Ranked as Prospect Pipeline’s sixth- and 10th-ranked prospects, respectively, headed into the 2013 season, right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon represent the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ franchise.
With a veteran starting rotation of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano, the organization is eagerly awaiting the infusion of young power arms. At the same time, it is well aware of the pair's enormous ceiling.
As a result, ensuring the thorough development of both pitchers has outweighed any temptation to rush them through their system, even in the face of 20 consecutive seasons with a losing record.
However, once both young players finally arrive in the major leagues, the Pirates may finally have the all-around talent needed to reverse the curse, so to speak.
Selected with the first overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Cole, the Pirates’ top prospect, has all the makings of a future big league ace. In his professional debut last season, the right-hander registered a 2.55 ERA with 69/21 K/BB in 67 games for High-A Bradenton.
He then made a seamless jump to Double-A Altoona following a midseason promotion, where he posted a 2.90 ERA with 60/23 K/BB in 59 innings. Cole’s strong debut concluded with one final promotion, this time to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he fanned seven batters in his only start.
At 6’4”, 220 pounds, Cole is the epitome of a power pitcher. Possessing both physical strength and surprising athleticism for his size, the 22-year-old employs a calm but explosive delivery, with fluid arm action and extension towards the plate, causing each of his pitches to jump on opposing hitters.
Cole’s best offering is his plus-plus fastball in the mid-to-high 90s, and he’ll light up radar guns with triple digits early in starts. The only knock on the pitch is that it doesn’t feature a lot of movement. Therefore, it’s imperative that the right-hander continue to refine his command of the pitch—as well as the ability to establish the pitch early in games—as he edges closer to the major leagues.
Cole complements his heater with a devastating plus slider that ranks among the best in the minor leagues. Thrown in the mid-to-high 80s from the same arm slot as his fastball, the pitch features a late, wipeout break. He can get around it at times and eliminate some of the vertical bite, but even then it’s still a highly effective offering that dives off the plate and draws countless whiffs.
Rounding out his arsenal is an above-average changeup with excellent velocity differential and late-fading action to the arm side. Thrown with nearly identical arm speed relative to his fastball, Cole’s changeup has the potential to be a third plus offering at maturity. However, the right-hander is still developing a feel for the pitch and will occasionally push it at times.
Selected by the Pirates with the second overall pick in 2010, Jameson Taillon may have been the top pick had it not been for the presence of Bryce Harper. In contrast to Cole, however, the 21-year-old has been eased through the Pirates’ system, as the organization has made it a point to emphasize his overall development.
Opening the 2012 season in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League (High-A), Taillon endured his share of struggles—though it was expected, given his lack of professional experience. Overall, the right-hander registered a 3.82 ERA with 98/37 K/BB in 125 innings before a late-season bump up to Double-A Altoona. Although he made only three starts at the more advanced level, Taillon finished the season in style by posting a 1.59 ERA with 18/1 K/BB over 17 frames.
Like Cole, Taillon has a power pitcher’s frame at 6’6”, 225 pounds with long limbs and plenty of athleticism. Relative to his future teammate, the right-hander’s delivery involves more effort, though his long arm on the backside does allow him to effectively hide the ball and mask his pitches with deception.
While his mechanics aren’t the cleanest, Taillon repeats them well. At the same time, he’s still establishing a feel for a consistent release point, which is vital to his ability to work on a downhill plane with consistency.
Taillon’s projectable arsenal is highlighted by a plus fastball that ranges anywhere from 93-97 mph and features exceptional arm-side run (Just ask Joe Mauer). More importantly, the velocity tends to play up through both his extension towards the plate and his explosive arm action.
Like Cole, Taillon has gotten away with his share of mistakes due to overpowering velocity. Therefore, there’s plenty of room for improvement regarding his command of the pitch to both sides of the plate.
His curveball is a second plus pitch, and one that’s been equally effective against both right- and left-handed hitters. Featuring a sharp, two-plane break, Taillon’s breaking ball freezes as many hitters as it draws swings-and-misses, while his command and feel for the pitch noticeably improved over the course of the 2012 season.
Lastly, the right-hander’s changeup remains a work in progress, one that may ultimately determine how quickly he reaches the major leagues. With a little more than 230 professional innings under his belt, it’s understandable that the pitch lags behind his fastball and breaking ball.
However, as he enters his first full season in Double-A (and possibly beyond), the quality of hitters at the more advanced level will presumably force him to further develop the pitch.
While both prospects have frontline-starter stuff, they’re still transitioning from thrower to pitcher. And, as result, they are each several years away from assuming such a role in the major leagues.
Having reached Triple-A at the end of the 2012 season, Cole will undoubtedly be the first of the duo to arrive in the major leagues, likely later this year. However, his proximity to the major leagues isn’t a sufficient reason to neglect an additional year of development in the minor leagues.
Despite the organization’s run of 20 straight losing seasons, it makes little sense to rush an unfinished product to the major leagues, especially one with Cole’s massive upside.
The same thought process is equally applicable to Taillon, who lacks Cole’s college experience and is a full year younger. Given the effort involved in his delivery and relative lack of mileage on his arm, Taillon is seemingly more at risk for an arm injury, which partially explains why the organization has gradually increased his workload at a one-level-per-year pace.
While the arrival of Cole and Taillon in the major leagues may not offer an immediate solution to the Pirates’ on-field woes, don’t be surprised if both young guns are at the forefront of a postseason surge as early as 2015.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com