A.J. Burnett is officially gone. His $16 million deal with Philadelphia has him training in Clearwater, Fla., about 45 minutes up the road from the Pirates’ facility in Bradenton.
Over the next few days, possibly weeks, everybody with an opinion in Pittsburgh, whether in a public forum or not, will let their voice be heard about Burnett leaving. Each voice will speak passionately about their stance and the arguments will range from “we never needed him in the first place,” to “we are doomed without him.”
My personal belief is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But in all honesty it doesn’t matter what I think or anyone else thinks for that matter, because Burnett is gone. This season in Philadelphia he will more than likely be just what he is: an average 37-year-old pitcher.
It really won’t affect the Pirates, so there is no use allowing him to dominate conversations about a pitching staff he isn’t even on. What does matter are the pitchers who are in Bradenton, the ones who are on or trying to be on the Pirates pitching staff, especially one in particular: Jameson Taillon.
Ever since being drafted in 2010 with the second overall pick, Taillon has been sort of like a ghost to Pirates fans – a name with no face. For four years now there have been reports about how good Taillon could be when he gets to the major leagues and each year he ranks in the top 20 prospects in the minor leagues (he is currently ranked 15th.)
However, with Burnett gone, and the Pirates in need of another good pitcher to solidify their rotation, this could be the year where the 22-year-old Taillon becomes more than just a name. In fact, this year Taillon is seemingly in perfect position to be one of the Pirates’ “X-factors” and potentially a breakout star.
The Pirates current rotation looks like this: Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, Wandy Rodriguez, and Charlie Morton. Aside from Cole, essentially everyone on that list is a question mark, and it may be premature to even say Cole isn’t a question mark as well. We only have 17 games to judge him by.
Now, even if each of those pitchers were to give consistently good performances throughout the season, this rotation still isn’t one to be placed among the National League’s elite staffs (the Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves come to mind.) With so much uncertainty casting a shadow over every pitcher’s role on this year’s staff, the opportunity for Taillon to come in and showcase his talent is obvious.
It is an opportunity he will likely get, too. He is now just as old as Cole was last year and four years in the minors is usually more than enough for a prospect as highly-touted as Taillon. Even if, after four years, the organization doesn’t feel Taillon is ready to start, it may still be in their best interest to bring him up to the pros.
In the best-case scenario he compliments Cole well and the Pirates have a one-two punch at the top of their rotation, potentially for years to come; if he does poorly after four years of prepping for the bigs, it may be the sign the Pirates need to move on before investing too much in Taillon.
Not only is the opportunity there, but talent-wise Taillon should be up for it. Standing at 6-foot-6, Taillon has an intimidating stature on the mound and comes with a well-refined arsenal of pitches including a fastball that consistently hits 96 mph and a curveball that, when he has control of it, can be devastating.
His numbers in the minor leagues haven’t been dominant. For a career he has posted about a 3.70 ERA and actually has a losing record as a pro, but the more detailed statistics show Taillon’s promise, as he averages a little over eight strikeouts per nine innings (a number that would have been top 10 in the majors last year) and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 3 to 1.
Taillon will almost definitely not see time with the Pirates until June; this way the Bucs can take advantage of the “Super Two” deadline, which could force the team to raise his salary more quickly than they would like. But, Taillon will almost definitely see time this year.
For Pittsburgh, now is as good a time as any to try out their No. 1 pitching prospect. If all goes well, Jameson Taillon could be the piece that boosts the Pirates rotation just enough and allows them to return to the postseason.
Grant is a staff writer at City of Champions. Follow him on Twitter.