It’s been a long, strange trip to the major leagues for Jameson Taillon. Sandwiched at second overall between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in the 2010 draft, Taillon missed all of 2014 and 2015 while recovering from Tommy John and inguinal hernia surgeries, respectively. His stuff flashed last fall during instructional league and there was hope coming into the season that he would be able to pick up somewhere close to where he left off in 2013 when he had a brief and wild but effective stint in Triple-A.
This year, Taillon has exceeded all hopes and expectations and laid waste to the International League. In ten starts (61.2 innings), Taillon has struck out 61 and walked just six, while generating a ton of ground balls. Per MLBfarm.com, 83 of the 168 balls put in play versus Taillon this year have been on the ground. He debuts for the Pirates tonight against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets.
Despite the elbow surgery and extended time off, Taillon’s stuff remains intact. His fastball will climb up to 97 and sit 93-95 with some movement when located to his arm side. Given Taillon’s size — he’s a well-built 6-foot-5 with long levers and has undergone a significant physical renaissance during his rehab — and arm slot, he generates considerable downhill plane on his fastball. His fastball command has also improved. He was able to focus on polishing his delivery and fine-tuning his strike-throwing during rehab and Taillon has been spotting his fastball to both sides of the plate. Some are concerned that the way Taillon loads his arm back behind his head will give some hitters an early look at the baseball and make his fastball more hittable than pure velo would usually indicate.
The curveball is comfortably plus, an arcing rainbow of death featuring impressive downward depth and late bite. Perhaps just as impressive as the curveball’s quality is the way Taillon has been using it. He can and will throw it for strikes in any count, he can bury it in the dirt for swings and misses and the back-foot breaking ball is his primary strikeout weapon against lefties.
The changeup is inconsistent. It will flash fringe-average and Taillon does a decent job maintaining his fastball’s arm speed when he throws it, but he doesn’t have feel for its release and the pitch will often come in firm, as high as 90 mph, with very little movement. It serves to disrupt timing rather than miss bats, even at its best.
I think that, for now, the combination of fastball velocity, command and a dandy curveball is enough for Taillon to pitch successfully in the big leagues and outperform most of the other options Pittsburgh has in their present rotation. How major-leaague hitters will adjust to a shallow but effective repertoire, both within individual games and as the league gets looks at him, is difficult to predict. It’s uncommon for a starter to excel while relying heavily on just two pitches, but the quality of Taillon’s two pitches is uncommon, as well.
The other prospect of note promoted yesterday is Chicago Cubs CF Albert Almora. Almora was called up to spell Jorge Soler during the latter’s DL stint for a hamstring injury. He’s off to a solid start at Triple-A Iowa, slashing .318/.335/.444 with 10 steals in 12 attempts and a 10-for-27 stretch over the last week.
Almora’s initial big-league value is going to come from his defense. Though not especially fast, Almora’s reads and routes in center field are exceptional and he’s a plus defender there with a plus arm. He’s expected to see time at all three outfield positions in the big leagues. He had only played anything other than center field twice in the first 43 games of this season before seeing time in both left and right in four of his last 10 games.
Athletic in a way that is more explosive than it is graceful — especially in the batter’s box — Almora has the physical tools to hit despite just fringe-average bat speed. He’s strong and his hands have some life but the various parts of the swing don’t come together to create anything special. Scouts expect Almora to be a 50 hitter, though some think he’s fast enough for that to play up a half grade. Anything more than 40 game power is unlikely, again because of the bat speed and because of Almora’s gap-to-gap approach to contact.
Even though it’s not an impact offensive profile, the strength of Almora’s defense at a premium position is the foundation for average everyday value. That the Cubs can call upon such a player as an injury replacement is a testament to their depth, as the decline in expected overall production from Soler to Almora is minimal.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.