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Thoughts after the Yankees Acquire Jameson Taillon

The Yankees finally made their long-awaited trade for a starter today, acquiring former Pirates righty Jameson Taillon for a package of four mid-level prospects. Taillon, a 29-year-old righty, has two seasons left before he reaches free agency and will earn $2.25 million in 2021. There is a lot to say about this trade, but the long and short of it is that I like this move a lot for the Yankees. Let’s get right into it.

1. Taillon’s Injury History: Although I like this move, let’s start with the obvious risk here. Taillon, as you all know, has twice undergone Tommy John surgery, most recently in 2019. Here is his full injury history:

  • 2014: Tommy John surgery
  • 2015: Sports hernia
  • 2017: Testicular cancer
  • 2019-20: Tommy John surgery

This is a significant injury history to be sure. There’s no way around it. As Derek noted back in December, though, it’s the two elbow reconstructions that are most worrying. The list of pitchers who have twice undergone the procedure is pretty short, and the list of those who have been effective after a second is even shorter. Still, Nathan Eovaldi is a prominent example of one such guy. It is certainly possible.

The good news, though is that Taillon is ready to play now. He will report to camp with a healthy arm and look to prove that he is finally healthy. There (hopefully) won’t be any waiting around for him. Hopefully, he’s back with his full velocity and arsenal, though who knows? That is the risk here. The good stuff comes after the jump.

2. Taillon’s Obvious Upside: Still, even with that said, let’s be really clear about something: Taillon is a really good pitcher. Whenever he’s been on the bump in his career, he has delivered. The Yanks’ newest member has a 3.67 ERA (3.55 FIP, 89 ERA-) in 466 career innings with above-average walk rates (6%). He keeps the ball in the yard, induces soft contact, and elicits grounders 50% of the time, all of which helps mitigate the fact he doesn’t generate a ton of whiffs. For what it’s worth, Taillon was a top-of-the-rotation starter in both 2017 and 2018.

I think there’s a lot of room for him to grow, too. Take the low strikeout rate, which may be a function of pitching in Pittsburgh. Taillon has velocity (95 mph), spin (67th percentile in 2018), and good offspeed offerings that also feature high spin rates. That is a recipe for success for generating whiffs, right? One would think!

But pitchers in Pittsburgh often do not live up to their full potential. We have seen this many times, most notably with Gerrit Cole – someone who also did not generate as many whiffs as you’d expect during his time in a Pirates uniform, albeit with much better stuff than Taillon. The reason? Cole was told to keep the ball down in the zone and heavily feature his two-seamer. Once he went to Houston, that changed. He started pitching up in the zone a bit more and unlocked his potential.

I bring this up because a similar story may again be in play with Taillon. He doesn’t have Cole’s velocity (95 is not 99) but there are similar patterns here, too. Check out the locations on Taillon’s fastballs from 2016-20:

Heavily down in the zone, right? In fact, 45.7% of his fastball offerings are in the bottom 5 zones here compared to just 35% in the upper component. That limits the amount of time we see results like this:

Taillon throws a sinker (more on that in a second) so there will always be some element of playing down in the zone. At the same time, I do wonder if the Yankees encourage him to use his velocity up in the zone more in 2021 to play off his other offerings and increase whiffs. It wouldn’t surprise me – the Yankees know how to generate whiffs while the Pirates generally do not. It would round out his performance, if so.

3. Taillon’s Arsenal: Taillon is a righty with a five-pitch arsenal, including a four-seamer, sinker, changeup, curveball, and slider. He’ll bring the kitchen sink. He is a fastball-heavy pitcher, using his heater and sinker 57% of the time in 2018 (his only full season), though he features his curve about 20% of the time. That pitch, which has a ton of spin (2700+ RPM), looks like this when it is working:

Friends, that is nasty. Couple that with a slider than can look like this…

…and you can quickly see why so many around the game love Taillon. (And why he was drafted second overall.) He also throws an infrequent changeup, which can sometimes look like this:

Obviously, I am choosing the best examples of these pitches, but his stuff is pretty clear. It’s allowed him to have success in his big league career. I’m very confident that he’ll have success again if he’s healthy. The only question with Taillon is whether or not he’s fully returned to form.

4. The State of the Rotation: Taillon is clearly an obvious upgrade over the Yankee rotation. Assuming he is healthy, he slots in right behind Gerrit Cole at the top of the rotation, which looks something like this right now:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Jameson Taillon
  3. Corey Kluber
  4. Jordan Montgomery
  5. Clarke Schmidt/Deivi Garcia/Domingo Germán

The clear critique of this rotation is health. Taillon and Kluber have not thrown many innings since 2018, after all, even though both were very good the last time they did pitch. That bakes in a lot of uncertainty, not even counting the eventual return of Luis Severino. There is no way around it: the Yanks rotation is filled with injury-addled guys. But there is also very clear upside here.

All in all, I think they are in relatively good shape, all things considered. There are certainly a ton of options in case one or both of Taillon/Kluber don’t work out. Just a year ago, remember, we were all very excited to see what Schmidt and Garcia could do. And while Taillon isn’t a sure thing by any means, he is a very good pitcher who can make the Yankees a lot better right away. That is the goal, after all. Plus, for those of us who care about these things, he will earn just $2.25 million in 2021 and comes with two years of team control. Not a bad trade given all of that.

5. The Going Away Package: We’ll have much more on Taillon in the coming days, of course, so let’s look at the package the Yankees surrendered now. I think it was a deal that the Yankees would make every day of the week and twice on Sunday. As a refresher, here was the package with their 2020 MLB Pipeline ranking in parentheses:

  • Miguel Yajure (15th)
  • Roansy Contreras (19th)
  • Caanan Smith (21st)
  • Maikel Escotto (unranked in top 30)

Each of these guys is a nice prospect, to be sure, and I very much enjoyed following them in the Yankees system. But this feels very much like a “quantity over quality” package for the Pirates. The Yanks did not surrender a top 10 prospect or a top 100 prospect for Taillon but Pittsburgh got some players who project to be MLB-caliber. It feels like a trade that makes sense for both sides, especially in this trade market. It is a good haul for Taillon, who again hasn’t pitched a full season since 2018, without being prohibitive.

Yajure and Contreras in particular figure to be backend starters at worst with another year or two of development time, and I’ve always been partial to Smith. Escotto is someone to watch, too: the 18-year-old shortstop has a nice bat who was drawing some nice praise in the early days of his professional career.

Still, this is a good trade for the Yankees. They were able to consolidate their 40-man for a good pitcher without giving up any players who will make a real impact on the 2021 team. I think there is a bright future for the guys in this package, but they are likely not players the Yankees will miss in the immediate short-term. That is a smart use of the roster and a testament to the Yanks’ strong player development system.

6. Next Steps: The question now moves from “which starter will the Yankees target in the trade market” to “what comes next?” This move solves most of the Yanks’ 40-man crunch, at least for now. They needed to clear three spots to make room for Kluber, LeMahieu, and Taillon and they’ve cleared two. That means there is either another trade coming – possible, though I wouldn’t count on it – or a DFA to clear that last slot.

That other trade does not necessarily have to be someone at the backend of the 40-man, either. The Yanks are now pushing the $210 million threshold, with just a little wiggle room left. Perhaps we see the Yanks partner another low-minors high-upside guy with Adam Ottavino ($9 million) to clear one more spot and clear some salary, though I’m not counting on it.

Still, this likely means the end of Masahiro Tanaka’s career in pinstripes. As much as I love this deal, this component makes me very sad. I loved Tanaka and will miss him a lot. But more on that in the coming days. For now, it’s happy times in the Bronx.

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10 Comments

  1. dasit

    a gamble worth taking
    mid-level prospects for a high-risk/high reward starter is what you do when you’re in GFIN mode and your owner refuses to take a tax hit
    health is everything this year. hopefully the stars align…

  2. Dani

    This is a steal for the Yanks if Taillon manages to stay on the field. Might be a big if though. Still, hard to not like this trade, cheap starter with high ceiling.

  3. The Original Drew

    The ceiling got so much higher. If somehow the Yankees get incredibly lucky and everything breaks perfectly, Cole, Kluber, Severino, Tailion is the best 1-4 in all of baseball. It seems like they are going with the Dodgers approach and accumulating talent even if they aren’t 150+ IP pitchers.

    But the floor for 2-4 in the rotation didn’t get raised at all. There is a very real chance that a majority of these guys don’t contribute a thing to the 2021 Yankees. I’d like some boring certainty, but if things work out I’ll be happy to eat my words.

  4. Mungo

    There’s few reasons to be upset about this deal. The Yankees just acquired a talented pitcher for the next two years by trading surplus. That’s what they’re there for. They held on to their higher-end prospects. We know what the concern is. Taillon is not going to be the guy to give the team 170 innings next year, but he has the ability to give quality innings.

    This is a vintage Cashman pitcher deal. I don’t mean that as a positive or a negative. It is what it is. Eovaldi, Pineda, Paxton, now Taillon. Young upside pitchers with at least a couple years of control. Unfortunately, the Yankees were never able to fully unlock the talent in any of the prior, but they also provided value. They’ll get value here. I’m not concerned about any of the players lost, although I was more of a Yajure can than most. He was often compared to King, but I think his stuff will play up way better.

    I expect them to add another arm. They’ll need about ten they can rotate in over the full season. They’re at nine now if you want to include Chacin. Bulk, depth and most with upside potential, which they can back up with a deep pen. Would I prefer they sign a sure innings eater? Yup, but it’s not happening this year as they’re determined to get under the luxury tax tier.

  5. CentralScrutinizer

    Huge gamble on the health and effectiveness of two guys who haven’t pitched in a while and are coming off bad injuries. I fear that by mid-season (or even earlier) we will all be wishing they had just re-signed Tanaka.

  6. Excellent! Fingers crossed for 2 bounce-back years for Kluber and Tallion.

    • jim

      I loved tanaka. but let’s be honest. he’s NOT worth $12 to $15 mil. he’s seeking. you can get atleast 3 players for that price.

      • Bobby

        I love Tanaka, and definitely wanted them to re-sign him. But there are also legitimate reasons to move on, not the least of which being a splitter that has not been up-to-par over the last several seasons now. The concerns about the injury-prone rotation are very valid, but I think they have a surplus of arms who can step up and fill the innings if needed.

      • MikeD

        He’ll go for more than $12-15. Keep in mind it took $11M to get Kluber; the Red Sox just paid $10M to get Richards; the Twins paid $8M for Happ. All guaranteed. Tanaka is the only one in this group who can give 175 above-league-average innings. Kluber certainly had the ability to do that, but we won’t know if that’s still there. Tanaka is more the guarantee of the group, hence why he’ll get north of $15M on a one year deal, and also why he doesn’t fit the Yankees pay structure this upcoming season.

        Hal basically told Cashman you have to come under the luxury tax limit, and Cashman is trying to construct a rotation that can meet that. There’s a lot of risk here, but there’s also a lot of upside.

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