The strategy of this Yankees offseason was to pack the starting rotation with as many possibilities as possible behind Gerrit Cole — Domingo Germán, Deivi García and Corey Kluber could all be great, but inexperience, rust, age and injury might rear their heads to prevent that.
Perhaps no player represents the upside, and the downside, of this rotation quite like Jameson Taillon, restarting his career with a new club after two Tommy John surgeries in Pittsburgh.
2020 Stats: Did not play - Tommy John surgery
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 134 IP, 4.52 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 7.99 K/9, 2.44 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9, 2.0 fWAR
Right away, there are some positives in the projections. Taillon’s pegged to throw the third-most innings in the rotation, and those 134 innings would be the second-highest mark of his career. Depth Charts, a combination of Steamer and ZiPS, also predicts that Taillon’s trademark control will come back after so much time off, virtually tied for the second-lowest BB/9 on the staff.
However, one of the things that projections aren’t very good at is gauging the changes a player’s made. When Jose Bautista broke out in 2010, putting up a 165 wRC+ after a 102 the season before, it was borne out of conscious changes in his swing and the pitches he was offering at. It was hard to predict what Jose Bautista would be, because Jose Bautista was effectively a different ball player.
Jameson Taillon is also partially a different ball player, having been forced to rebuild his delivery to take stress off his twice-repaired elbow. We only have 8.1 innings of spring ball to evaluate the delivery, but 14 strikeouts in that time can tell us something about a more deceptive kinetic chain. 12 strikeouts has been swinging, 11 of the 14 have come on Taillon’s four-seam fastball, and 8 of THOSE 11 have been fastballs above the letters.
So, while we only have 8.1 innings to evaluate, he’s attacking hitters exactly the way that you want to see. With his shorter arm delivery, it’s going to feel like his fastball gets on you much quicker, and pairing that with working up in the zone can cause hitters fits. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to what other Yankee pitchers do, including Taillon’s bestie, Gerrit Cole.
But of course there is downside to Taillon too, and it starts with that twice-repaired elbow. To quote orthopedic surgeon Dr. Andrew Cosgarea:
On average, the typical TJ revision isn’t as successful as the typical primary TJ,… The first time you drill a hole in the bone it is fresh and clean, but if it happens again you already have a hole there and that hole is filled with scar tissue. … Scar tissue isn’t as healthy as original tissue. It doesn’t have the same blood supply; (it is) not as durable.
Just medically, Taillon’s arm isn’t the same as it was during, say, his landmark 2018 season. It’s always going to be a concern, and it goes without saying that any arm injury, even one not requiring TJS, is going to take longer to recover from given that scar tissue buildup.
If Taillon is as good as he’s shown in spring, the Yankees are going to have to seriously weigh his playing time against injury risk. It’s not like Corey Kluber, who’s under contract for just one year, so get as much as you can out of that season. Taillon’s not a free agent until after next season, making his long-term use more of a concern.
It’s hard not to get excited about what we’ve seen from Taillon this spring. His delivery looks good, the stuff looks legitimate, and even though it’s only exhibition, the results have been there too, as he didn’t allow a run in spring before the third inning of last night’s game. It’s also hard to forget that warning from Dr. Cosgarea. This isn’t a season where you’re just thankful for anything you get out of Taillon — both the fanbase and the org want and need an effective year from him. But everyone has to hedge those expectations too, at least until Taillon’s able to ramp up his usage.