Other than when the Pirates gave away Aramis Ramirez in order to make payroll, my nadir as a Pirates fan during the 20 year losing streak came on June 8, 2010. That night, I witnessed Stephen Strasburg’s electric major league debut, in person, with the Nationals then phenom struck out 14 Pirates, leading his team to a 5-2 victory. The whitewashing of an eventual 105 loss Pirates team was bad enough, however, my mood was worsened by the fact that the game came just one day after that year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Just 24 hours earlier, the Nats had used their first round pick to select Bryce Harper. Considered a once-in-a-generation talent, Washington, D.C. baseball fans now appeared to have a pair of young, top-flight superstars around which their team could soon build a championship contender.¬†As always, there were a fair share of Pittsburgh fans in attendance in D.C. that night, and the home crowd wasn’t shy about letting all of us know about how thoroughly their team was going to kick our ¬†team’s ass for the foreseeable future. The fact that in that moment, they were probably right, made it all the worse.
Still, things weren’t completely bleak. One pick after the National’s had selected Bryce Harper, the Pirates had picked a Texas high school pitcher named Jameson Taillon. While not quite in Harper’s orbit, Taillon was still considered a top-flight talent, and the consensus best player in the draft. It was apparent on draft day he would cost a premium to sign. However, bucking the trend of previous regimes, the Neal Huntington led Pirates front office, was poised to commit the resources necessary to sign him.
Amid the jeers at Nats Park, I caught the attention of another Pirates fan sitting nearby and we shared an eye roll. “Wadja think of that draft last night?” he asked. “I’m happy with the pick,” I replied. “Nice to know the team’s starting to take the guy they want, regardless of how much they cost to sign.” “I’m pissed,” he shot back. “The shoulda taken the shortstop [Manny Machado]. This pitcher’s only going to blow out his elbow in a couple years, anyway.”
While fatalistic, it was hard to argue with his sentiment. The Pirates of the ’90s and early ’00s had spent countless high draft picks on pitchers, only to watch their careers derailed by injuries. While Taillon represented the kind of pedigree that few of those other pitchers possessed, you really couldn’t blame a Pirates fan for assuming the worst.
At the time, Andrew McCutchen was enjoying a productive second season in the major leagues. Pedro Alvarez was knocking on the door of the majors, but the cash the Huntington had previously invested in the draft was largely yet to bear fruit. With the lack of impact talent, the thought of Taillon eventually having to go under the knife was chilling.
During yesterday’s game, it leaked out through the media that a second opinion had revealed damage to Taillon’s UCL, and he would require Tommy John surgery. It was disappointing, frustrating, and a lot of other negative adjectives. Taillon rated highly on the list of baseball’s top prospects, and was expected to reach the big leagues later this summer. In the best case scenario, he would have provided a boost to a Pirates team competing for the playoffs. However, in spite of all of those things,¬†the news of Taillon’s injury wasn’t disastrous or franchise altering or all those things it might have appeared to be on that June night almost four years ago.
For starters, baseball as a whole has showed continued improvement in helping pitcher’s recover from Tommy John surgery. ¬†As demonstrated by the timely return of Charlie Morton, the Pirates themselves have showed they’re capable of implementing a plan to help pitcher’s successfully recover from the operation.
Beyond that though, the Pirates talent base is deep enough that the future and present success of the team no longer rests on the arrival of Taillon. The team, of course, made the playoffs last year with Taillon still in the minor leagues. Taillon doesn’t even rate as the Pirates top prospect, that mantle belonging to Gregory Polanco, an outfielder ticketed (knock on wood) to arrive in Pittsburgh later this season. The team’s farm system has depth, too, ranking in the top-five organizationally on most lists, with handful of individual talents, including a couple other pitchers, ranking in the game’s top 100.
So while there’s no reason to feel good about the news of Jameson Taillon’s injury, it’s hard for me to not also use it for perspective on how far the Pirates have come as an organization and a team in just a few short years.