CLARK BUILDING – Last June, I watched Gerrit Cole‘s final Triple-A start while sitting with several scouts behind home-plate at Victory Field in Indianapolis. On that day scouts continued to wonder why minor league hitters were able to square up Cole’s 98 mph fastball. They wondered why his slider had gone on hiatus and why he was favoring a early-breaking, loopy, curveball. They wondered why he wasn’t more dominant.
Remember, Cole struck out just 6.7 batters per nine innings last year at Triple-A. One of the scouts said something interesting to me that day. He said he’d rather have Jameson Taillon.
That assertion didn’t seem radical back in May — back before Cole was a dominant major league starter in September and one of the top U25 assets in baseball.
Both Cole and Taillon had pedigree as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the draft, respectively. Both were what right-handed, top-of-the-rotation pitchers are supposed to look like: 6-foot-4-plus frames and mid-90s heat and hard-breaking off-speed stuff.
But back in May, Cole was producing middling results at the Triple-A level and often looked frustrated with himself on the mound. A year earlier at Double-A, he went 3-6 with a 2.90 ERA and owned good but not great peripherals in 9.15 k/9, 3.51 bb/9. His numbers were similar at High-A.
Taillon seemed to have a more feel for his breaking ball and was just a couple months removed from an intriguing showing against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Over four innings against an All-Star caliber Team USA lineup, Taillon allowed four hits, two runs, (one earned), one walk and struck out three. His fastball was between 93-96 mph and he flashed a hammer curve. Eric Hosmer and Ben Zobrist grounded out. Ryan Braun struck out swinging against a plus curve.
Nothing has been done to diminish the ceiling Taillon possessed on the day he signed
Now the script has been flipped.
I’m guessing few scouts or execs would suggest they value Taillon over Cole. In fact, Taillon has fallen behind Gregory Polanco on Baseball America’s top 10 list of Pirates prospects. (I’d be curious to see how rival GMs view Taillon vs. Polanco. I think a case can be made that Taillon is still the top prospect. Top of the rotation arms are quite important).
After a dominant close to the season, there are few questions about Cole. The expectation is he will become the Pirates No. 1 starter going forward, and has a chance to be a dominant, ace, All-Star type if he remains healthy and extrapolates his second half of 2013 going forward. The question now is this why wasn’t Taillon more dominant?
Taillon was good between Double-A and Triple-A but he wasn’t great:
2013 Double-A: 4-7, 3.67 ERA 110.1 IP 8.65 k/9 2.94 bb/9
2013 Triple-A: 1-3, 3.89 ERA 37.0 IP 9.00 k/9 3.89 bb/9
The question about Taillon’s status losing some sparkle was the part of a recent chat on Baseball Prospectus:
IcePirate (Tundra): Seems like James Taillon got less love than he used to. What’s that about? And what say you?
Jason Parks: The realities of the developmental process can tarnish the shine of a prospect. It’s much easier to look sexy in the lower minors, where advanced skill-sets can produce seductive stat lines. But I focus on the scouting, and the process of development can often look ugly before it looks pretty. Remember when people were fighting for spots in the Bauer fan club based on his impressive minor league numbers, especially his strikeout totals, and the line for Cole thinned out because he wasn’t dominating? Where are the Bauer backers now? I don’t hear much from them anymore. That’s the problem with ignoring the scouting and the realities of the developmental process, which often affects performance and production.
I’m still high on Taillon. Has he lost some shine? Yes. But he’s also facing better competition than he did in the lower minors. I get asked about Taillon vs Glasnow a lot, and its a no-brainer for me. Taillon is the better prospect, and I think he will be the better major leaguer. Will he be Gerrit Cole? No. But I still see a mid-rotation type, one that gives you 200+ innings a year. Big value in that.
No. 3 starter status isn’t exactly what you want from the No. 2 overall pick.
But here’s the thing: while minor league numbers are often meaningful there’s a danger in reading too much into minor league performance without context. Baseball America’s John Manuel cautioned against placing too much stock in Taillon’s numbers to date.
For instance what the scout and myself didn’t know about Cole back in Triple-A last June is that he had begun working on a curveball at the end of 2012 as a way to create greater velocity separation. His paramount problem was that everything he threw was hard and he needed an off-speed pitch that would better disrupt batter’s timing. Cole’s curveball was still a work in progress in June. When he had refined the pitch by September – specifically Sept. 9 in Texas against Yu Darvish on the night of No. 82 – we witnessed what happened: Cole became the best starter on the staff – and one of the best in baseball – over the last five weeks of the season.
But in June, his performance was lacking because he was experimenting with what at the time was a below average pitch.
Developmental context is similarly needed for Taillon.
Remember, the Pirates were extremely cautious with Taillon to begin his career. He threw just 92 innings in his first full season in 2011. The gloves were on. In 2012, the Pirates challenged him by demanding he throw 15-20 changeups per game to develop the pitch and he continued to work on developing the changeup and fastball command in 2013. In short, Taillon could have been been more dominant in 2013 if he copied his sequence from the WBC over the course the minor league season: mid 90s fastball and hammer curve. But for Taillon to truly become an ace he requires a three- or four-pitch mix and command … not a two-pitch arsenal.
Said Taillon to our own Rob Biertempfel in Bradenton this week:
“Everyone says the highest jump is High-A to Double-A, but I actually noticed the biggest jump was Double-A to Triple-A,” Taillon said. “The higher up you go, I think the more fun it is to pitch and the more it’s about pitchability, working and reading hitters. That part of it was fun for me, a good competitive push for me.”
With that context, Taillon’s ceiling shouldn’t be diminished. If the fastball command improves, if the changeup comes, both very plausible scenarios, there’s no reason he can’t be a No. 2 or No. 1 starter. He has that kind of upside. The long limbs are there. The fastball velocity is still there. There’s no injury history. There’s been nothing to diminish his ceiling.
Is he the next Cole? Probably not because he lacks the 80-grade fastball Cole has and everything plays off the fastball. But there’s no reason to think, with two potential 70-grade pitches, he can’t team with Cole – as early as June 2014 – to form perhaps the most enviable 1-2 under-25 starting pitching duo in the game.
HEREDIA GETS IN SHAPE
Speaking of ceilings, remember when the Pirates’ signed Luis Heredia to an international record $2.6 million with dreams of No. 1 starter upside? Well that dream got derailed last year, when Heredia showed up to spring training out of shape, essentially erasing his 2013.
“I lost almost 40 pounds,” Heredia told Rob Biertempfel. “I’m at 240 right now. I eat better and take care of myself. I feel good. I dress differently, too. I had a 42 (waist), and now I’m a 36.”
While, Heredia got off track don’t forget about the upside that remains. While he hasn’t shown the velocity of a future top-of-the-rotation arm in a couple years, there’s still the frame and precocious feel for off=speed pitches that suggests a future mid-rotation arm and there’s plenty of value in that.