Pittsburgh’s top pitching prospect reportedly first began feeling pain in his elbow with two weeks remaining in spring training having been re-assigned back to minor league camp, and was at first prescribed two weeks of rest. Upon resuming throwing activity however, further pain led to additional examinations of the joint, during which it was discovered that the prized righty had a partially torn ulner collateral ligament. Though not fully ruptured, the UCL was deemed by Dr. David Altchek to be too damaged to possibly repair and rehabilitate without going under the knife, meaning the Pirates will now be without Taillon for not only the entire 2014 season, but likely some of 2015 too.
Selected with the 2nd overall pick of the 2010 MLB amateur draft out of The Woodlands High School (Texas), the Pirates gave Taillon a then-franchise record $6.5 million signing bonus. Handled incredibly carefully during his three years in the minors, the heralded prospect progressed slowly, but deliberately – his pitch repertoire and mechanics drawing comparison to Stephen Strasburg along the way. In 2013, he split time at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, making 25 starts (and one relief appearance) and throwing 147 1/3 innings en route to a 3.73 (and a 8.7 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9), and was due to initially resume 2014 at Triple-A Indianapolis with a view to his major league debut coming later in the season. Obviously, such a timetable has now been set aside.
Taillon’s 12-18 month absence will not only be an unfortunate bump in his promising development though, but a colossal blow to the Pittsburgh’s best laid plans, the 22-year-old’s stint on the shelf presumably leaving them a little short in quality rotation arms for 2014. With A.J. Burnett gone to Philadelphia (the circumstances of his departure remain fairly dubious – Burnett having said he would retire, only to later renege on his word), the Pirates were counting on the Canadian American’s high-90s heat being available to call up mid-season, his arrival figuring to provide a similar boost to that which Gerritt Cole provided in 2013 – a move which propelled the Bucs back into the postseason after a 20-year drought. Now however, given how unlikely it seems that they will acquire another quality arm from outside of the organization, in their push to make it back to the playoffs, the club will be extremely reliant upon Cole’s continued ascension, Francisco Liriano to remain Matthew Berry’s ‘Fantasy Kryptonite’, Edinson Volquez to be a Liriano-esque success of a reclamation project, Wandy Rodriguez‘s health, and Charlie Morton.
Given how poor my Cincinnati Reds and (barring the Cardinals) the rest of the NL Central have looked so far, Taillon’s absence might not hurt so much during the regular season; as well as the aforementioned five starters, Pittsburgh can still call upon Stolmy Pimentel, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton as alternatives, or even stretch out Jeanmar Gomez from his relief role every now and again as they work their way through the rest of the season. The playoffs however – should the Pirates make it back again – would likely be the arena in which the loss of the Taillon’s potential impact would be felt most. We saw just last year how valuable a prospect’s live arm can be in such a setting; aside from Cole in Pittsburgh, Sonny Gray was arguably Oakland’s best chance in the ALDS against Detroit, while Michael Wacha similarly provided St. Louis with some impressive postseason pitching. Losing the 10th best pitching prospect in the game (per Baseball America‘s 2014 prospect rankings) and what ESPN writer Christina Karhl called “mid-90s gas and big-breaking benders” then, will severely deplete what damage Pittsburgh once might have stood of inflicting come October.
So while the modern frequency and recovery rate of Tommy John surgery would suggest we’ll see Taillon back on the bump at some point in 2015, the present prognosis for Pittsburgh isn’t quite so sunny; with the ace up Clint Hurdle‘s sleeve rendered moot, the Pirate’s chances of playoff success just got substantially lower.