Kevin Gorman: With Jameson Taillon out, Pirates must pay up for ace
When Dr. David Altchek operated on the flexor tendon of Jameson Taillon’s right arm and determined Tommy John surgery was required, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost their ace.
Or, at least, Taillon was the closest thing the Pirates had to an ace, not to mention a leader. The 27-year-old right-hander was showing signs of becoming a dominant top-of-rotation pitcher last season, allowing three runs or fewer in his final 22 starts.
Now, with Taillon out until the 2021 season, Pirates fans are losing their minds.
The knee-jerk reaction was the Pirates, headed for a 90-loss season, should blow up their major league roster and start over. Trade two-time All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez. Find a package deal for outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Heck, even trade Josh Bell, the All-Star first baseman amid a breakout year with a career-high 31 home runs and MLB-best 98 RBIs.
That’s just silly. The Miami Marlins sold off their stars in 2018, trading Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich for packages involving Starlin Castro and 10 prospects — and have the worst record in the National League to show for it the past two seasons.
This was a lost season for the Pirates long before Taillon’s surgery Tuesday. Besieged by injuries to position players and pitchers alike, they have had four losing streaks of seven games or more and lost 24 of 28 games after the All-Star break.
We can play the blame game and round up the usual suspects, from Pirates general manager Neal Huntington to manager Clint Hurdle to pitching coach Ray Searage. They all deserve some share of blame for this disaster, especially given the optimism coming off an 82-win campaign. So do the players, for their shortcomings.
Mostly, it’s on the owner. As the walls were crumbling on a team with a payroll around $70 million that ranks 29th out of 30 MLB teams, Bob Nutting sent Huntington dumpster-diving for DFAs and Triple-As. Blame “Bottom-Line” Bob for his downright refusal to spend on salary to add to his major league roster.
The Pirates should be warned their fans aren’t buying the line that the pitching staff will be fine without Taillon. The rotation returns Chris Archer, Steven Brault, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams — along with rookies Dario Agrazal and Mitch Keller — but there is nothing resembling an ace.
To be blunt, Brault (3-1) is the only one with a winning record. None of the starting pitchers have an ERA below 4.00. Chad Kuhl returns, but he also is coming off Tommy John surgery.
The Pirates are in dire need of a No. 1 starter.
They thought they would have two upon drafting Taillon with the second pick in 2010 and Gerrit Cole first overall in ’11. The duo was supposed to provide the Pirates with a pair of power arms, the type they couldn’t afford to sign in free agency. Instead, neither will be on their pitching staff in 2020.
Hindsight, as former Pitt football coach Walt Harris liked to say, is 50-50. The MLB Draft is a coin flip, but the Pirates couldn’t afford to miss on the likes of Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal, Chris Sale or Yelich — all selected after Taillon in the 2010 first round.
That’s the tragic part for Taillon, who underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time in five years. When healthy, he showed signs he was becoming worthy of his draft status.
Staying healthy is another story. He posted a photo on Instagram from his hospital bed Thursday with an optimistic message: “Feeling as driven as ever! I’m going to attack this rehab with everything I’ve got, and I will be back. Thank you to everyone that stands by my side through it all, you’re my inspiration. … This is only the beginning.”
Feeling as driven as ever! I’m going to attack this rehab with everything I’ve got, and I will be back. My motivation throughout this process isn’t to prove doubters wrong, but instead to prove everyone that remains… https://t.co/72CVdaFASk
— Jameson Taillon (@JTaillon19) August 15, 2019
If anything, we have learned not to discount Taillon’s resilience. He has returned from Tommy John surgery, a groin injury and testicular cancer. But after a second Tommy John surgery, the Pirates can’t count on Taillon being their ace. Certainly not for next season, maybe ever.
This is where Nutting can right the ship by giving the Pirates the green light to sign or trade for a quality starting pitcher. The conservative approach didn’t work with Taillon, the Pirates crossing their fingers that the forearm tightness that forced him to shut down after seven starts this season would heal with rest.
The conservative approach won’t work with finding his replacement in the rotation, either. The Pirates don’t have to break the bank in free agency — we already know that’s not realistic — but they too often search for the cheapest alternative. The Pirates went bargain hunting for a fifth starter and found some early success with Jordan Lyles, but he was proof you get what you pay for. They don’t have the depth to choose the cheap option.
If the Pirates want to talk about winning a World Series, or at least be a perennial playoff contender, this will be a true test of whether they are serious or it’s just more lip service.
The Pirates need an ace, so Nutting has to pay the price.
That’s the bottom line, Bob.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .