The Pittsburgh Pirates were hit pretty hard by Tommy John surgeries in 2015. What made matters worse was that most of the injuries came in the upper levels, impacting their rotation depth in the short-term.
Jameson Taillon was expected to return from the procedure in the second half of the 2015 season, but went down with hernia surgery once he was about to get back on the mound in an official game. Nick Kingham entered the year as one of the top guys who could arrive by mid-season, but suffered his own surgery before that could happen.
Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler have been used as rotation depth out of Indianapolis the last few years, and both went down early in the year with the injury. Cumpton was injured in Spring Training, then suffered a shoulder injury during his rehab this fall, putting him out for the 2016 season. Sadler had an elbow injury early in the year, and after trying to avoid surgery, he eventually had the procedure and will be out for the 2016 season as well. Even Angel Sanchez, who was claimed off waivers in 2014, and broke out in a small way in Altoona and Indianapolis in 2015, went down with Tommy John in August, putting him out for the 2016 season.
Without the injuries, this might be a different off-season in many ways. Maybe Jameson Taillon and/or Nick Kingham are current members of the rotation, and the Pirates aren’t looking for another starter right now. Maybe Sadler, Cumpton, and/or Sanchez are rotation depth out of Triple-A, removing the need for guys like Kyle Lobstein or anyone else they might get for the role of immediate depth. And if Taillon and/or Kingham did come up last year, then the Pirates probably wouldn’t have dealt for J.A. Happ as a replacement for A.J. Burnett, and maybe they would have added him this off-season as a reclamation project instead.
Maybe that last one is a little too speculative, at least in terms of what might have happened this off-season (I don’t think they would have dealt for Happ at the deadline if Taillon or Kingham were healthy).
The good news is that this is only a short-term setback. Taillon is now on pace to arrive in 2016, while Kingham is already progressing with his rehab work.
A few weeks ago, Neal Huntington commented that Taillon could be up in the majors this year, sooner than later. It won’t happen out of Spring Training, due to the time off with his injuries, but it could happen in 2016.
“Completely unfair to ask him to go from essentially two years not pitching against upper level competition, to make our club out of Spring Training,” Huntington said. “That’s why we’re almost closing the door on that. But he’s a very smart, very hard-working, very driven young man. It would not shock me if he’s in position to help us at some point this season, earlier than later.”
The “smart, hard-working, driven young man” part is what really stands out from Taillon’s rehab. He got a lot of praise last summer for his rehab work, from Huntington to Jim Benedict to any other coach that worked with him. He was driven, and used the time off and the rehab as an opportunity to improve.
One thing I’ve seen mentioned often is that Taillon has gone two years without pitching. I’ve mentioned many times that this isn’t true, writing about how he has been throwing since almost this time last year, and how he even made it in to some games in extended Spring Training. He had extended his rehab progress up to five innings, and was about to pitch in official games before his hernia surgery. He doesn’t have much time against upper level talent, but he used the time he did have on the mound to improve his game.
I wrote over the summer about how Taillon’s mechanics looked the best they’ve ever looked after his Tommy John surgery. Sean McCool asked him about this a few weeks ago at PirateFest, and Taillon noted that he used his time off to focus on this, among other things.
“It really bugs me when I hear people say I had two lost years, because those two lost years I was working with the best pitching coaches away from the drawing board, getting to refine what I was weak at,” Taillon said. “I got to work out more and get on a better eating schedule. I think that two lost years is kind of bogus, because I definitely got a lot better. I didn’t stall out by any means.”
During the Spring, I detailed how Taillon had been improving his mechanics over the years, working to reduce his drop and drive delivery, with the goal of getting more downward movement on his fastball. What I noticed this summer is that his fastball had a lot of downward movement that you didn’t see when he first entered pro ball, and the movement came with ease, along with an easy arm action and some reduced drop. Taillon described his fastball as being a lot “crisper”, with more deception and a clean delivery.
“[It] just feels real light and free coming out, no restrictions,” Taillon said. “The mechanics feel clean, arm feels clean. Probably the same velocity I’ve been throwing, but has more jump to it, more finish through the catcher’s glove. It just finishes a little better.”
Taillon also used the time off to work on his two-seam and changeup. Both pitches were a big focus when he made the jump to Altoona, and the focus increased in 2013. Once the four seam fastball command improved, Taillon moved to working on the secondary pitches, and the act of starting over from scratch in his rehab really helped the offerings.
The second injury from Taillon was a hernia injury, which led to him losing 20 pounds due to the soreness from the surgery. He’s been working with a nutritionist this off-season, and has been working out in Houston with Mark Melancon, Anthony Rendon, and others, doing weight training four days a week, and cardio two days a week.
Heading into the 2016 season, the big thing Taillon needs to work on is readjusting to upper level hitting. His mechanics and stuff look much improved due to the work he put in during his rehab. That stuff projects to play in the upper levels and the majors, but he’ll need a refresher before that can happen. As for coaching, there might be concern about the loss of Jim Benedict, who has worked with Taillon for years, and worked with him during his recent rehab work. However, Taillon also worked daily with Scott Elarton and frequently with Scott Mitchell last year, and both remain in the organization.
You can expect Taillon to play a role in the majors in 2016, and hopefully this time around that actually plays out as expected, unlike the 2014 and 2015 seasons when he was also expected to arrive mid-season.
As for Kingham, his rehab work might prevent him from arriving in the majors in 2016. His surgery took place at the end of May, after he felt a pop in his elbow following a pitch. He’s already throwing, having started back up in September. He reached 120 feet this month, but is currently taking a short break before starting back up in January. The goal is to be throwing bullpens by the end of Spring Training.
By comparison, Taillon threw his first bullpen at the end of January, and wasn’t set to pitch in official games until early July. The later start for Kingham would put him about two months behind Taillon, making it unlikely that he would arrive in 2016. The fact that the Pirates have Taillon and Tyler Glasnow as candidates to arrive mid-season makes it even more unlikely that Kingham would be rushed back. They also have guys like Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams in the mix, although when Kingham eventually returns, he will jump ahead of that group as he has more upside.
With the way the Pirates have been conservative with their rehab work, you can probably expect Kingham to be out of the mix until 2017. At that point, he may also need some time to get readjusted to Triple-A hitting before making the jump to the majors. The good thing is that Kingham and Taillon talk regularly, and Taillon’s rehab has helped serve as a guide for what Kingham can expect. So the hope would be that thing would be smoother for Kingham, and that he can make the same positive adjustments to his stuff and mechanics during his rehab.
In the short-term, it hurt to have the MLB debuts delayed for Taillon and Kingham. The former should finally arrive this year, and the latter could arrive next year, giving the Pirates a good combo to pair with Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow.