efficiency was certainly noticed by Wedge.

"Yeah, and it wasn't just with his fastball," Wedge said. "He threw some good breaking balls, both ahead in the count and early in the count. Those are good things to see."

It's a long spring and Hultzen and the rest of the pitchers are just getting started. The question with Hultzen -- like fellow prize prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton -- is more when than if they'll get their Major League shots.

It figures to be difficult to break camp with the Mariners should everyone stays healthy, particularly if veterans Jon Garland or Jeremy Bonderman prove worthy of a roster spot. But Hultzen's time will come soon.

"I think just like anybody else, I'm trying to make the team and that's what everybody's goal should be," he said. "Why wouldn't you want to make the big team? But those decisions aren't made by us. All we can do is go and play.

"If that means we start at the big league level, that's awesome. That would be a dream come true. But if it means starting somewhere else, that's awesome, too. You get to work on your stuff and hopefully get up there one day."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.