The COVID pandemic has forced MLB to adopt a different winter meetings format than at any other point in baseball history, and since pretty much all of the titular discussions have been virtual, it’s led to a glacial rumor mill. Although folks were inundated with nigh-endless news about Gerrit Cole’s every move and breakfast cereal choice last year, the reports have been almost entirely silent on the Yankees’ front in 2020.
One bit of small news of note that did manage to make it through the cracks came not from the Yankees’ media coverage, but another team’s. Here’s Pirates reporter Jason Mackey:
Heard today from a couple sources that the Pirates and Yankees have had conversations involving Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell. Unsure on seriousness or scope, but it’s an interesting match.— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) December 9, 2020
I’ll give this rumor credit — it’s not one I ever considered, and it’s definitely intriguing.
Jameson Taillon was the No. 2 overall pick of the MLB Draft back in 2010, when he was selected just behind Bryce Harper. He was considered one of best pitching prospects in the game, as his explosive fastball and looping curve dazzled scouts and analysts. The righty rocketed to Triple-A by age 21 in 2013, and then came the three words that all pitchers dread: Tommy John surgery.
Since that first surgery, it’s been a painful and life-altering road for Taillon. After cracking the majors with 18 starts in 2016, he battled testicular cancer the next year. It was a grueling road back to simply regain some normalcy in life, and just when it seemed like his game on the field had returned with a solid 2018 (122 ERA+ and 4.9 WAR in 191 innings), he was hit again with a torn UCL in 2019. Taillon underwent a second Tommy John surgery in August and hasn’t pitched since then.
As for Josh Bell, he had a slightly more direct career trajectory. Drafted as an outfielder in 2011, he eventually found a full-time home at first base and ascended to the majors in 2016 (alongside Taillon). The switch-hitter was a steady batter at the plate from 2016-18 before truly breaking out in 2019. He was red-hot for the first two months of season, batting .343/.405/.704 with 18 homers through the end of May, and his numbers were easily good enough for him to be named the Pirates’ 2019 All-Star Game representative.
The problem was that the pitching caught up to Bell after his scalding start. From June onward, he dipped to a .232/.342/.476 triple slash, and while he still reached 36 homers on the season, the shaky second half put a damper on the otherwise exciting campaign. The April-May Bell was right up there with Freddie Freeman among the game’s best first basemen. The June-September Bell was fine, but closer to the less-esteemed Christan Walker level. As for Bell’s 2020, the less said about it, the better — it was bad and not even up to the snuff of late-2019 Bell.
So what might spark the Yankees’ interest about these guys? Well, Brian Cashman has never been one to shy away from buying low on former All-Stars or top prospects. As Aaron Hicks can attest, the results can be good! As Dustin Ackley can attest, sometimes there just isn’t much talent left in the tank.
The track record of success for pitchers with twice-repaired UCLs isn’t exactly great. The 29-year-old Taillon is unlikely to ever be a top starter again. However, if he could fill in at the back of the Yankees’ rotation right now, it would be far from the end of the world. He’s on track to return to spring training ready for 2021, he’s under team control through 2022, and given the number of inexperienced starters currently on the rotation depth chart, it might not be such a bad idea to have a veteran who was good in his last full season in there. Even if turns out that Taillon’s not cut out for the rotation anymore, Daniel Hudson has proved to be a fine example of a two-TJS starter who found a second life in the bullpen.
Bell is a bit of a mystery in all this, though. There’s something to be said about acquiring good depth pieces first and asking questions later, and stats like exit velocity think that his 2020 wasn’t as bad as it appeared. He’s also better as a lefty hitter and the short porch is always enticing.*
*I could also get used to jamming out to “Ring My Bell” every time that Bell goes deep.
Unfortunately, Bell is just so defensively limited that he doesn’t seem to make sense on the Yankees’ roster (and it would be a surprise to see a former All-Star accept a bench role at just 28). It’s possible that the Yankees are quietly shopping their own first baseman, Luke Voit, given his high value after a league-leading 22 dingers in 2020, but that appears to be unlikely. Unless you’re getting someone incredible in return for Voit, why downgrade so much to Bell?
There’s plenty of offseason left to see if these rumors turn into anything real. As with any trade, any judgment on whether it’d be smart to acquire one or both of Taillon and Bell depends on what the Yankees would be giving up. I generally trust Cashman and his team’s judgments on their own players since they’ve rarely been burned in the past decade. So there could be something there, particularly with Taillon. On the surface, he could at least be a decent rotation addition in a potential weak spot, but Bell just doesn’t fit on the Yankees’ roster.