This will be the first in a series of articles that compares prospects by walking, step-by-step, through their scouting reports, culminating in my personal recommendation about which prospect is the better bet to reach their ceiling and help your team in the big leagues.
In this first installment I will tackle two Pittsburgh Pirates prospects who many within the industry consider number one and number one “a” in the club’s system. Right-handers Gerrit Cole and James Taillon are the Pirates two most recent first round draft picks, having been selected in 2011 and 2010, respectively. Cole made his way to the Pirates after spurning the Yankees as a first round pick in 2008 while Taillon chose to sign straight out of high school nearly two years ago. The Pirates’ cumulative investment in their top two prospects is a whopping $14.5 million.
Both Cole and Taillon offer exceptional size that is the foundation for their profile as top prospects. Taillon’s body (6-6, 225) is extremely mature for his age and he has an advanced feel for controlling his body in space, giving him surprisingly repeatable mechanics for a player of his age and size. Cole has thickened his frame (6-4, 220) since high school while also cleaning up his delivery and becoming more consistent mechanically.
While both players have the ability to generate angle to the plate, Taillon’s plane is more dramatic and more consistent due to his height and higher arm slot. Cole has an occasional tendency to lower his slot and lose angle on his pitches.
Moving away from the basics of how they deliver the ball to the plate, I now want to focus on the meat of their scouting reports, starting first with their individual pitches.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. We’re talking about two pitchers with fastballs that earn consistent “sevens” from scouts.
Cole’s fastball will occasionally earn the vaunted “eight” or “80” grade and he should sit with an elite fastball over the long term. He consistently pumped 95-97 mph heat at UCLA last year and continued that in the fall instructional league, while touching triple digits regularly. Cole loves using his fastball and relishes big numbers on the radar gun. He gets caught overthrowing frequently and his fastball has a tendency to lose life when he reaches back for an extra tick. That said his fastball is so explosive that hitters have a tough time catching up to him and he can blow it by people regularly.
With Taillon, the fastball sits consistently in the plus-plus range, showing 94-96 mph and rarely showing more than that in his starts. He stays within himself and when he shows 97 or 98 mph it looks more natural than Cole. Scouts that saw Taillon throughout the summer were surprised at the fluctuation in his velocity, as he showed the big time stuff at times but also showed 91-92 mph heat during his starts. It would be easy to project Taillon to have sustained and peak velocity comparable to Cole but you have to wonder just how much more he has in him physically. It seems a stretch to believe that a 6-6, 225 pound, 20-year-old really has all that much growing left to do. To me, it seems more reasonable to suggest that any remaining growth with Taillon’s fastball comes in the form of sustained plus-plus velocity rather than peaking with elite velocity.
In a comparison of this nature it is difficult to argue with either of the fastballs presented. Personally, I have more faith in the explosion and elite velocity of Cole than I do the projection of Taillon’s ability to sustain a mid- to upper-90s fastball.
Yet again both Taillon and Cole feature impressive pitches here, though they remain very different in their construction and movement.
Taillon is the proud owner of a classic power pitcher’s curveball. He imparts outstanding overhand spin on the ball, allowing it to be a true 12-6 hammer. Similar to his fastball, the curveball has excellent plane approaching the plate and the outstanding depth on the pitch makes it a true swing and miss offering. Taillon doesn’t always trust his curve and will get caught shying away from it at times. When he throws it consistently it will show as a plus to plus-plus pitch and should sit comfortably in that range once fully developed.
Scouts that saw Taillon in 2011 didn’t regularly see the slider he showed in high school. Even when he did throw the slider it wasn’t better than a fringe-average pitch and likely won’t be a significant part of his arsenal moving forward.
The lower arm slot featured by Cole lends much better to the slider than the classic overhand curve that Taillon throws, and he takes full advantage of that with a filthy two-plane slider. He generally keeps his fingers on top of the ball as he delivers it and has the strength to give it plenty of snap. At its best, Cole’s slider is positively devastating with short but sharp downward bite and excellent horizontal break. The vast majority of scouts I spoke to last year gave Cole’s slider anything but a “70” as a future grade.
I love Cole’s slider and believe it could be a dominating pitch in the big leagues, but I’m also admittedly a sucker for an old school hammer that can be a true knee buckler. Though it requires more projection than Cole’s slider, I give the slight edge to Taillon’s curveball as the better breaking ball long term.
For both players the change-up is the distant third pitch in the arsenal. Cole worked hard on a change-up while at UCLA and though it remains generally fringe-average, it will flash as a plus offering on occasion. He maintains good arm speed when throwing his change-up, adding to its deception, and also coaxes some sink and fade out of the pitch. Scouts did consistently note that Cole has a tendency to overthrow his change and he doesn’t always seem to trust it in tight spots.
Taillon didn’t need a change-up in high school and only began working on the pitch in earnest after signing with the Pirates. He picked it up quickly and while it clearly remains his third best pitch, he has showed some aptitude for it. When he trusts his grip and lets it fly he can show at least an average one now and could have better than that if it really comes along.
Neither player’s success is going to be made or lost on the back of their change-up. If either of them can consistently feature an average or better change-up then that will cement them as potential All-Star starters. I am tempted to give the nod to Taillon’s change-up simply because of the better touch and feel he shows for pitching and the belief in his ability to “get it” with the pitch. Despite that, I believe the velocity separation and dramatic development of Cole’s change-up over the last two years gives him the edge.
The touch and feel for pitching that I just discussed with Taillon really comes into play here. For his age he has an advanced feel for pitching, including an ability to move all of his pitches around the strike zone. He showed an aptitude for pushing his fastball to the outside corner routinely and though he didn’t do it consistently in 2011, at times he showed that he could also run his fastball on the inside corner to keep hitters honest. The ease with which Taillon repeats his delivery and the cleanliness of his arm action make his command extremely projectable and scouts were comfortable going as high as plus future command.
Cole is more of a pitcher than he was when the Yankees first drafted him, but he still lacks refined command. Though his delivery has improved, the effort that still exists makes it hard for him to locate throughout the zone. He showed in 2011 that he could throw strikes routinely, something that was a positive step forward. Outside of some minor improvements to his release and half a tick of additional command, Cole doesn’t project to move much beyond the control pitcher he is right now. To his credit, the explosiveness of his fastball and slider don’t necessitate pinpoint command.
Though Taillon’s command projection is far more dream than reality right now, you have to give him the edge for at least having the projection for plus command. Both pitchers will fill the strike zone throughout their careers, but the potential ability to locate to all four quadrants of the strike zone gives Taillon the leg up here.
Both pitchers offer a solid feel for the secondary aspects of pitching, things like fielding their position and holding runners. They should continue to improve in both areas with additional experience. Neither has truly grasped the art of sequencing at this time, as both will rely on ramping up their fastballs to get out of jams rather than setting hitters up and inducing weak swings or contact. One knock Cole has received from scouts is the emotion he shows on the mound. It goes beyond fiery competitiveness to the point of wearing it all on his sleeve and at times allowing his emotions to get the better of him during games.
Major League organizations would relish the opportunity to have either of these pitchers as part of their system. While talk has existed that suggests both Cole and Taillon have true ace potential, I am not of the opinion that both have a chance at such a lofty and often overused ceiling. Cole’s electricity and the presence of two 70-grade offerings with a third potential plus pitch gives him the look of a potential number one starter. While Taillon’s ceiling is considerable, I believe he falls a tick short of that threshold and has more of a really nice number two starter ceiling.
If given the choice between Gerrit Cole and James Taillon, I take Cole nearly every time and hope he fulfills his considerable potential.
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