In the last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates have added four pitchers with top of the rotation stuff. On August 16th, 2010, they signed their top two picks from the 2010 draft, adding Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie to the mix. A few days later, they signed top Mexican pitching prospect Luis Heredia. Two days ago, the Pirates signed the first overall pick from the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole, giving them yet another player who has the upside of a major league ace.
The addition of four pitchers with top of the rotation stuff has many dreaming about what could one day be a super rotation in Pittsburgh, loaded with four pitchers who have top of the rotation stuff. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes prospects are guaranteed to live up to their projected ceilings. Cole, Taillon, Heredia, and Allie all have the potential to be top of the rotation starters one day, but we’re very unlikely to see all four of them in the majors. In fact, odds are we’re only going to see two of them realize their potential, and that might even be optimistic. To get an idea of their chances, let’s take a look at what each player has to work on going forward.
Gerrit Cole - Cole has a plus fastball, a plus slider, and a plus changeup. He also throws a nice two-seam fastball. He’s got the arsenal needed to be a top of the rotation pitcher, and the big frame needed to be a 200 inning a year workhorse. One issue he has is keeping the ball down, which has led to him getting hit a little bit more than a guy with his arsenal should. His changeup has also been inconsistent, although that comes with the disclaimer that he just developed a plus changeup, meaning it’s in the early stages. He will also obviously have to go from being a 120 inning a year guy to eventually throwing 200 innings a year. That could take two years to build up to.
Jameson Taillon - Taillon is very similar to Cole. He’s got a plus fastball, a plus curveball, although he doesn’t have the changeup that Cole has. That’s not a big deal, as Taillon is coming out of the high school ranks. There was never a need for him to learn a changeup, as he could get by with his fastball/curveball combination, and sometimes just with his fastball. Cole was in the same situation, and didn’t develop his changeup until before his junior year of college. Like Cole, Taillon also needs to work on keeping the ball down. The Pirates have been working with him on learning how to drive the ball down through the zone, although that’s still a work in progress. He will likely end up with around 100 innings this year, and needs to keep adding to that so that he can throw at least 180 innings in his first full year in the majors.
Luis Heredia - He’s raw compared to Taillon and Cole, which is to be expected for a guy who just turned 17 a week ago. He’s got the makings of four plus pitches, and currently can throw in the mid-90s, which is impressive for a guy his size. His big issue right now is just getting experience in the pros. He also needs to work on developing all of his pitches, and improving his fastball command. He’s a candidate to add velocity as he gets older, which would only improve his chances of making the majors. The best way to sum up Heredia is that he’s raw. He’s basically a high schooler learning to pitch in the pros, rather than pitching for 2-3 years against high school talent. He’s obviously advanced enough to handle this, as he throws some good pitches already, but he’s raw and has a lot to work on before he can crack the majors.
Stetson Allie - Allie’s biggest issue is that he lacks control of his fastball, especially when he throws it in the upper 90s. The Pirates have slowed his fastball down so that he can work on repeating his delivery, which will help him with his control issues. He’s got plus velocity on his fastball, and a plus slider, which many people forget about. Like any top high school pitching prospect, he needs to work on his changeup, and he’s made some encouraging strides in that department this year. The biggest red flag is his lack of control, and it’s why he’s currently in the bullpen in State College, so that he can take the mound more frequently and work on repeating his mechanics.
Obviously if you had to pick two guys from that list to make the majors and live up to their potential as a top of the rotation starter, it would be Cole and Taillon. They’re the safe picks, with less to work on. However, none of these players are guarantees. That works in both directions. Cole and Taillon are great pitching prospects, but they’re not major league ready. They still have adjustments to make. Heredia is raw, and Allie’s control is a big issue, but that doesn’t guarantee anything on the opposite end of the spectrum.
There are a lot of possibilities here. Taillon could never learn to drive the ball down through the zone, limiting his effectiveness. Allie could learn how to repeat his delivery and add control to his fastball that has touched triple digits in the past. Then there’s also the dreaded injuries that can impact any pitching prospect. The good news is that the odds are in the Pirates’ favor. The importance of having so many pitching prospects is that it’s a game of attrition. The more prospects you have, the better chance you have of one of them hitting. That means that there’s a good chance of the Pirates getting at least one future ace from this group. That said, to get a rotation with all four players would require a tremendous amount of luck and good fortune, and shouldn’t be expected.