BRADENTON, Fla. — It’s exactly four weeks until the Pirates will play the first game of baseball of the 2018 season at PNC Park, when they’ll host the Minnesota Twins for the home opener.
The man throwing out the first pitch for that game probably won’t be decided for quite some time yet, but there’s a a pretty good chance it’ll be third-year right-hander Jameson Taillon.
For the second straight year, the Pirates open up the season with a short series on the road, meaning that Clint Hurdle will get to pick one starter to pitch on Opening Day and one to pitch the home opener. Last year, Gerrit Cole started the season and Ivan Nova pitched the first game at PNC Park.
When the Pirates traded Cole in January, they didn’t just trade a former first overall pick and a starting pitcher that could hit 99 on the radar gun. The Pirates also traded one of their biggest personalities in the clubhouse, their MLBPA player representative. Cole was the top draft pick of the Pirates in 2011 and had spent seven years in the organization.
While the 31-year-old Nova remains the elder statesman amongst pitchers in the clubhouse, the 26-year-old Taillon takes the crown as the starting pitcher that’s worn a Pirates hat for the longest amount of time.
Taillon’s three years of big-league experience don’t usually establish a player as the kind of personality that can dominate a clubhouse. But Taillon’s path hasn’t been a usual one. After a string of injuries in the minor leagues, his second season in the majors was sidetracked — but just briefly — by a cancer diagnosis.
It’s one thing to be young in age, but Taillon is a player that’s fought through adversity at every step of the way. He’s earned those 26 years and he’s earned the respect of the largely youthful pitching staff that surrounds him.
It’s a good thing. Because when it comes to leadership from that group, a lot is going to fall on the shoulders of the 6-foot-5 Taillon. Oh, and a lot of the pressure of performing, too. If the Pirates are going to have an ace emerge from their young staff, Taillon is the odds-on favorite, and any path to the Pirates competing in the postseason will almost certainly include significant contributions from him. It doesn’t sound like that’s going to be an issue.
“My whole career, I’ve enjoyed — at every level — pressure, expectations, high promotions,” he said. “I’ve always done immediately following promotions or when people look at me to be ‘the guy.’ I enjoy when position players say, ‘Hey, we expect you to go deep into the game today,’ or if the bullpen is thin, I really like trying to pitch deep. Pressure and expectations, that’s something that I enjoy.”
That doesn’t just go for the players that are expected to make the 25-man roster, but those players that hope to some day populate the clubhouse during Spring Training.
“I’m kind of in between right now,” Taillon said. “I used to follow Gerrit around. (Ryan) Vogelsong, (Francisco) Liriano, I used to watch everything they did. Now, the more into this we go, every year, we’re inviting new, younger kids to camp that might start watching me. So, it’s just a transformation. I need to know that people are looking at me, and keep doing my thing, but knowing that eyes are on me.”
That’s a been pretty big transition for a player with just 237.2 innings under his belt at the Major League level, but the fact that Taillon can so clearly recall himself being in the shoes of a young minor leaguer has helped the process.
“I remember, my first couple of big league camps, I used to really see how I stacked up to everybody,” he said. “My first bullpen of Spring Training, I’d be asking, ‘Was Ray (Searage) watching me today? Was Clint watching me today? Was Neal Huntington watching me?’ I wanted to get out a hitter to boost my ego in live BPs. Now, it’s a lot more mature of an approach. It’s definitely a more confident approach. I know what I need to do to get ready. That’s not saying I want to go get hit around, but it’s that I know what I need to do and that comes with confidence and maturity.”
There haven’t been many real-world consequences yet for the public negativity that surrounded the Pirates’ offseason. But in four weeks in Pittsburgh, there will be. Getting the season off to a good start is about more than one game, but if that process goes well, it will go a long way toward re-establishing some good will with the fan base.
“I think they are focusing truly on doing everything they can to be a team that can represent the city of Pittsburgh and represent our fan base so that we can play well enough to develop the next group of really good players, or stars, that play so that fans will come out and see them,” Hurdle said.
In that regard, It won’t just be for leadership and pitching that Taillon will be counted on. As the Pirates move on from Cole and Andrew McCutchen, Taillon is one of the next wave of young stars the team will market to the fans. That’s a been a bit of a transition for the soft-spoken Taillon, who will have a Starting Lineup Figurine given out as a promotional item in June this year. That promotion was originally slated to be McCutchen’s. It’s just another sign of the changing of the guard in the Pirates’ clubhouse.
“That’s all fine and dandy if you pitch well,” Taillon said. “That’s an honor that they think they can market me or do whatever, but I mean, I need to put together a full, healthy, strong showing this year. I need to pitch up to my capabilities. That’s more really what I’m thinking about and then everything else follows.”