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Jameson Taillon is a massive risk, but one that could pay off dividends

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Coming off his second Tommy John surgery, Taillon could be a back-end innings-eater, a mid-rotation arm, an IL resident — or a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Yankees have had a busy offseason the last two weeks, beginning with the return of DJ LeMahieu and the addition of two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. This past Sunday, the Yankees added another pitcher, acquiring Jameson Taillon from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for four prospects.

The second overall pick of the 2010 MLB Draft, Taillon represents a very intriguing high-risk, high-reward option for the Yankees, as the 29-year-old missed most of 2019 and all of 2020 after his second Tommy John surgery (he had one as a minor leaguer in 2014). Including the minor leagues, he has only one season in which he pitched more than 150 innings, throwing 191 in 2018. It’s not out of the ordinary for a pitcher with this kind of injury history to return as a shell of his former self — if he returns to the field at all (just see this study, which Peter linked to on Sunday morning, just mere hours before the trade occurred).

So why would the Yankees go after Taillon if he carried so much risk? There are reasons beyond his low salary of $2.5 million. In short, he has perhaps the highest ceiling out there among the known available pitchers outside of Trevor Bauer.

Taillon has been a Statcast darling for years. His fastball velocity has topped out at 94-95 MPH, consistently ranking in the 77-82nd percentile, with a spin-rate ranking in the 62nd percentile in 2018 and 67th in 2019. The spin on his curveball, meanwhile, has ranked in the 74-82 percentile throughout his career. It’s a menace to behold.

Although Taillon has never been a high-strikeout pitcher, he has been among the league leaders in walks allowed (97th percentile in 2016, 59th in 2017, and 86th in 2018) and barrel percentage against (81-88th percentile over his career). While it’s fair to wonder what the state of his “stuff” will be after almost two years between big league starts, Taillon has demonstrated the ability of a mid-to-upper member of the rotation in the past.

If Taillon is just that — a No. 2 or No. 3 starter — the Yankees would be more than satisfied. But could he follow in the tradition of Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, and take the next step after ditching the Pirates? Don’t count on it ... but don’t be too surprised if it happens, either.

At various points throughout his career, Taillon has employed every pitch at an above-average level, with the sole exception of his changeup. His groundball percentage, meanwhile, has averaged at about 48 percent over his career, similar to Charlie Morton, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, and Clayton Kershaw over that time, and his GB/FB has hovered at 1.66, roughly that of Aaron Nola. I’m not saying that Taillon will be able to perform at that level — that GB/FB value is also similar to Martín Pérez, for example — but it’s evidence that Taillon might be able to take another step forward.

All in all, by adding Jameson Taillon to Corey Kluber and a small army of young arms behind Cole, the Yankees have decided to gamble on upside in 2021, as Jake noted the other day. Nobody knows exactly how Taillon will look this year — he could be a mid-rotation starter, he could be an innings-eater at the back of the rotation, or he could be a regular resident at the Honorary Carl Pavano MRI Tube. He might even be all three at different times throughout the year. But he comes with the upside of a former second overall pick that could, if everything shakes out perfectly, be the perfect Robin to Cole’s Batman. (Just as they’ve always dreamed.)

We just have to wait and see.