The Pittsburgh Pirates selected right handed pitcher Jameson Taillon in 2010 with the second overall pick in the draft. All off-season, Taillon has ranked at the top of prospect lists, both as the consensus top prospect in the Pittsburgh organization, and as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. There is a good reason for those rankings. At the age of 18, Taillon can throw in the upper 90s, with good command of his fastball, and good secondary pitches for a prep player. That plus his size, at 6′ 6″, 225 pounds, will allow him to potentially be a front of the rotation workhorse. In short, Taillon could be the first ace the Pirates have had since Doug Drabek.
Taillon will make his professional debut this year, most likely in West Virginia. However, don’t count on that happening at the start of the season. There are several reasons that factor in to this. The Pirates will be watching his innings this year, factoring in his high school innings from last year, among other factors, such as his work in the Fall of 2010, and this Spring. Taillon told me that he believes the number will be between 90 and 100 innings in his first year as a pro. Director of player development Kyle Stark told me that the Pirates prefer to have their pitchers finishing out the season, rather than reaching their innings limit in July. If Taillon were to start the season in the West Virginia rotation, and pitched 90-100 innings, he would be out of innings in July, which would shut him down for about one to two months at the end of the year.
Another factor the Pirates are considering is weather. Taillon is from the Houston area. He’s never pitched in cold weather, such as the weather you would experience in West Virginia in the month of April. Pitching in cold weather isn’t good for the arm of a pitcher, and the Pirates prefer to avoid it whenever possible. Since Taillon will only be throwing 90-100 innings this year, the Pirates are likely to keep those innings in the warmer months of the year, to keep Taillon’s arm healthy. Regardless of the innings, Taillon is ready.
“My body’s prepared for it, I had a really good off-season, so we’ll see what they give me, and I can handle it.”
So what has the top pitching prospect been working on, and what will he be working on during extended Spring Training, in the warm Bradenton weather, as opposed to the cold West Virginia climate? Taillon has been throwing side sessions in Pirate City this Spring, instructed by pitching coordinator Jim Benedict.
“They’re just trying to smooth me out a little bit,” Taillon told me this afternoon.
Benedict has been working with Taillon on some minor adjustments to his delivery. The biggest thing is a jump in his delivery, which they are taking out to help Taillon get the ball down. You read about how Taillon got hit hard in high school. The reason for that is due to Jameson leaving the ball up in the zone. The Pirates believe that a 98 MPH fastball up in the zone is easier to time, and easier to hit, than a 94 MPH fastball low in the zone.
“It’s a tough lesson to learn, but I’m learning it slowly but surely,” Taillon said. “I’m learning that being smooth in my delivery and throwing 94 jumps on the hitter a lot more than having a lot of effort and throwing 98 up (in the zone). They see the ball better, they time it, and they hit it. I’m learning with the command, but it’s getting a lot better.”
It might sound alarming that the Pirates are adjusting the delivery of a prospect who ranks as one of the better pitchers in all of baseball. However, the changes are minor.
“They’re not changing me up real big, they’re just kind of simplifying everything, smoothing it out, fixing some kinks, I’m liking what they’re telling me.”
As with any player in the lower levels of the Pirates’ system, Taillon is working on his fastball command. We hear about fastball command a lot, but never the process that goes in to it. The Pirates focus first on keeping the ball down in the zone, for the previously mentioned reasons that a ball up in the zone is easier to time and get a read on. Taillon is working on getting the ball down in the zone, and once he learns that, the Pirates will move on to placing the ball from side to side. He does get to throw a few secondary pitches, and will be working on his changeup, but the primary focus is fastball command, which comes as no surprise.
Outside of the typical fastball command approach, the biggest adjustment Taillon will be making is the adjustment every amateur pitcher makes: learning to pitch every five days, rather than pitching once every seven days. The Pirates are taking a cautious approach here, mostly due to Taillon’s long lay-off heading in to the season.
Taillon pitched for Team USA in the Fall of 2009. After that he took two months off, then had his 2010 high school season. Following the high school season, and following being drafted by the Pirates, he took the full summer off, focusing on lifting weights. The Pirates sent him to the Florida Instructional Leagues around October, but Taillon had the rest of the Fall and Winter off. This Spring is the first time Taillon has gotten in the groove of throwing since he finished his 2010 high school season back in May.
The Pirates have kept his pitch counts low throughout the Spring. His first start was only 35 pitches. His bullpen sessions have been limited to 35 pitches.
“I think we’re in the process of stretching it out a bit,” Taillon said, noting that he expects to go three innings in his start on Saturday. “Took awhile to get my rhythm back, my timing, my delivery, but right now I feel awesome, I’m ready to go.”
The young phenom is ready to go, and Pittsburgh fans can’t wait either. Taillon’s debut will easily be the most anticipated debut in the entire minor league system this year. With the lack of pitching in the majors, a lot of eyes will be following him from the start of his career, to the moment he arrives in Pittsburgh. Despite the expectations, and the talk that he could move through the system quickly, Taillon has a level head for his own expectations going in to the 2011 season.
“This first year I’m not planning on jumping a whole bunch of levels. It’s kind of just get my feet wet, get used to throwing every fifth day, stay healthy.”
As for the national attention, and the status as the top guy in the farm system, Jameson insists that he’s just one of the guys now.
“Having a good ranking doesn’t move me through the system, it’s going to be learning what they tell me, mastering what (Jim Benedict) tells me. I’ll just go from there.”
From there, Pirates fans are hoping that Taillon goes all the way to the majors, and lives up to his current rankings. After all, it’s been a long time since Doug Drabek left town, and ever since then the Pirates have been starved for the type of pitcher that Taillon projects to become.