BRADENTON, Fla. — The finish line is in sight for Jameson Taillon, but he must clear the final few hurdles in his development before he can cross it.
A better curveball, along with a stronger changeup and better control of the opponents’ running game, could help Taillon become the latest member of the Pirates minor league system to impact the major league roster.
“The number one thing he’s going to have to improve on is the consistency of his breaking ball,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “The same thing happened with [Gerrit] Cole last year. Cole knew that.”
Spring Training Report: Andrew McCutchen
Pittsburgh Pirates National League MVP Andrew McCutchen talks to the media from the Pirates' spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. (Video by Peter Diana; 2/17/2014)
The parallels between Taillon and Cole draw themselves: first-round draft picks, large signing bonuses, big strong right-handers who throw hard. Cole had two starts, including the postseason, at Class AAA the season before he made his major league debut and 14 total at the level. Taillon enters this year with seven Class AAA starts including postseason play.
Cole crossed off enough items on his developmental to-do list in order to make his major league debut in June. Given the service-time implications of calling up a top prospect and the desire to ensure that talented young players stay up once they get up, Taillon could be on track to make his debut on a similar timetable.
“He’s a very astute young man, he listens well, he practices sharp,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “The opportunity to pitch will be heightened this spring, so that in and of itself will be the thing he’s probably looking forward to most, and we’re looking forward to see, as well.”
Taillon, 22, throws a wicked curveball in the low 80s to go with a mid-90s fastball. A better feel for his changeup will amplify that fastball velocity.
“I think I took really big strides with it last year,” Taillon said. “It got to the point not where it was just something I mixed in, but something I actually used as a weapon and I knew how to use it. I saw the benefits of what it can do. It can open up my game completely and make my other pitches play.”
Spring training offers the perfect forum for all pitchers, but young ones especially, to practice holding opposing base runners and shortening their leads. In bullpen sessions, full-speed batting practice thrown from behind a protective L-shaped screen and spring games, Taillon can hone his pickoff move and learn to vary the amount of time he holds the ball before throwing.
Along with pickoff moves and holding imaginary runners, Searage said, Taillon needs to execute the pitch when he eventually throws it.
“The delivery out of the stretch has got to stay consistent so he can think about pitch and pick,” Searage said. “If he’s going to pick over to first base or hold the runner, it’s not going to take away from the quality of the pitch when he’s controlling the running game.”
Taillon pulled his groin in his first outing in the Arizona Fall League, cutting his time there short. He started lifting earlier this offseason and focused on the muscle groups surrounding his groin, such as his hips, quadriceps and hamstrings, to avoid another injury.
“Last year I wasn’t in camp too long and I knew going into it that I probably wasn’t going to be,” he said. “Last year I soaked it up and used it as a learning experience. I think going into this camp I’ll be able to know what to expect, not be as nervous about stuff, know how everything works. That’ll be huge. Just go about my work and open some eyes and put myself in a good spot.”
Preparing for a marathon
Jason Grilli did not throw a bullpen session Monday, the fourth consecutive day he has not pitched off a mound.
Grilli said he feels good and is preparing for the season in the manner that best suits him.
“I feel great,” Grilli said. “I’m just pacing myself, just as anybody running a long race that we have to run.”
Most pitchers in Pirates camp throw a bullpen session every other day. Wandy Rodriguez, who missed the final four months of 2013 due to injury, is taking two days off between sessions. Rodriguez threw a 38-pitch bullpen session Monday.
Grilli noted that he threw one inning for Italy in the World Baseball Classic last year during spring training and was ready to start the season. That came in addition to six innings in Grapefruit League play.
Grilli missed time last year due to a flexor strain in his right arm.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.