Every so often, right-hander Gerrit Cole will see someone he played against in his time at UCLA. The meetings put into perspective all that has happened in the two years since Cole previously pitched for the Bruins.
"It's like, gosh, how am I here?" Cole said. "It's different. You just try to keep it the same as much as you can, but just enjoy it."
Sooner or later Cole, the first overall draft pick in 2011 and the Pirates' top prospect according to Baseball America, will graduate to the majors, headlining a short list of prospects who could impact the Pirates this season. He feels he has been ready for a while.
"I kind of had that as my goal last year," said Cole, a non-roster invitee in each of the past two spring trainings, "but it's obviously probably a little more realistic this year. I just try to keep the same day-to-day approach as I always use."
Spring statistics must be taken with a big handful of salt, but Cole, 22, was impressive. He struck out seven and walked two in 10 innings in Grapefruit League play, allowing four runs. He also struck out six in three scoreless innings against Spain's World Baseball Classic team.
"It's a lot of fun," Cole said. "There's a lot of satisfaction when you get out somebody who's in the big leagues or you perform well at this level."
Cole said he welcomed the chance to develop a rapport with Russell Martin and Michael McKenry, which will ease the transition when the Pirates bring him to the majors.
"He's a smart kid," Martin said. "Of course, he's got ability like not a lot of people have, but he's pitching out there with his mind and he has a plan. I feel like he's pretty polished for a young guy."
That ability includes a fastball that reaches triple digits, a slider that's not much slower and a good changeup. A talent evaluator clocked Cole's fastball at 94-97 mph in early March, meaning it will only increase, with his slider around 90 mph.
Cole started 2012 in Class A Bradenton, where he struck out 69 in 67 innings and had a 2.55 ERA. He made 12 starts in Class AA Altoona, where he also struck out more than a batter per inning, and finished the season with two starts at Class AAA Indianapolis. He will return to Class AAA to start this season.
When the Pirates sent Cole to minor league camp, general manager Neal Huntington said Cole's continued development, not financial or contractual factors, eliminated Cole's name from the list of contenders for a rotation with a shaky back end.
"Everybody's going to speculate why he's being sent out, and they're wrong," Huntington said. "He's being sent out because, in our minds, he's not ready to compete and be successful at the major league level."
The fact remains that if the Pirates keep Cole in the minors for a couple of weeks, they prevent him from earning a full year of major league service time in 2013, meaning he cannot become a free agent until after the 2019 season. If he was on the opening-day roster, he could become a free agent after 2018.
If they keep Cole in the minors until May or early June, they can prevent him from eventually qualifying for Super 2 status, which gives the top 22 percent of players with more than two but fewer than three years of service time a fourth year of salary arbitration. That means Cole wouldn't qualify for arbitration until after 2016 rather than after 2015.
"That's the business part of the game that you really try not to get involved in as much as possible," Cole said. "I'm sure the clock starting and all that business will be taken into account, it's a business, but that's something that's definitely out of my control."
Right-hander Jameson Taillon, the Pirates' No. 2 prospect, is about a year behind Cole. After a full 2011 season at Class A West Virginia, Taillon spent 2012 in Bradenton before earning a brief promotion to Altoona. He could reach Indianapolis before the end of this season and position himself to reach Pittsburgh in 2014.
Left-hander Justin Wilson, the Pirates' No. 8 prospect, made the bullpen out of spring training. Wilson, 25, was a fifth-round draft pick in 2008and made his major league debut in 2012 with eight relief appearances. In the minors, he has been primarily a starter.
"We talked, and I think that's the best opportunity for me to be in Pittsburgh from Day 1 of the season, is out of the bullpen," Wilson said.
Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez beat out Kyle McPherson, the Pirates' No. 7 prospect, for the final spot in the rotation. McPherson will start in Indianapolis and could reach the majors in case of ineffectiveness or injury.
The Pirates' Hot List (as rated by Baseball America)
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
It's a matter of when, not if, Cole debuts in 2013.
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP
Strong World Baseball Classic outing was a glimpse into the future.
3. Luis Heredia, RHP
He's 6 feet 6 with good velocity and still only 18.
4. Gregory Polanco, OF
Hit .325 with 16 home runs in Class AA West Virginia in 2012.
5. Alen Hanson, SS
A switch-hitter with speed, he likely will start 2013 in Class A Bradenton.
6. Josh Bell, OF
Ranked as system's best power hitter. He missed most of 2012 after knee surgery.
7. Kyle McPherson, RHP
Lost battle for rotation spot, but still has the stuff to contribute at some point.
8. Justin Wilson, LHP
Moved to bullpen partly due to control issues, but velocity may increase there.
9: Barrett Barnes, OF
Top signee of 2012 draft should see first full-season action this year.
10. Clay Holmes, RHP
Had a 2.28 ERA in 13 starts in short-season State College in 2012.mobilehome - pirates
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter: @BrinkPG. First Published March 30, 2013 4:00 AM