On Friday, the Nationals officially announced RHP Taylor Jordan will make his Major League debut, and start for them on Saturday against the New York Mets. Jordan takes the place of Dan Haren in the rotation, and was cleared a spot on the roster after the front office outrighted Ryan Perry to the minors and then optioned Chris Marrero.
Coming into 2013, Jordan was a relative unknown in the Nationals prospect world, barely breaking my top 30 for 2013. So, if you don’t know much about him, don’t worry, you’re not in the minority. Here’s a brief background and scouting report on the 24-year-old righty…
As an amateur player, Jordan played under former state coach of the year Chuck Goldfarb at Merritt Island High School. The Merritt Mustangs are well known for two things primarily: (1) their dominance at the class 5A level during the late 90’s and early 2000’s; (2) and as the alma mater of former phenom and current Pirates manager Clint Hurtle.
Merritt Island is located in Brevard County, which also happens to be the home of the Nationals’ spring complex. So, when Jordan posted dominant numbers as a senior for the Mustangs, the Nationals were able to get plenty of good looks at him. During the 2006-2007 season, while leading Merritt Island to a 22-2 record and a district title, Jordan went 12-1 with a microscopic 0.94 ERA and struck out 94 batters in 74.1 innings.
At that time, Jordan was already touching the low 90’s with his fastball, and along with his velocity, his strong 6’3″ frame also drew waves of scouts and recruiters. And come draft day 2007, he was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 18th round. He came very close to signing with the club, but ultimately decided he wasn’t prepared for the rigors of a professional career and decided to attend junior college for a couple of years before re-trying his hand.
After inexplicably missing a season of baseball at nearby Indian River Community College, Jordan put together a strong season for a weak team at local Brevard College. Already familiar with him from the last draft, the Nationals felt they had a great opportunity to get a live-armed, underrated prospected and ended up snagging him in the ninth round in 2009. Jordan accepted a slot bonus of $99.5K and showed plenty of promise during a 10-game stint in the instructional league.
Jordan got his first taste of A-ball the following season in 201o, and while he flashed brilliance at times, his age and inexperience showed in his inconsistency. He gave up two or fewer runs in eight of his thirteen starts, but allowed a total of 29 earned runs in those other five, spanning only 23 innings. His season ERA sat at a mediocre 5.37 by season’s end, though he did manage to get his feet wet in the South Atlantic League.
Jordan spent the offseason working with Brian Daubach and the system’s pitching coaches and trainers to improve his delivery and work on commanding his sinking fastball down in the strike zone. The extra work paid major dividends immediately, as in 2011 he started the season by dominating the South Atlantic League. Through his first 54 1/3 innings, he posted a 2.47 ERA and his ground-out/fly-out ratio improved by a quarter. He ended up making the SAL’s North Division All-Star team and was the league’s ERA leader (2.48 ERA) when he made the best start of his pro career (up until then) on July 9. Facing the West Virginia Power (a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate), Jordan tossed a seven-inning complete game shutout. He allowed only four hits in the contest and didn’t walk a single batter.
However, soon after that high point, Jordan’s luck took a sharp turn for the worse. While throwing a bullpen session in between starts, he felt a catching pain in the back of his pitching arm. Daubach, the Hagerstown Suns’ manager, sent him to get checked out by team doctors. The prognosis was negative, as his elbow showed significant wear. After trying to rehab the injury for a couple of weeks, he went under the knife and had reconstructive elbow surgery, which generally keeps pitchers on the shelf for a year or more.
Taylor had been performing at his best before the injury, and was throwing his sinker with mid 90s velocity and superb command. Tommy John surgery was a tough break, but he didn’t let it defeat him by any means. On the contrary, he actually worked doubly hard to rehabilitate his body after the surgery. Following an arduous 10 months of training and physical therapy, he made it back to the Hagerstown mound in June 2012. He proceeded to post solid numbers for the next three months and displayed even better fastball velocity than he had pre-injury.
This season, Jordan has taken his game to another level. Now a year removed from Tommy John surgery, he’s not only found even more life on his heater, but he’s also added a more polished off-speed repertoire and his command has improved dramatically as well.
The Nationals felt confident that Jordan could handle an assignment to the Carolina League with the P-Nats to open the spring, and evidently, they were right. Since shutting out the Rome Braves for six innings in his first game of the season on April 6, Jordan has absolutely dominated opposing lineups. Through fifteen games and fourteen starts now — including eight with the Harrisburg Senators in double-A — Jordan has held the opposition to one or fewer earned runs an unbelievable thirteen times and hasn’t allowed more than two all year. He recently tossed the first nine-inning shutout of his career against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, striking out a career-high 11 batters after taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
With the big league call up, Jordan leaves the minors as the Nationals system’s most dominant pitcher. He has the lowest ERA (1.00) of any pitcher (with more than 10 innings on the season), at any level in the organization and he’s also tops with nine wins and a 0.92 WHIP. His performance not only earned him a spot in the Nats rotation while Haren is (hopefully) doing his best to get it together, but Jordan was also named to the Futures Game roster along with many of the best prospects in the game.
Jordan is the real deal, and his teammates and coaches fully believe he’s prepared to play in the Major Leagues at a high level — even comparing him to Jered Weaver. He has the tools for the trade; velocity, command, off-speed stuff, as well as the peripheral numbers — high groundball rates (52%), high K/BB (4.80 this year) and low FIP (2.79 career).
Jordan’s best pitch is his hard and heavy two-seam fastball. The pitch sits in the 92-94 mph range with bowling-ball heavy sink low in the zone. He’s adept at commanding it down-and-in on opposing hitters, and will pronate extra and use the pitch’s tail to run it across the outside edge of the plate against right-handed hitters for called strikes. He absolutely wears the strike zone out with the pitch, drawing tons of weak contact and swing-throughs. But unlike many young hard-throwers, Jordan’s fastball command is now a plus after the tireless work he put into improving the past few years and he throws quality strikes with the pitch consistently.
Jordan is a big guy with a solid pitcher’s frame. He’s filled out nicely over the past few years and appears to be a strong athlete for the position. He repeats his delivery well, shows good balance, and finishes all of his pitches. He’s very good at keeping the ball away from the barrel, and his fluid delivery is a major reason for that. His arm action was a weak point when he was younger, but is looking better lately. There’s still some extra funk in there, twisting and wrapping a bit on the arm swing and therefore putting excess stress on his elbow and shoulder ligaments, but it’s nothing too serious. On the bright side it adds deception to his pitches, hiding them from the batter’s eye for an extra few moments.
Jordan’s off-speed stuff has made huge strides since his days at junior college. He throws a slider and a changeup, both with at least average command. Sitting 81-84 mph, his change is his best secondary offering right now, showing heavy two-seam fade out of the same slot and with dentical arm speed to his fastball. Like Kevin Gausman or Ian Kennedy, the pitch acts almost like a splitter — dying as it gets to the plate and rolling away from left-handed hitters. He’ll use it in fastball counts to draw a swing-and-miss, particularly against left-handed hitters, and he has held them to a lights-out .230/.278/.290 line this season. More importantly than the break though, he throws his changeup like his hardest fastball, and out of the same tunnel, causing a lot of problems for opposing hitters. Occasionally he’ll turn it over a little bit hard, causing a popping action, but overall it’s a plus pitch.
His slider is also a solid offering, and a couple of years ago was his go-to off-speed pitch. He used to drop down closer to a traditional three-quarters slot to deliver it, causing more sweeping break. Nowadays, he’s releasing it out of a similar tunnel to his other pitches, and throwing it harder with more tilted break. The idea here is to keep opposing hitters from picking up what’s coming from his delivery/arm-slot. He doesn’t have the same feel for his slider as he does his other pitches, and is prone to hanging it or losing it in the dirt. When he’s on though, it can play above-average and draw strikeouts and grounders as opposing hitters gear up for his fastball, only to swing over it as it disappears. It’s generally clocked in the low 80’s, making it even tougher to differentiate from his change-up, and he’s shown some ability to spot it with back-door break.
Jordan gets high marks from his coaches for his makeup and how he approaches his craft. His former pitching coach with the Harrisburg Senators, Paul Menhart, raves about his ability to focus on each pitch and to slow the game down to his pace and take control of a situation. Menhart believes that Jordan is both mentally and physically prepared for the show, and even thinks that he’ll continue to dice-up opposing lineups at a similar rate to the one he has been on in the minors this year.
Though know pitcher truly pitches to contact, Jordan certainly isn’t afraid of it, and forces hitters to put swings on pitchers pitches by getting ahead and then working the edges of the strikezone. He’s held opposing batters to a 15% line-drive percentage in his career, which is extremely low when taking his low BB/9, and his 51% ground-ball percentage into account.
There’s few knocks against Jordan outside of some twisting in his arm action, which makes him more prone to arm trouble. His three-pitch mix is major-league ready, and both his two-seamer and changeup rate consistently as above-average pitches. He also shows plus command of his fastball, though his tendency to pound the strikezone with his pitches could pose some adjustments issues in the majors. His stuff is good enough to fight through Major League swings, but as the Orioles saw with Kevin Gausman recently, no matter how well you throw you still can’t leave your stuff in the middle of the plate in the show.
Jordan certainly has the chops to be a successful starter in the big leagues, maybe even a front-end-quality contributor if he can stay healthy and he can learn to mix up his arsenal and locations a bit more. A lot like Chien-Ming Wang’s profile when he was a prospect, Jordan’s repertoire, high groundball rates and efficiency could also thrive as a closer– especially if his arm troubles resurface and force him into a relief role.
For now, the Nationals will give Jordan a couple of starts to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation. If he continues to pitch well, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t keep him on a leash and give him a few more games and then go from there. After all, even when Dan Haren returns from the DL, he shouldn’t be a lock to re-assume his starting gig. Haren has shown nothing but sub-par stuff this season and has declined consistently over the past four seasons. Sad to say, but his arm looks dead, and unless he somehow re-finds some juice, the Nationals would be best suited going in another direction (Jordan, Karns) than to keep him around just because he’s getting a fat paycheck this season.