Starting 9: Taillon showing terrific control
Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.
1. Control typically is the last skill developed and refined by a pitcher. What has been so remarkable about Jameson Taillon's first 10 major league starts is his ability to avoid walks, issuing 1.2 walks per nine innings. It is the same command he demonstrated this season in Triple-A, despite having missed the prior two seasons to injury. It also is an improvement from his minor league work in 2012-13. The most recent Pirates starter to pitch 100-plus innings in a season and average less than two walks per nine was Vance Worley in 2014.
2. What also is remarkable about Taillon is how quickly he has added an effective two-seam fastball. He added the pitch this year and is generating ground balls at a 54 percent rate, an elite level. Taillon is throwing the two-seamer (35.4 percent) more often than his four-seam fastball (28.1 percent). Taillon's 2016 speaks to being a coachable, motivated and detail-oriented player.
3. Taillon's curveball cannot be taught. It should produce more strikeouts as he better learns to sequence pitches. He showed improvement Thursday against San Diego with a high-and-low, fastball-curveball combination. Taillon might never become a superstar talent like Manny Machado, who was drafted one slot behind him in 2010. But that does not mean he cannot still be an excellent No. 2 overall choice. Taillon no longer is a prospect. That is good news for Taillon and the Pirates because he has brought needed stability to the rotation.
4. The Pirates have done well identifying and acquiring undervalued relief pitchers under general manager Neal Huntington, and Felipe Rivero looks like he could be the next such arm. Rivero arrived with an elite swinging-strike rate, telling of plus stuff, but an inflated ERA. His 14.6 percent swinging-strike rate is 29th in baseball — minimum 30 innings — suggesting his ERA should decline with more work. He should fit somewhere at the back of the Pirates bullpen in 2017 and beyond.
5. The Pirates sought controllable relievers at the deadline. Neftali Feliz is a free agent after the season, Tony Watson is a free agent after 2017 and Jared Hughes' future is unclear. The Pirates bullpen from 2013-15 was their most consistent strength and much of that bullpen must be overhauled, which will be one of Huntington's greatest challenges.
Rivero, Watson and Antonio Bastardo will give Hurdle three left-handed options next season. But the Pirates will have to find some right-handers. It makes the Arquimedes Caminero trade somewhat curious. Feliz is worth pursuing as a free agent.
6. Yes, Josh Bell's defense needs some work, and he is going to be subject to some punch-back from the league, just as Gregory Polanco was in 2014 and '15. But it is difficult to believe he would not be an immediate upgrade at first. John Jaso has been a replacement-level player (-0.3 wins above replacement) to date, and it is mid-August.
Service time should not be as much of a consideration with Bell. Drafted in 2011, he turned 24 on Sunday. The Pirates will control his prime regardless of when he arrives. If Bell was on the opening day roster next season, he would not be eligible to become a free agent until he is 31 — and out of his prime.
7. Baseball is tough to predict. That is one reason the Pirates have preferred to spread risk with their relatively meager budget. It worked last offseason in acquiring David Freese, re-signing Sean Rodriguez and striking gold with the non-roster invite extended to Matt Joyce. The Pirates built their strongest bench of the Clint Hurdle era, and that has allowed them to overcome a poor season from Jung Ho Kang and give regulars rest without suffering a drop-off in performance.
8. The Pirates could be challenged to replicate such a bench next season. Rodriguez, Freese and Joyce might have performed their way into contracts and playing time the Pirates are unwilling or unable to provide. The Pirates might have better luck looking internally and hoping options like Adam Frazier and Max Moroff can fill utility roles.
9. Speaking of financial flexibility, news broke last week that Major League Baseball reached an agreement to sell one third of MLB Advanced Media to Disney. It is a deal with $1 billion to be paid in two installments of $500 million. MLB Advanced Media — the digital wing of MLB — is owned equally by all major league owners. That means each owner will receive about $33 million from the deal. While players are enjoying record average salaries, the owners' share of revenue is growing.