Jameson Taillon's long road to Pirates and the shaky history of No. 2 picks
Jameson Taillon will make his major league debut for the Pirates on Wednesday night, exactly six years and one day after the club selected him out of his Texas high school with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. A big, righthanded starting pitcher, Taillon is the 44th No. 2 pick to reach the major leagues, and of the previous 43, only one—Braves catcher Tyler Houston—took longer to make it to the majors. Unlike Houston, however, Taillon’s delayed debut isn’t necessarily a condemnation of his potential.
Taillon’s long road to the majors has less to do with disappointing performance than it does with a pair of surgeries that kept him out of action for the last two years. A consensus top-20 prospect in each of his first three minor league seasons, Taillon reached Triple A in August of 2013 and was expected to make his major league debut in '14. He injured his ulnar collateral ligament in spring training that year, however, and underwent Tommy John surgery that April. On the verge of returning to game action in late June of 2015, Taillon suffered an inguinal hernia in extended spring training, requiring another season-ending surgery. As a result, 31 months elapsed between his last Triple A start in 2013 and his next, which came on April 13 of this year.
Despite the time off, Taillon has been extremely impressive this season. His first start saw him hold the Toledo Mud Hens to one run over six innings, striking out six against no walks. He lasted just 4 1/3 innings in an otherwise effective start against Toledo in his next turn, but since then he has strung together eight straight quality starts and posted outstanding peripherals. On the season, he has allowed just two home runs and six walks against 61 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings, with a 0.81 WHIP and 2.04 ERA in 10 starts. A scouting report by Baseball Prospectus pegs Taillon's fastball—which once clocked at 99 mph—97, with his nasty 12–6 curve present and accounted for and his control better than ever.
At a sturdy 6’5”, 240 pounds, Taillon still has the stuff to be a front-end starting pitcher, and despite his long journey to the majors, he is still just 24 years old. Expectations should be tempered relative to the hype that accompanied him in the draft, when some scouts described him as the best high school righthander since Josh Beckett, whom the Marlins drafted with the No. 2 pick in 1999. Still, Taillon’s impressive start to his comeback season suggests that he has retained most of his potential.
Taillon’s long trip to the majors is a dubious distinction for a No. 2 pick. Not counting the four No. 2 picks taken prior to 2010 who never made it to the major leagues, the average time it has taken a No. 2 selection to reach the majors has been two years. Only five of the No. 2 picks to make it to MLB (including Taillon) took longer than three years to do so, and of that group, only Houston—who needed a whopping seven years to make The Show after being chosen in 1989—took as long or longer than Taillon.
Houston never really hit in the minor leagues, but, out of options in 1996, he had a good enough spring training to make the Braves out of camp. He never started a game for the Braves, however, nor did he ever appear as a catcher for them, serving primarily as a pinch-hitter before being traded to the Cubs that June. That set him upon a career as a journeyman utility player that ended seven years later, with Houston having posted a career OPS+ of 90 and just 1.5 Wins Above Replacement after eight years of reserve duty.
Houston was far from the biggest bust among No. 2 picks. Six of those players finished their careers with negative bWAR totals, and that group doesn’t include Greg Reynolds, who went No. 2 to the Rockies in 2006 and is currently with the Padres' Triple A team with a career MLB bWAR of -1.6. Two years after drafting Houston, the Braves got another chance at a No. 2 selection, using it on college outfielder Mike Kelly. He made the majors in 1994 and spent six years as a reserve outfielder, finishing his six-year career with an 85 OPS+ and just 0.4 bWAR. (In the year between drafting Houston and Kelly, Atlanta had the No. 1 pick and fared a bit better with that one, drafting future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.) Lefty Pat Underwood, drafted No. 2 by the Tigers in 1976, appeared in just four major league seasons and retired with a bWAR of 1.0.
Of the four No. 2 picks never to make it to the majors, two—Mike Lentz (Padres, 1975) and Garry Harris (Blue Jays, '80)—lasted just four years in the minors and never rose above Double A, playing their final professional seasons at the ages of 22 and 20, respectively. August “Augie” Robert Schmidt IV (Blue Jays, 1982), spent five seasons in the minors before retiring at age 26 to follow in his father’s footsteps as a baseball coach at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Mark Merchant (Pirates, 1987), chosen out of a Florida high school, was the only No. 2 selection to stick with baseball into his late 20s without making the major leagues. A switch-hitting outfielder, Merchant played professionally for 12 seasons for five organizations, plus tours through the Mexican and independent leagues, but accumulated just 307 plate appearances with affiliated Triple A teams and retired after his age-29 season in 1998.
One current player who could add his name to that list is 2011's No. 2 choice, Seattle lefthander Danny Hultzen. A refined pitcher out of the University of Virginia who was expected to be on a fast track to the majors, Hultzen debuted in Double A in 2012 but walked a whopping 43 batters in 48 2/3 innings after a mid-season promotion to Triple A. The following year, he made just seven starts before undergoing major shoulder surgery. He has made all of three regular-season starts since, the last coming more than a year ago. An arm injury will also slow the progress of 2014's No. 2 pick, Marlins righty Tyler Kolek, who underwent Tommy John surgery in April.
Fittingly, the most notable No. 2 pick in the draft's 51-year history came in the second year of the draft's existence. That was in 1966, when the Athletics chose future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who made headlines three years ago by claiming that he was passed over as the top pick by the Mets because they didn’t like the fact that his girlfriend was white. New York drafted catcher Steven Chilcott instead; he hurt his shoulder in Class A ball in 1967 and would become one of just two No. 1 picks to retire without having reached the majors, the other being lefty pitcher Brien Taylor, whom the Yankees took out of a North Carolina high school in 1991. Runners-up to Jackson include J.R. Richard (Astros, 1969), Will Clark (Giants, '85), Josh Beckett (Marlins, '99), Justin Verlander (Tigers, 2004) and Alex Gordon (Royals, '05).
Kris Bryant (Cubs, 2013) appears poised to add his name to the list of best No. 2 picks, though Chicago fans should know better than to make assumptions about the futures of their No. 2 picks. Terry Hughes (1967) played just two games for the Cubs in a forgettable three-year career. Joe Carter (1981) was traded before he could deliver the kind of historic moment Chicago fans have now waited more than 100 years for. Mark Prior (2001) fell apart due to injuries after flashing Cy Young stuff at age 22 in '03.
The Pirates have been burned by No. 2 picks before, as well. Merchant was the biggest bust, but Pedro Alvarez, taken at that spot in 2008, never fully lived up to his potential, hitting .236/.309/.441 (107 OPS+) in parts of six seasons for Pittsburgh before being non-tendered last December. That said, Alvarez, who is now with the Orioles, did have a big year in 2013: He led the National League with 36 home runs, made the NL All-Star team and contributed to Pittsburgh's first winning season and playoff berth in 21 years.
It’s certainly possible that Taillon could have an even better career for the Pirates than Alvarez did. First, he'll need to stay in the rotation beyond this week. Taillon is effectively a sixth starter at the moment, with Pittsburgh having used Jonathon Niese and Juan Nicasio in Tuesday’s doubleheader. But Francisco Liriano has struggled mightily this season, with his poor control (5.5 walks per nine) a major concern. Taillon’s start tonight and Monday’s off-day allowed the Pirates to push Liriano’s next start to Saturday against the Cardinals, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them use a phantom injury to put Liriano on the disabled list should Taillon pitch well and Liriano struggle again. The matchups certainly favor the rookie, with the Mets’ offense scuffling (just two runs scored in their last three games) and the Cardinals’ surging (19 runs over the same span).
For now, however, all Taillon can do is to show the Pirates that, after his long journey to the major leagues, he belongs.