A Tale of Two Pirate Prospects
A wise man once said, “there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.” That same philosophy applies to player development. It’s almost never exactly linear, and there’s no standard timeline prospects follow on their ascent to the big leagues. Every player has a different journey. It’s easy to comb top prospect lists to find the next gem in your dynasty crown. Everyone does it. If you go the extra mile, and really try to analyze a prospect’s path, you might be able to make better projections about his future. Here is just one example of that process in action.
Back in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates had one consensus top-10 pitching prospect. Jameson Taillon, the second overall selection in the 2010 MLB Draft, was seen as a blue chipper well on his way to anchor the Pirates’ rotation for years to come. Fast forward almost six years later, to 2016, and the Pirates still have just one top-10 pitching prospect that many believe can be a complementary stalwart to Gerrit Cole in the Bucs rotation. This time the honor belongs to Tyler Glasnow, an unheralded fifth-round pick, drafted one year after Taillon, in 2011. Despite very different paths, they each find themselves in an identical situation, pitching for Triple-A Indianapolis, and on the precipice of a call-up to the major leagues.
When the Pirates selected Taillon with the second pick of the 2011 MLB Draft (sandwiched in between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado), they surely envisioned a future top of the rotation ace. Taillon impressed right out of the gate, striking out over a batter per inning in his first taste of pro ball. His ascent continued and he shot through the system at a speed that typical high school draftees can only dream about. Pairing a nasty curveball with a fastball sitting at 95 mph and touching as high as 97 mph, Taillon dominated, cementing himself as one of the game’s best prospects. He finished his 2013 season as a 21-year-old in Triple-A, posting 37 punch-outs in 37 innings. All told in 2013, Taillon tossed 147.1 innings across two levels, striking out 143 hitters while surrendering only 52 walks.
He was invited to continue his season in the Arizona Fall League, but his stint was cut short with a minor groin injury (this sounds like the worst). That spring, after being reassigned to minor league camp, Taillon reported pain in his elbow. Tommy John surgery (this is the actual worst) would cost him the remainder of 2014. He was scheduled to make his first appearance of the 2015 season in late June, but after complaining of abdominal pain, he was yet again sent to go under the knife. This time hernia surgery (yes, this is pretty bad too) was the culprit and it wiped out the entire 2015 campaign. Taillon wouldn’t throw a competitive pitch until April 2016.
Meanwhile, Glasnow didn’t receive the same fanfare as a fifth-round pick in 2011. However, the Pirates saw enough upside in the lanky righty to fork over a $600,000 bonus to sign him. That doesn’t seem like a huge number, but at the time it was the most the organization had paid for a selection outside the first two rounds. In his first season as a pro, he struck out over 10 batters per nine, while maintaining a tidy 1.88 ERA. Despite his success, the Pirates were cautious with the 6-foot-8 hurler, keeping him at A-ball for the entirety of the 2013. He would dominate again, striking out 164 hitters in 111.1 innings.
While 2013 may have been Glasnow’s breakout as a prospect, his 2014 season solidified his status as one of the game’s most promising young arms. Armed with a fastball sitting at 93-96 mph and an absolute wipeout curveball that comes in at 76-81 mph, Glasnow stifled overmatched minor-league hitters. He tossed 124.1 innings at High-A Bradenton, posting an ERA of 1.74, while striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings. Additionally, Glasnow found a way to slightly curb his command issues, lowering his rate to 4.1 walks per nine innings. Now, this is still really bad, but improvements are improvements. The Pirates took the training wheels off of Glasnow in 2015, allowing him to spread 109.1 innings across three levels, ending to an eight game stint in Triple-A. To this point in his career, Glasnow has been a legit strikeout machine.
Thus far in 2016, Taillon and Glasnow have anchored the same staff in Triple-A Indianapolis. Now, it could have been considered a victory for Taillon to even take the mound after the brutal injuries and long hours of rehab he worked through. However, he hasn’t been looking for moral victories. He’s been dominant thus far this season (heading into today’s start), posting a 2.08 ERA in 43.1 innings. His fastball is mostly, if not all the way back, hitting 95 mph with regularity. He’s fanned nearly a batter an inning, and has maintained a filthy 0.80 WHIP.
Not to be outdone, Glasnow has kept up his end of the dueling aces show. In his 44 innings, he’s whiffed 55 hitters on his way to a 2.05 ERA. The only drawback for Glasnow is that he still walks too many hitters. So far this season he’s averaging 4.09 walks per nine innings, which would have been one of the worst walk rates of any major-league starter last season. The scary thing about Glasnow, however, is that all of the walks still haven’t really had a negative effect on his WHIP (1.16). His stuff is so good that he rarely gives up hits. His mark of 6.3 hits per nine innings would have ranked fourth best in baseball last year, smack dab in between Clayton Kershaw (obviously) and Marco Estrada (wait, what?). Sure, it’s not an apples to apples comparison to measure Triple-A and major-league leaderboards, but the point is that I guess you can walk a few more guys if you don’t also give up hits.
It’s an exciting time to be a Pirates fan. It’s also a very exciting time to be in the Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow business. For Taillon, it will mostly be about building up arm strength and stamina lost due to two years of inactivity and rehab. It’s very possible that he’ll be on a strict innings count for 2016, but the way he’ pitching, he could still be an option for the Buccos later this season, even if it’s only out of the bullpen. The time to buy at the lowest is probably past, but I’d have to imagine the price is probably lower now than it was two years ago. Glasnow is also an interesting option for the Pirates this summer. Most experts seem to believe he’ll be in pitching in Pittsburgh potentially after the Super Two deadline, but I have no idea when that is or how to calculate it, so you’re on your own there. If Glasnow does come up, you can safely bet on a lot of strikeouts and a lot of walks. If he can get the walks under control, you’re looking at an ace, no question.
The bottom line here is that development isn’t linear. Sometimes the best laid plans can go awry (Boom. Literature.). Sometimes the number one overall pick can fail to pan out, then come back 12 years later after spending time in jail. Sometimes injuries rear their ugly head and sap all of the potential of young players. The point is, sometimes it’s hard to tell. There isn’t a right way for a player to come up. Taillon hadn’t experienced any nagging injuries on his way up, well, until he did. His ascent was put on pause for TWO WHOLE YEARS, and he’s once again on the cusp of a call-up. Glasnow spent three years in the Pirates’ organization before even seeing Double-A. Upon his call-up, he was in Triple-A 63 innings later, fanning batters left and right. Both of these guys are potential studs in the making, and both of them took vastly different routes to end up at the same place. That place is about to make the Pirates’ rotation really, really scary.