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Why the Cubs aren’t overly concerned with Jameson Taillon’s slow start to the season

9 months agoAndy Martinez and Tony Andracki

It’s a bit of a perplexing situation for Jameson Taillon and the Cubs.

“He’s never really struggled like this before,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “He’s pitched in the American League East exceptionally well for [two] years.”

The veteran righty has not been able to get into a groove this year, pitching to an 8.04 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and has yet to go deeper than 5 innings in a game this season. Taillon was signed to a 4-year deal this offseason with the expectation that he could slot near the top of the Cubs rotation.

He was that type of pitcher over the last two seasons in New York with a 4.08 ERA. He really took over last year, posting a 3.91 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 177 innings with a Yankees team that was pitching into October and had high expectations all season.

“When a guy signs a free agent contract, oftentimes the early part of that can go 1 of 2 ways — they get hot early, get comfortable or sometimes they struggle,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer pointed to Trea Turner, who signed an 11-year, $300 million contract and has struggled with Philadelphia to the tune of a .671 OPS and 78 weighted runs created plus, 19 points below league average. But with Taillon, it’s a situation the Cubs are trying to remedy — and fast.

With Kyle Hendricks returning from the IL for Thursday’s game, that allowed the Cubs to push Taillon back in the rotation to Saturday.

While Taillon and David Ross felt Saturday’s outing was a clear step in the right direction for the veteran right-hander, he still couldn’t make it out of the 5th inning and was charged with 4 runs in the Cubs’ 8-5 loss to the Reds.

“I thought that was probably a closer version to myself and where I need to be and where I should expect to be going forward,” Taillon said. “Not so much results-wise but more just pitch package stuff, conviction, aggression, in the strike zone. I thought that was a lot closer to where I need to be but we’re still not obviously quite there yet. But I thought it was a good step.”

Taillon initially appeared to be getting on track in mid-April when he struck out 7 in 5 shutout innings against the Dodgers. But he landed on the IL after that with a groin injury and missed a couple of weeks.

Since he has returned from the IL, Taillon has allowed 23 runs (21 earned) in 17.1 innings.

The Cubs hope the extra time off will help Taillon right the ship and get back to the pitcher he has been previously in his career.

“We’re able to buy a couple of extra days to hone in on some mechanical things that we’re wanting to refocus on,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “But also just refining the pitch packaging a little bit. Getting him back to what we feel like his strengths are. Kinda simplifying some things and getting a couple of bullpens in to work on those always are gonna be beneficial.

“Since he’s come back from the IL, it has been like a nonstop, let’s go, let’s keep working, keep working and trying to get ready for every five days. So that extra two days is extremely valuable in accomplishing a lot of different things.”

The Cubs have not been able to put together a consistent stretch of good play since late April and adding an in-sync Taillon to a rotation that has had strong performances from Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Drew Smyly can be a gamechanger for the Cubs.

From a stuff perspective, Taillon’s pitches haven’t changed much – in a lot of cases, they’ve actually slightly improved. Based on Stuff+, a metric that grades pitches based on velocity, break, arm angle and release extension, where 100 is league average, here’s how Taillon’s pitches rank compared to last year:

Pitch type – 2023 grade/2022 grade

4-seam fastball – 89/101
Sinker – 103/95
Cutter – 100/97
Slider – 115/100
Curveball – 120/108
Changeup – 85/90

That’s partially why the Cubs aren’t overly concerned with the slow start. He battled a left groin strain, then returned to the rotation without a rehab assignment, so that could have attributed to some of his struggles, too. Regardless, he isn’t the first player the Cubs have seen go through some struggles after signing in free agency.

“He wants to live up to his contract. He wants to impress the fans. I think that’s a challenge,” Hoyer said. “We’ve seen it so many times with different guys. Kimbrel struggled when he first got here, was awesome after that. Darvish struggled when he first got here, almost won a Cy Young.

“Not the least bit worried. Not worried but also putting in the time to really figure out exactly what we can do for him. We’re spending all that time, but I think we can get there, hopefully really quickly.”

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