During the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals won 98 games, taking the NL East division, and making the post-season for the first time since moving to Washington in 2005, and the first time in franchise history since the Montreal Expos made it in 1981. Despite this success, the Nationals drew a lot of criticism over the fact that they shut down their top young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg.
The right-handed phenom was coming off Tommy John surgery, and had pitched 159.1 innings before being shut down in early September with an aim to preserving his health in the future. The Nationals lost 3-2 in the Division Series, which raised questions as to how they would have done with Strasburg pitching in the post-season. It also raised the question of why they didn’t start him later in the season, so that he’d be available for September and the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be in a similar situation with Jameson Taillon this year. Taillon isn’t the same quality of pitcher as Strasburg, with the latter already putting up 17 strong outings in the majors before his surgery. However, he will start the season in Triple-A, and has a shot to help the Pirates in the majors during the second half of the season. The Pirates also project as a strong playoff contender right now, meaning they might be in the same situation where they could use Taillon late in the season.
So how will the team prepare? Will they shut Taillon down early? Or will they start him later and allow him to finish the season?
Taillon said that the main focus right now is getting back on the mound, although he thinks that there’s a possibility that the Pirates could start him later so that he’s pitching in September.
“I think the mindset here is that going into it, they’d rather push me back a little bit, so I can finish the year with innings, as opposed to have to do what Strasburg did,” Taillon said. “I remember that was a big deal, him getting shut down in September. So I think they’d rather me have innings left for September, rather than use all my innings in April.”
I asked Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington whether they would take this approach, but he was more focused on Taillon’s return to the mound.
“Our big picture is to get him back healthy,” Huntington said. “Get him through the throwing program. Get him back on a mound. Get him back competing and allow that to take us where it takes us. We’re not pre-determined that he’s going to be ready to help us at the big league level by date X. He’ll be ready to help us at the big league level when he’s ready to help us at the big league level, and we’ll cross the hurdles as we cross them.”
It wouldn’t be a shock if the Pirates started Taillon later and allowed him to finish the season with innings in September and October. That matches many of their organizational practices. In the minors, they don’t focus on what level players start the year, but rather where they finish the year. They control minor league inning totals so that players can finish the minor league season, rather than being shut down in early August.
Clay Holmes is also returning from Tommy John surgery, but unlike Taillon, he has no shot at the majors this year. Still, Holmes said he is more likely to start later in the season, with the main goal being his ability to finish the year.
“That’s one thing they have told me, they don’t want that to happen,” Holmes said about being shut down early. “So if anything, it’s going to be my start is late so I can finish the year.”
There’s no guarantee the Pirates do the same thing with Taillon and avoid the Strasburg Dilemma, but all signs point to that being their approach. Huntington did say that they will be “ultra-conservative” with him, and might not start him back exactly one year after the surgery, which was performed on April 6th.
“Our goal is to make sure Jameson is a really good pitcher seven to ten years from now, hopefully 12 to 14 years from now, not just 12 to 14 months after his surgery,” Huntington said. “We’ll probably frustrate him with as conservative as we’re going to be. He’s going to hit a point in time where he feels great and wants to push it forward, and we’re going to want to stay on the calendar and put him in a position to be successful for years to come, not because there’s some target date randomly set in 2015.”
It doesn’t seem that Taillon will be that frustrated with a conservative approach, or a delayed start. After mentioning the delayed start as a possibility, he simply followed up by saying he was on board with that plan.
Taillon has been throwing since the end of July, and will throw off the mound for the first time next week. He has been throwing at 120 feet since early November. The Pirates are semi-strict about allowing pitchers to extend beyond 120 feet, making sure that those pitchers can demonstrate an ability to remain healthy and maintain their mechanics before allowing a longer distance. Taillon previously extended beyond 120, but has stuck to the 120 limit this off-season.
“I try to stick to 120, just for the rehab purposes,” Taillon said. “I’m very strict about getting my exact number of throws in at the exact distances.”
Taillon also discussed some of the other differences in his current throwing program coming off Tommy John surgery, including how he’s managed to deal with a lack of available competition.
“My arm is really built up,” Taillon said, noting that he’s had more throws in the rehab program. “And I think another thing is more focus and attention to detail. This throwing program is really all I’ve had as far as my competition. That’s the closest I’ve been able to be on a mound. I find myself focusing a lot more at it now, and not taking it for granted, and trying to compete against myself with every throw instead of just going out there to do it.”
As far as pitches, Taillon just started throwing his changeup three weeks ago in flat grounds. He started throwing the curveball a week ago from 60 feet at the end of his sessions, just flipping a few pitches to get a feel for the spin again. Off the field, he has filled his time with “a lot of video games, grilling food, fishing, and guitar lessons.” Taillon went home to Texas for four weeks over the holidays, but has spent most of his rehab time in Bradenton.
“I just decided it was in my best interest as far as rehab goes, pitching goes [to rehab in Bradenton],” Taillon said. “These guys here have money invested in me and they care about me. But they have my best interests. The pitching coaches know me extremely well, so they know what to look for, and they’ve dealt with a lot of rehab guys too. So I thought this would be the best spot for me.”
One benefit to being in Bradenton is that Taillon was able to talk with Charlie Morton about the rehab process from Tommy John surgery.
“I talked to Charlie a little bit,” Taillon said. “He works out here in the off-season, so I get to see him almost every day, which is phenomenal. He’s such an approachable guy. I don’t really ask him as much about the physical things, but I’ll ask him about what he did to stay busy, or how he was mentally at certain stages, or how he managed to stay patient with it. It is good to know that you have guys to fall back on if you need them.”
Taillon was expected to arrive in the majors during the 2014 season, but his surgery put that plan on hold. Nothing is confirmed right now on when he will start the 2015 season, or when he might reach the majors, if that is a possibility at all. The end of Spring Training will give more clarity on his situation. As for right now, don’t be surprised if the Pirates start him a bit later, with the focus on saving some of his innings for September and October, and thus avoiding the situation the Nationals were in with Strasburg.