Let’s start off up front: the news about Jameson Taillon’s Tommy John surgery is terrible. This sort of injury was the elephant in the room when Taillon and Cole were the Pirates’ only two truly elite prospects a couple of years ago, and it was a terrifying thought in 2011 and early 2012. The Pirates’ system has rounded out quite a bit since then and that cushions the blow some, but Taillon entered this year as a very-nearly-done product on the verge of contributing at the big league level, which is something that can’t really be said of Tyler Glasnow or Nick Kingham quite yet.
The first thing that really needs to be talked about is the timeline for an injury like this. The boilerplate recovery time on Tommy John surgery is 12-18 months, but in general the surgery. Charlie Morton, for example, had his Tommy John surgery on June 14th of 2012 and was pitching in rehab games on April 18th of last year. He had a few minor setbacks during his rehab process, which delayed his return a bit. His first start for the Pirates in 2013 was on June 13th. Stephen Strasburg had his Tommy John surgery in late August/early September and was back on the mound by early September 2011. If you put Taillon on a similar timeframe, he’ll likely be throwing in some form during spring training and rehabbing as the season starts. Certainly it’s a possibility that he could be ready to pitch for the Pirates at the mid-season point in 2015 that we were expecting for him in 2014. I’m not trying to necessarily forecast his return date here or anything because obviously everyone’s rehab will be different. Given Taillon’s youth and the Pirates’ strong track record with Morton’s recovery, though, I’m just not going to lose a ton of sleep over wondering if he’s going to miss 2015 as well as 2014. We’ll deal with that bridge only if we have to cross it.
It’s also worth pointing out just how incredibly difficult it is to figure out which pitchers are at risk for injuries like this and which ones aren’t. Between Taillon and Cole, you would’ve figured Taillon was a lower injury risk at this point in their careers because he didn’t pitch in college and the Pirates have had the ability to control his workload since the day he left high school (holy crap, please don’t let this sentence be a jinx on Cole’s elbow). These things happen, though, and they happen to everyone, no matter how well-prepared a team might think they are.
Of course, all of these questions don’t deal with the biggest looming question for the Pirates now, which is what Taillon’s injury means for 2014. Even with Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez making strong first starts, there are durability concerns about all five members of the Pirates’ current rotation, to varying degrees. There will be innings that need to be covered by pitchers other than Liriano/Morton/Rodriguez/Cole/Volquez, and now zero of those innings will be covered by Jameson Taillon. That means more innings for Jeff Locke or Brandon Cumpton or Phil Irwin or Casey Sadler maybe even Nick Kingham. That group’s quite a mixed bag, I think. There’s certainly some talent there, but I don’t know that I’d want to lean too heavily on any of those guys for an extended period of time at this point in their careers.
Any sort of speculation on this sort of injury and it’s lasting ramifications is practically impossible. Who would’ve thought in June of last year that the Pirates would barely bat an eye at losing Wandy Rodriguez for the season? At this point it’s only fair to say this: there was a role for Jameson Taillon on the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates, and now it’s up to somebody else to fill it. Whether that role was to be a solid fourth starter or late-season shot in the arm like Gerrit Cole was last year or to be depth when someone gets injured, we don’t know for now. That makes it tough to say which pitcher will be most important in making up for his absence; it could be Volquez, or it could be any of the minor league guys previously mentioned. All we can do now is sit back and wait and see where the season takes things.