Scouting the Prospects Acquired for Jameson Taillon

Sunday, the Pirates traded starter Jameson Taillon to the Yankees for a package of four prospects. Dan Szymborksi will provide in-depth analysis of the deal as it pertains to the Yankees soon, though I’ll note to start that with the return of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán and the additions of Corey Kluber and now Taillon, the Yankees rotation will be reliant on several high-risk, high-reward starters this season.

Of course, nobody likes trading away good big leaguers, especially those who the club and city care about for reasons beyond their on-field performance. Taillon has persevered through a lot, including testicular cancer and an August 2019 Tommy John, the second such surgery of his career. When he next steps on a big league mound, it will have been nearly two years since he last did so. That layoff (he has been throwing live BP to hitters since late last summer and has been throwing bullpens during the offseason) creates volatility that mirrors the added volatility of this particular prospect package. Taillon could be an anchor of the Yankees rotation next year or might be a shell of himself. Regardless of which he would have been in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are not ready to compete and so I think they did well to trade him for four good prospects today, acquiring upside but also mitigating risk by getting several players in return.

On to those prospects. The quartet heading back to Pittsburgh — righties Miguel Yajure (age 22) and Roansy Contreras (21), 21-year-old outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba, and 18-year-old shortstop Maikol Escotto — is a pretty exciting.

Because the Yankees have a very deep farm system, constructed their alternate site roster with major league depth in mind, and did not have a Fall Instructional League in Florida, there are fewer new data- and video-based evaluations on their prospects this year than there are for other teams that had more prospects at the alt site and/or had scoutable instructs. So while Yajure was at the alt site and threw in a few big league games, Smith-Njigba, Contreras, and Escotto were not scouted in person last year, and Contreras did not generate pitch data. The Yankees did have some Fall/Winter activity in the Dominican Republic in which Escotto participated, but it wasn’t open to scouting. It appears Pittsburgh was willing to accept elevated risk here in exchange for a bigger package of quality prospects.

Let’s start with Yajure, who was a 45 FV prospect last offseason based largely on his polish and repertoire depth. In fact, he actually throws one more pitch than I had evaluated last year and deploys a five-pitch mix (fastball, cutter, changeup, curveball, slider) even though he’s barely 22. Yajure’s fastball rests in the 90-95 range with cut and carry, a velocity band he only began working in as he built strength during rehab from a 2017 Tommy John surgery. His best secondary pitch is his changeup, which Yajure did not have great feel for out of the bullpen during his brief 2020 big league debut, but was his best bat-missing weapon during his 2019 breakout. He also has a nasty-looking, 12-to-6 curveball that has serious bite and depth, but I’m not sure if big league hitters will be flummoxed by it since it comes out of his hand with such a big arc and might be easy to identify. The slider and cutter are fine, but rely on Yajure’s ability to execute them to his glove side consistently, and while he’s been able to do that in the minors, he just could not find release consistency during his big league outings.

I’m chalking up his initial major league struggles to age and relative inexperience coming out of the bullpen, and still have Yajure projected as a big league-ready, 1.5-ish WAR starter, though his name has been mentioned by front office folks as perhaps belonging among the 2-WAR arms that make up the very back of my Top 100, so he may sneak on there.

The rest of the acquired prospects were in the 40+ FV category last year, and will remain there because of the lack of new info available on them. It’s possible the Pirates were given pitch data from remote Contreras bullpen sessions thrown during the year, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case based on my sourcing for this piece. Like Yajure, Contreras also displayed a little velocity bump in 2019 despite throwing more innings than ever before, and he also walked fewer batters. That year, Contreras worked 92-95 while flashing an above-average curveball and changeup. He’s in a similar No. 4 or 5 starter bucket, albeit a little further away from the big leagues than Yajure, hence the small gap in their FVs.

The barrel-chested Smith-Njigba has huge strength-driven power and a really great approach. He’s only 21 but his frame is maxed out and may be difficult for him to maintain into his mid-to-late-20s. His size creates some stiffness and imbalance during his swing, but Smith-Njigba is explosive, picks great pitches to swing at, and runs pretty well underway. I won’t go so far as to call him deceptively athletic but he does have a sibling with elite athleticism, underclass Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

While you can just watch Smith-Njigba swing and know he has big power, his exit velo data reinforces the visual evaluation in a big way. He averaged 91 mph off the bat in 2019 and hit just shy of 50% of balls in play at 95 mph or above. Both of those are comfortably plus if we’re mapping that data to the big league 20-80 scale. This data was generated at Low-A Charleston in 2019 where Smith-Njigba, despite being age-appropriate for that level, was more physically mature than most of the other players in the league. You could discount his Statcast-type production for this reason, but I think he has a shot to be a corner outfield regular based on his approach and power.

You could make a similar argument about Escotto, a really ripped infielder who hit a robust .315/.429/.552 in the 2019 DSL. Escotto isn’t maxed out like Smith-Njigba but he is stronger and more muscular than your typical DSL teenager and that physicality helped him generate one of the higher average exit velocities among teenagers in pro ball in 2019. He’ll likely be developed as a shortstop with Pittsburgh, which would have been more difficult for the Yankees to do because they have so many other same-aged players at the position.

Evaluating Escotto last year was pretty simple. Just as the domestic amateur side of the industry does during the high school showcase circuit, Escotto was identified as likely to remain at shortstop based on the feet, hands and actions he shows during infield drills. Fold in his BP and you can easily make apples-to-apples comparisons between him and domestic amateur infielders eligible for the draft, and have a pretty good idea of where Escotto fits in among them. Add the stats generated by Escotto in the DSL and the data I source and make available on The Board, and you get a clear idea that he has a chance to make a well-rounded offensive impact and that perhaps the visual eval should be rounded up based on the strength of the data. Escotto was on last year’s Picks to Click list but I can’t justify moving him onto the Top 100 with literally no new information beyond the fact that Pittsburgh clearly likes him also, so he’ll stay in the 40+ FV tier, which means the Pirates have added the equivalent of a second round high school shortstop to their system.

The Pirates have now added about 10 good prospects to their system this offseason across several avenues of acquisition (Rule 5 Draft, trades, international signings) and now have 26 prospects in their system who last year I graded as 40+ FV or above. By my current count, only Cleveland (27) has more.





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.

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svan
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svan

shouldn’t be working on sundays, but you are the best in the business

airforce21one
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airforce21one

Maybe working Sundays is exactly why he’s one of the best in the business