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As one of the Cubs’ biggest offseason expenditures, Jameson Taillon came to Chicago with high expectations. Being a seven-year veteran only added to them.
But through eight starts with the Cubs, Taillon has struggled to meet those expectations. Where the rest of the rotation is doing pretty well – their collective 4.03 ERA ranks in the top third in the league – Taillon has not picked up his share of the slack. Again, being a veteran, the expectation is that he would be contributing to the success of the starting corps.
It’s hard to call his Saturday outing against the Reds – 4 ⅔ innings pitched, four runs on six hits, five strikeouts and one walk in an 8-5 loss – anything but more of the same. If it was a step in the right direction, it’s a baby step. His season ERA went from 8.10 to 8.04.
Not what the Cubs are looking for from the guy they signed last winter for four years, $68 million. In terms of total dollar value, he has the fourth-largest contract on the team. But despite the results he’s getting so far, Taillon retains some confidence that he has a clear sense for what he needs to do going forward in order for things to improve.
“I throw a lot of pitches, and that can be a good thing, but it can also kind of cloudy up who I am and who I need to be,” he said. “I want to be able to throw a lot of pitches when I need to, but at the same time, let’s remember what my strengths are: four seam fastballs, curveballs, sliders. And then on top of that I can add a cutter, add a two-seam, but I felt like I got away from who I was at my core.”
There are some mechanical things going on as well he said, but Taillon said his main focus is on simplifying his pitch mix. He is not looking to abandon certain pitches, but instead start going to them more selectively.
Taillon and manager David Ross both characterized Saturday’s start as at least a modest step in the right direction. Ross was somewhat pleased with the way Taillon was attacking hitters and more aggressive in the strike zone, and Taillon said he felt like he was “a closer version to myself and where I need to be and where I should expect to be going forward.”
The results still aren’t there, but if there is cause to be at all optimistic about Taillon, maybe it’s that he seems at least outwardly confident that he has his finger on the problem. And pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is on the same page.
“He’s a guy who can do a lot of things,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught up in like, ‘Oh, I think I have this open right now’ or ‘I might be able to backdoor the cutter and then go to a chase slider’ and all those different things.
“I think the key for us is let’s get his foundation of what makes him the best pitcher first, and then we can work off of that.”
The fact that Taillon is even in this position at the end of May is surprising. He was the Cubs’ biggest acquisition on the pitching side this offseason, and with good reason. Taillon was coming off of two strong seasons with the Yankees, particularly 2022 when he threw 177 ⅓ innings and posted a 3.91 ERA in 32 starts.
But his first two starts went poorly, his third on April 15 against the Dodgers went slightly better, and then he was sidelined by a groin strain for almost three weeks. Those two things have kept Taillon from being able to get on the kind of roll he needs, Ross believes. The Cubs skipper said he thinks the best remedy for Taillon will be to get the chance to string together a handful of good starts.
Doing that will renew a sense of confidence, Ross said, because veteran or not, he knows Taillon came to Chicago knowing the new uniform and sizable contract meant he would have to prove himself to a new fanbase.
“You feel like you’re trying to prove your worth to that group, whether it’s your teammates, the front office, the people that gave you the money and the trust to be good at your job,” Ross said. “I think that’s definitely something every guy to some extent internalizes and wants to do good for the organization and do good for their family and the fans and help win ballgames.”
That’s a common human experience. Heading into a new environment means there will be unfamiliarity, and with that, uncertainty. Ross likened it to a conversation he had with a couple of his children earlier this week about finishing a school year and moving up a grade level. In one of his kids’ case, that means changing schools. All the confidence and self-assuredness of being one of the oldest students in middle school goes away when you first walk into the halls of your high school. Taillon might be a veteran, and one who has changed teams and pitched for a big-market team before, but there was always going to be the pressure to feel like he had to prove himself. His situation here isn’t exactly the same, but the analogy works.
“I think there’s probably a level of him trying so hard to impress. He wants to live up to his contract, he wants to impress the fans, and I think that’s a challenge,” team president Jed Hoyer said. “But I mean, we’ve seen it so many times with different guys. [Craig] Kimbrel struggled when he first got here; was awesome after that. [Yu] Darvish struggled when I first got here; almost won a Cy Young. So, I’m not the least bit worried.”
What now then? Taillon may be feeling optimistic that he is making progress even if the results aren’t showing up in the box score yet, but there is a growing sense of urgency about how the Cubs season is unfolding. At the 51-game mark, they are 22-29 and slipped from third in their division to last. By winning percentage, they have the worst record in the National League. Being in the weak NL Central means they are only 4.5 games out of first place, but the Cubs are on a bad trajectory.
Saturday’s loss wasn’t all about Taillon – Michael Fulmer took over for him and gave up the go-ahead homer in the fifth inning, and then Jeremiah Estrada surrendered two more runs – but how well he pitches going forward can help make a difference.
“When it’s my name called on that start dates, it’s time to put my head down and just start knocking those good starts out,” Taillon said.
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