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On Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole and developing prospects: (Moderately) slow and steady (usually) wins the race


March is my least favorite month for baseball blogging. There's almost no actual news, but all kinds of faux-news, things like spring training games and spring training cuts and so-and-so being in The Best Shape Of His Life. We can (and do) argue about the back end of the roster, but in the end, that means next to nothing, because the guys on the bench won't play much, and the guys who just miss making it are likely to wind up on the bench later in the season anyway. We can speculate about why, say, the Pirates sent down Jerry Sands so early in camp, but ultimately, we don't have any idea what that means, if it means anything. And a large percentage of the arguments we could even potentially have this time of year (that is, that are borne out of the events of the day, and not that we just make up arbitrarily) are arguments that we shouldn't even be having, and probably wouldn't have any other time of year.

Right now, then, much of what there is to talk about is why Gerrit Cole isn't going to make the team, or why Brad Hawpe isn't going to make the team, or why the Pirates sending Sands and Stolmy Pimentel to the minors doesn't say much of anything about the Joel Hanrahan trade. These aren't issues we'd be concerned about if there were meaningful baseball to discuss.

Well, Dejan Kovacevic just started a new one (despite doing a nice job last week putting out the fire on the Cole debate).

Ever wonder why the Pirates move prospects through their system more slowly than most?

Neal Huntington provided a glimpse Wednesday with this description of Jameson Taillon excelling in a four-inning World Baseball Classic start: "It was unnerving, as a GM, to watch a young pitcher with as high expectations as we have for Taillon pitch a make-or-break game against Team USA. But he handled himself well." ...

He'll begin this season with Double-A Altoona.

That's unnerving.

I wasn't really sure what Dejan was talking about, so I listened to his accompanying radio visit with Ken Laird, starting at about 14:40. Dejan's problem is that Taillon will be assigned to Altoona rather than Indianapolis, which Dejan chalks up to "mind games and other petty stuff."

If there's evidence that the Pirates are playing "mind games" with Taillon in particular, I haven't yet heard of it. And sending him back to Double A makes all kinds of sense. Taillon pitched all of three starts for Altoona last year and spent most of the year at Bradenton, where he didn't exactly dominate, with only 7.06 K/9. (K/9 is calculated by dividing innings total by nine and then ... no, never mind, Ken, forget it.) Sending someone to Triple A after three starts in Double A isn't a standard move, and there are usually good reasons not to. In Taillon's case, he just reintegrated a two-seam fastball into his repertoire and he needs to work on his changeup. (Dejan cites Taillon's WBC performance as evidence that he should be moved up. I didn't see that start, but every report I read from those who did said Taillon threw his changeup very infrequently.) And again, there's also the fact that Taillon's results in Bradenton last year were far from great.

If Taillon had been a polished college product who carved up his first several levels, like Trevor Bauer did, that would be one thing. (And even in that case, you can argue that the Diamondbacks might, in retrospect, have been a little too aggressive with Bauer.) But Taillon was drafted out of high school, and was more raw than many or most top college prospects when he was drafted. His performance last year suggests he still has more to work on, and so does the fact that he wasn't really relying on the changeup in the WBC start. The Pirates also want him to work on being more consistent mechanically and work on making his pitches more consistent. That's not "petty stuff," that's a development plan for a guy who still only has three starts above Class A+.

I can't say for sure, obviously, whether Taillon could succeed right now in Triple A. Maybe be could and it would be fine. Maybe be could, but he might miss out on some important components of his development if he were rushed.

What I do know, though, is this: Sending a guy back to Double A when he's only had three starts there hardly qualifies as conservative, but the Pirates tend to be conservative in promoting their prospects, and this is good. It's better, generally speaking, to hold a player at a level a little too long than to move him up too soon. If you rush a player, you run the risk of derailing his development. (See Andrew Miller and Andy Oliver.) And even if that doesn't happen, you run the risk of getting him to the majors before he's really firing on all cylinders. (See Aramis Ramirez, whose trouble in the Pirates organization started with him skipping Double A. See also Jose Guillen and Jeremy Bonderman.)

Since several of these players came from the Detroit organization, compare the career paths of players like Miller and Oliver to those of, say, Austin Jackson (who actually came up with the Yankees) and Curtis Granderson. Those players are hitters, of course, and all this evidence is anecdotal, but look at the way Jackson and Granderson didn't dominate in the minors, but played well and moved slowly from one level to the next. Not all players who follow their basic career path turn out as well as they did, but it's no coincidence that both are now reasonably complete major-leaguers.

It's also no coincidence that we're discussing current and former Tigers. The Tigers have their top prospects charge through the minors all the time, so their organization provides plenty of interesting case studies. For what it's worth, if a player dominates the way Justin Verlander did in the minors, then fine -- move him quickly. But when it's a player who's not dominating, that's a different story, and the risk greatly outweighs the reward. Occasionally the overnight delivery will get you a Drew Smyly (if in fact Drew Smyly can conclusively be labeled a success). But often you get Broken Drew Smyly or Undercooked Drew Smyly, and who wants to open a care package from Mom and find Broken Drew Smyly inside?

Is it really so important to get Jameson Taillon (or Cole) in the rotation as soon as possible, if it means potentially getting a couple seasons of 4.5 ERAs while they sort out their development issues, or possibly having to send them back to the minors when it turns out they weren't ready? Wouldn't it be better to wait three months or a year, take one season with the 4.5 ERA and know that they'll be closer to a finished product when they arrive? And where's the harm in making a player prove he outclasses his current level -- usually over more than three starts -- before moving him along to the next one?

And really, what's the rush in general? It's not as if anyone is predicting the Pirates will be a playoff team, or even anything close to it. If you want to risk the development of a good young prospect in order to win a World Series, that's certainly worth discussing -- it worked for Miguel Cabrera and the 2003 Marlins. But the Pirates look like a 75-80 win team, so is there any real harm in spending the extra couple months to make sure Cole is ready for the majors and Taillon is ready for Triple A? If Cole and Taillon pitch particularly well at Triple A and Double A, respectively, and are still there in August, that's a problem. But it's a good habit to have them get at least a handful of starts at those levels before passing Go.

Slow and steady wins the race. Or, "Moderately slow and steady usually wins the race," in this instance. The Pirates are moving Cole and Taillon at a reasonable pace, just as they should be.