The news came down on Sunday that Pirates top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon would miss the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. It didn't come as a terrible shock to most people, given that he was shut down in late-March with pain in his throwing elbow and, when last we heard, he was getting a second opinion on the elbow that no one wanted to talk about.
For Taillon's future this is pretty simple. Tommy John is no minor procedure, with a daunting 12-to-18 month recovery period. There is a common misconception that recovering from Tommy John is an automatic, and that the year off is simply a waiting period until the player returns to form, or comes back even stronger (there are a few cases of players coming back with increased velocity, but it is much rarer than most would have you believe). What we don't see is the incredible amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, and the long year Taillon has ahead of him, but mentally and physically.
Tommy John does, however, have a high success rate, and Taillon's generally clean bill of health before this and young age give him as good of odds as any of returning to form. The 2014 season is gone for Taillon, but until we hear otherwise, it's reasonable to think he'll be back on the mound sometime next season.
For the Pirates, this brings to light a few decisions that they've made over the past 12 months. As an organization, the Pirates entered spring training with as much major league pitching depth as any team in baseball. After settling on their top five, they still had two starters with major league experience, Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton, left over for depth (with Cumpton heading to Triple-A and Locke to the DL with an oblique strain).
The Pirates were able to take a chance on Edinson Volquez this off-season instead of going after more expensive free agents on the market because of this depth, and there is no denying that Taillon was a large factor in the decision. By all accounts, he was slated to head to Triple-A until the super two deadline had safely passed, then, if a spot in the majors was available for him (or perhaps even if one wasn't), he fulfill his destiny as a part of the Pirates rotation.
I'm not a fan of the TINSTAAPP acronym, but I get it. There are, of course, many pitching prospects and Taillon was one of them, and a highly touted one at that. A more accurate acronym would be PPGHSHLOT (Pitching Prospects Get Hurt So Have Lots of Them), but it's not catchy, so I doubt it will stick. The reason the Pirates did not go out and sign Ubaldo Jimenez or Matt Garza this off-season (or make a better effort to retain A.J. Burnett) isn't solely because they thought Taillon was on his way. It was the combination of Taillon, Locke, Cumpton, Andy Oliver, Nick Kingham and eventually Vance Worley within their own farm system. That's a long list of pitchers that come in a lot of shapes, sizes and levels of ability, but they all provide the same thing for the 2014 Pirates - depth.
The Pirates could use help at first base. They've been tied to the likes of Mike Carp, Ike Davis, and pretty much any other left-handed first baseman in the game, and every team is rumored to have asked for a pitching prospect in return. Neal Huntington has been unwilling to part with his depth, whether the major league ready depth discussed above of his enviable stable of pitching prospects in the lower minors, for a second-tier solution to a platoon.
A fellow National League general manager told me a few years ago that he hated dealing with Huntington because Huntington always over-valued his own players and always asked for too much in return. Whether true or not, Huntington has been notoriously conservative in recent years when it comes to pulling the trigger, generally making smaller deals that provide incremental benefit rather than parting with a big prospect for a bigger return.
Perhaps he knows what he's doing after all.
The Pirates lack of a move is one of the reasons they will be okay in 2014 without Taillon waiting in the wings. A jolt to the staff like the one they received last season from Gerrit Cole would have been nice, but their entire season wasn't hinging on it. It's not hinging on the resurgence of Volquez either. The Pirates depth, not from one to five in their rotation, but well beyond that into Triple-A and Double-A, is what will allow them to survive a blow like this one.
For their organization as a whole, this is but a minor set back, much like it was for the Nationals when Stephen Strasburg missed a year and like it is for the Mets right now without Matt Harvey. It may hurt the 2014 edition of the Pirates slightly, but they were prepared for this as well as any organization could be for the loss of their top pitching prospect.
For Taillon, the road ahead of him is long, but it's one he's well prepared to traverse. Because of it's common nature, we take Tommy John surgery, or more accurately its recovery, for granted, but it is a high-recovery procedure that should allow Taillon to return in a year to where he was before.