PITTSBURGH – The trade looked so lopsided at the time.
A few weeks before spring training began in 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates dealt right-hander Jameson Taillon to the New York Yankees for a package of four prospects.
Taillon had started just seven times in 2019 before undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery then missed the pandemic-shortened 2020 season while rehabbing. His trade value wasn’t exactly high.
So, it seemed like a steal for Pirates general manager Ben Cherington, who had been on the job for just a few months. The Pirates appeared to have gotten a pretty good haul of youngsters to help the rebuilding process for a pitcher who hadn’t appeared in a big-league game in nearly two years.
The trade doesn’t seem like such a windfall for the Pirates now. At least, it certainly didn’t feel that way Wednesday when the Pirates lost to the worst-in-MLB Oakland Athletics 9-5 at PNC Park.
Contreras, the centerpiece of the trade from the Pirates’ perspective, was knocked out of the game in the first inning. He retired only one of the nine batters he faced, allowing six hits and two walks while being charged with seven runs.
Since his last win on April 26, Contreras is 0-4 with an 8.16 ERA in seven games, including six starts. For the season, he has a 3-5 record with a 5.91 ERA in 12 games.
That is certainly a step back from a solid rookie season a year ago in which Contreras went 5-5 with a 3.79 ERA in 18 starts and three relief appearances.
Contreras’ recent struggles don’t necessarily mean he won’t wind up having a good career. However, in conversations with scouts and talent evaluators, many have questions if Contreras’ stuff is good enough to make him a successful major-league starter.
Those observers wonder if Contreras’ four-seam fastball can consistently get big-league hitters out. The numbers support that theory as opponents are hitting .415 off the four-seamer this year.
Conversely, opponents’ batting average is .194 against his slider after a miniscule .161 last season.
Those numbers suggest that Contreras might be more effective as a reliever where he could rely on throwing his slider a greater percentage of the time while being used in shorter stints.
Yet, the biggest reason for the Pirates to remain hopeful is that Contreras is still just 23. He has time to turn things around.
As far as the other three players acquired in the Taillon trade, right-hander Miguel Yajure was lost to the San Francisco Giants in December in a waiver claim. Yajure had an unsightly 8.69 ERA in 16 games, including four starts, with the Pirates in 2021 and 2022.
Outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba made the opening-day roster this year following an outstanding spring training. However, he hit .125/.216/.219 in 14 games and was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Smith-Njigba has bounced back after a tough start at Indy and the 24-year-old is again looking like a prospect. He has a .243/.328/.544 slash with seven home runs through 27 games.
The fourth player acquired in the trade, middle infielder Maikol Escotto, is struggling at High-A Greensboro for a second straight season. The 21-year-old is hitting .205/.252/.305 with three homers in 42 games after slashing .162/.228/.343 last year in 41 games for the Grasshoppers.
While Smith-Njigba is ranked as the Pirates’ 20th-best prospect by Baseball America, Escotto isn’t in the publication’s top 30.
Ultimately, how Contreras’ career plays out will be the determining factor of how well the trade works out for the Pirates. Right now, it’s not looking as good as it once was.