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The floor is lava: Jameson Taillon and the allure of upside

Brian Cashman bought up all the risk in building the 2021 rotation

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates - Game One Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

A funny thing happens if you look up projections on FanGraphs. The Yankees are projected for the fourth-fewest runs allowed per game, and the highest pitching fWAR in baseball. If you take bullpen projections out of that total, the Yankees ... have the best projected starting rotation in the game. This, after the team sent four prospects to Pittsburgh in exchange for two-time Tommy John surgery recipient Jameson Taillon.

Taillon and Corey Kluber, the Yankees other offseason acquisition, account for 5.1 of those 18.3 projected starters’ fWAR. The two pitchers combined to throw 74 innings over the past two years, with a combined ERA over 4.50. So what gives? FanGraphs uses Depth Chart projection systems, which is basically a combination and discount of the popular ZiPS and Steamer calculations.

With every player on your roster, you have to balance their best-case scenario ceiling and the worst-case floor, along with the likelihood of each happening. Teams tend to buy the ceiling — they figure with their analytics and coaching staff, conditioning regimens or just good old communication improvements, they can unlock a player’s upside.

The best players in baseball balance a high floor with near-unlimited upside. If you remember Gerrit Cole’s slow start to 2020, that’s kind of where his floor is, if he pitched to it over a full season. A great fastball and some command issues, a couple balls a little too flat over the plate, and a lot of whiffs. This translates to a perfectly good pitcher, but not one you’ll see at the top of the rotation. And then, of course, Cole’s ceiling is The Best Pitcher in Baseball. You come to a $324 million valuation by accepting that Cole is going to end up somewhere in between those ends, but is more likely to be closer to the ceiling.

For Taillon, he of two Tommy John surgeries and a completely rebuilt delivery, his floor is awfully hard to see. There have been 43 pitchers who have had TJS at least twice, with Mike Clevinger being the most recent.

So the risk with Taillon isn’t just whether he can recover his stuff, command, adjust to playing in New York, etc. There’s real risk in whether his arm can physically manage throwing a baseball as hard as major league pitchers need to, and what kind of vulnerabilities exist for him in the future because of that.

To date, only four pitchers have really had success after their second Tommy John. Nathan Eovaldi’s best season came in 2018, after his second procedure. His fastball is harder than it was pre-surgery, but he has had elbow problems — undergoing surgery in 2019 to remove loose bodies. Chris Capuano was never as good as he was before his second surgery, but was a capable MLB starter for six seasons after TJS. The other two success stories were relievers, and Daniel Hudson lost his starting role due to time missed in recovery (though he did a decent job reinventing himself in the bullpen).

So the track record isn’t great for pitchers who have had their arms worked over to this extent. Even before his second surgery, his performance was pretty pedestrian — of 128 starters who threw at least 200 innings between 2018 and 2019, Taillon ranks 61st in strikeout rate, although his excellent control of the strike zone moves him up to 46th in K-BB%.

It’s that control, paired with a completely rebuilt delivery, that gives Taillon his upside. He’s going to throw a ton of strikes. It’s possible that his new delivery has added deception or spin, especially lateral movement, which is very much a function of arm slot and release point. Taillon has shown real flashes of being a No. 2 rotation piece in the majors, and if he can sniff it, the Yankees did well in this trade.

But there’s a big chance this blows up in their faces. The value of having someone like Masahiro Tanaka in a rotation is the floor of 170 passable innings. Average isn’t sexy, but in mid-August when you have a couple players on the IL already, it counts for a whole bunch. You could even argue that average pitching goes farther on the Yankees than most teams because of the strength of the lineup — this is the Domingo Germán theory, basically.

The Yankee rotation, meanwhile, has perhaps the highest upside in baseball. They’re projected to be extremely good, and if they live up to the projections, Brian Cashman will deserve all the praise he’ll get. But the error bars around players like Taillon and Kluber are wide, and a high ceiling is countered by an equally low floor.