Pirates rotation seems set, but Glasnow and Taillon are waiting in the wings
March 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Pirates pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow could see the major leagues at some point this season.
By Bill Brink / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. — At 11:30 a.m. Monday, Neal Huntington entered McKechnie Field’s media room and chose his words carefully. In half an hour, the two best pitching prospects in the Pirates minor league system were to take the mound in a game for the first time in what could be their final spring training before making their major league debuts.
“Game” in this case was a loose approximation. The Pirates played a 5½-inning intrasquad scrimmage. At one point, the coaching staff ended an inning with one out and men on base. One of the pitchers struck out his roommate on three pitches.
The scrimmage provided only a small data point in a complex matrix that will determine if and when Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon pitch for the Pirates this year. The team has a full rotation. Huntington and his staff need to navigate developmental issues inherent in any player — the Pirates believe a conservative path through the minor leagues eases a player’s transition to the majors — and also those specific to these two.
Glasnow, earnest and excitable, needs to refine his changeup and consistently command his fastball. The Pirates needed to develop a workload for Taillon — a calm guy with a deadpan sense of humor and perspective beyond his 24 years — that would build innings without overtaxing a pitcher who missed the better part of two seasons because of injuries.
But Huntington and his staff drafted both players, two naturals with raw talent, both tall and right-handed with power fastballs and hammer curves. He knows what they’re capable of.
“If we have a need because of injury and/or someone struggles up here later in the season,” Huntington said, “they’re pretty good options to have.”
Traveling to Mae Sariang, a tiny mountain village in northwest Thailand near the border with Myanmar, is not easy.
“And there were no roads,” said Glasnow, who, according to his Instagram account, scared everyone in the village while visiting last fall. It’s not often they run across people who are 6 feet 8 in Mae Sariang.
Glasnow’s girlfriend sponsors a young girl in the village. When they found out they could visit the girl as part of the program, they made a vacation out of it, visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ko Samui and Ko Tao.
“We sent them gifts and got all the people in the village stuff from the store,” Glasnow said. “We met the girl’s family. They were farmers. We talked to them about that.”
Life is good for Glasnow, 22, a fifth-round pick in 2011 out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. In 2015, he reached Class AAA Indianapolis for the first time. In 41 innings across eight starts, he struck out 48 batters with a 2.20 ERA but walked 4.8 batters per nine innings.
Glasnow has a 2.07 ERA and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 383⅓ professional innings. Watching him throw, it’s easy to see why. His long arms and legs allow him to release the ball closer to home plate than most pitchers; a high-90s fastball is hard enough to hit, but when it has a shorter distance to travel, it gets on the batter more quickly. He pairs the fastball with a strong curveball. The changeup needs work.
“He’s still doing minor league hitters a favor when he throws the changeup, but he needs to throw it,” Huntington said. “It needs to become not only a pitch he can use, but a weapon for him.”
Consistently commanding a fastball can challenge tall pitchers with long arms and legs. The long levers can make repeating a delivery difficult. But Glasnow, an athlete from a family of athletes, keeps himself in impeccable shape. His mother, Donna, coached gymnastics at Cal State Northridge, and his brother, Ted, was a decathlete at Notre Dame. Glasnow ran track until high school and still does track workouts in the offseason — 400-meter sprints, squats, deadlifts and the like, four days a week.
“I think track and baseball are very similar, and track workouts are just really hard in terms of running and lifting,” he said.
Traveling to Houston requires a half-hour drive south on I-45 from Taillon’s place in The Woodlands, Texas, though the Hardy Toll Road will shave off a few minutes during rush hour. Taillon cut out the commute, living with — and cooking for — his sister and new brother-in-law while he trained in Houston during the offseason.
“Especially my sister getting married, they had some cool kitchen stuff from the registry I was using,” Taillon said. “They don’t really cook.”
Taillon bristles at the notion of two lost years, two lost seasons’ worth of innings, perhaps. But during 2014 and 2015, when he did not pitch in an actual game because of Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and a hernia procedure, he worked elsewhere. Among the improvements: 20 pounds off his 6-5 frame, an improved diet full of healthy, anti-inflammatory foods, and the devotion to preparing them in advance.
Taillon’s sister and brother-in-law are both lawyers who work long hours, so he cooked for them a couple times a week. Their Houston home is closer to Fairchild Sports Performance, where he trained, and also close to a river, along which Taillon could ride his bike to a coffee shop and back — 12 miles of cardio on off days.
This spring, Taillon wants to carry his diet, activation — the word ballplayers use for warming up — and weight-training routine into the season. Two years away from competition allowed Taillon to rebuild his mechanics and try to fix any imbalances or flaws that might have caused the injuries in the first place. The Pirates will monitor and possibly restrict his innings and pitches thrown, especially if they see him helping the major league team at some point this year, but Huntington said they also don’t want to leave innings on the table.
“One side of the argument is I only threw 35 to 40 innings last year, and the other side is now I’m two years out from my elbow, my arm’s rested, it’s healthy, it’s strong,” Taillon said. “We’ll see. I think it will just be ongoing conversations there for my innings this year, but I feel really, really strong.”
The Pirates factored in possible production from Glasnow and Taillon this season when making their offseason moves, but did not depend on it.
They added Ryan Vogelsong and Jon Niese to a rotation that includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke. In the intrasquad scrimmage Monday, which Glasnow and Taillon started, they showed why the Pirates didn’t just put them in the rotation. The lineups, composed of minor leaguers and non-roster invitees, hit them early. Glasnow struck out two, including his roommate Josh Bell, and gave up two runs; Taillon allowed one run while striking out three.
“I was kind of rushing, just so excited,” Glasnow said. “I realized I can tone it down a little bit and still go out there and have fun.”
“I definitely appreciate living in the moment,” Taillon said. “I kind of understand that a little better now than when I was a fresh young pup a couple years back. I took a deep breath and just enjoyed it.”
An earnest assessment, followed by a deadpan response.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
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