15th of Apr | Story

The men in the middle


BRADENTON, Florida | Two hours before the first pitch of another game this young season, Jameson Taillon stands tall on a bullpen mound just inside the rightfield foul pole at McKechnie Field. His socks are high and his practice jersey is tucked just far enough into his game pants. Every 14 seconds, his top lip curls up and his white teeth show and he fires the ball toward his catcher, Francisco Diaz. Then he catches the return, sets and fires again. Still more than seven months shy of his 21st birthday, he’s metronomic for maybe 15 minutes.

For most Major League organizations, Taillon would be a treasure, a tall right-hander with a fastball that touches 99 on the radar guns, a curveball that drops from noon to winter dusk in half a heartbeat, a slider still under construction. For the Pirates, he’s just half of a pair of potential aces and one of a dozen top prospects who live and die on the mound every fifth day. 

And here in Bradenton, home of the High-A Marauders of the Florida State League, he’s just a part of a rotation that has coaches thankful for an opportunity to work with brilliance.

“There are times when I see some pitches in a game,” Bradenton pitching coach Mike Steele says, “and I go, ‘Wow.’”

The rotation would be an embarrassment of riches — the kind of collection other teams dream about building through drafts and trades — if only the Pirates themselves had won anything at all during the last 19 years.

Whether the Bradenton rotation even starts with Taillon is up for some debate. He has struck out 12, walked two and limited batters to a .156 average through in two starts across 8 2-3 innings this season. But Gerrit Cole, another tall righty and the top pick in the draft last June, has been heralded since before he passed up millions from the New York Yankees back in 2008, when they drafted him 28th overall, so he could pitch three seasons at UCLA. In his first professional start last week, he struck out seven over four innings and gave Steele at least a couple Wow Moments. Then there’s Hunter Strickland, still another tall righty, already 2-0 after shutting out the Palm Beach Cardinals over six innings Sunday night. And there’s Colton Cain, a lefty and the opening night starter, the owner of a 1.04 ERA in his first two starts.

The rotation would be an embarrassment of riches — the kind of collection other teams dream about building through drafts and trades — if only the Pirates themselves had won anything at all during the last 19 years. The way the Pirates see it, this is the group that could lead them back to .500 and beyond — to division crowns and league pennants and World Series championships — and their continued development is the top priority across all of their affiliates.

“I think we’re starting to see it a little bit,” Taillon says. “I think we’re building a world championship organization, and that’s the goal for us. We listen to (Pirates manager) Clint Hurdle talk and ask us about our vision. His is holding up that World Series trophy in front of a city that’s been dying to have one for a while.”

There’s plenty still to accomplish. On Sunday afternoon, Steele designed a bullpen session for Taillon that focused on the timing of his delivery from the windup to the stretch, and mixing in breaking balls after fastballs. “We’re trying to get them to understand that being good is good enough with the talent they have,” Steele says.

That all of the pitchers are even with the Pirates and in Bradenton right now is a major stroke of luck and daring. They drafted Cole in the eighth round in 2008 and signed him to a bonus of more than $1.1 million, well over the slot bonus for players picked in that range. They traded for Strickland a little more than a year later, sending first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Red Sox. The next summer, they grabbed Taillon second overall in the draft, behind only Washington wunderkind Bryce Harper, and signed him for a $6.5 million bonus, then the highest in team history. Last year, they chose Cole first overall and signed him for an $8 million bonus. Call the process a long build, a slow burn, whatever. The Pirates just want it to pay off.

When one of the Marauders starters is on the mound, the others are in the dugout or charting pitches somewhere behind home plate, cheering with every delivery. “We want to feed off each other,” Cain says. “One of us goes out and sets the pace, and the rest try and just keep raising the bar. Jameson and I kind of talked about it a little bit in spring training, and we kind of liked the idea.”

If all goes as planned, Cole could wind up with the Double-A Altoona Curve later this season — Trevor Gooby, the Bradenton general manager and senior director of Florida operations for the Pirates, says Curve front office staff have already called him about a Cole promotion for later this season and they need information and video — and Taillon could follow shortly. The timetables for the rest of the rotation are a little longer, but they could also continue to move up together.

Most reputable publications and scouting services project Cole and Taillon — or Taillon and Cole — as the top two starters in Pittsburgh around the start of the 2014 season, if not a little earlier. Between then and now, they’ll all continue to build up their arms and develop their physical attributes and mental strengths. They’ll talk and share information. They’ll still cheer each other.

And other than spots in the Pittsburgh rotation and the collective dreams of winning at the highest level, what else is at stake?

“The easy left,” Taillon says. “The easy choice that might work out for you this time, but in the long run, isn’t the best way to go about it.”

“All the expectations,” Cole says. “A lot of people like to write different s—. I just try to ignore them.”

“Their careers,” Steele says.

There are no wrong answers, of course. There really is so much at stake here, on the field and off. Championships and money and fame. Careers. Lives. Tick. Tock.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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