Baseball 2011: The Pirates' three-volt battery
From left, Stetson Allie, Jameson Taillon and Tony Sanchez at Pirate City.
Catchers Chris Snyder, left, and Tony Sanchez look on at spring training in February in Bradenton, Fla.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' top three prospects have precious little in common, particularly off the field.
Jameson Taillon, who could be the franchise's first pitching ace since Doug Drabek, is the cerebral sort: He can be engaging and funny, as well, but it's evident that he thinks a step ahead.
Stetson Allie, who profiles as a lights-out closer with his 100-mph fastball, has the personality to match: He walks and talks like the kid who took your lunch money at school just to show he could.
And Tony Sanchez, who rates as one of the best defensive catchers in any team's system, fits his prototype, too: He is most at home when getting clipped and cut behind home plate, yet so energetic that he wants more and more.
The Brain, the Brawn and the Dirtball.
Add them up, and they just might make the most promising top trio of prospects the Pirates have had since the Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonilla core in the mid-1980s.
Jim Callis, Baseball America's executive editor, calls the current trio "as good as any" in the Pittsburgh system since 1998, when Aramis Ramirez, Kris Benson and Chad Hermansen all ranked among that publication's top 13 overall prospects. Callis also calls the trio better than that of 2009, when Pedro Alvarez ranked 12th, Andrew McCutchen 33rd, Jose Tabata 75th.
In the publication's 2011 list issued last month, Taillon ranked 11th, Sanchez 46th and Allie 79th.
Not much came of Benson and Hermansen, so caution is advised. And that seems to be the approach within this group, anyway.
"I hope all three of us make it to Pittsburgh, but it's a process," Allie said. "We might not all get there at the same time, but we're all going to work hard to get there and try to bring a change."
Taillon appears to have it all.
The Pirates' first-round draft pick last summer, No. 2 overall, has the model 6-foot-5 starting pitcher's frame, a fastball that is on the corners steadily around 95 mph, a hammer curve that arrives at an unfair 84 mph, a sweeping slider, and the poise and command to match.
See all that, then hear the maturity when he speaks, and it is unfathomable that he is 19 years old, fresh out of Texas' The Woodlands High School, and still a week away from his first professional pitch.
"He's been as advertised," said Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development. "The biggest thing for Jameson right now is just getting acclimated to pro ball."
That will begin April 7 in Charleston, W.Va., as a member of the Class A West Virginia Power. Taillon will be asked to do little more than learn how to take the ball every fifth day all summer, a big adjustment out of high school.
"It's not a matter of numerical goals, and they've probably told me that at least 100 times in the past few weeks," Taillon said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about my performance. But I understand that the best thing I can do is keep the walks down, have fastball command, take the ball when it's my turn, and be the guy who can take you deep into the game."
"Just put the team on my back and carry 'em for the day. I think I'm mature enough to do it."
Top priority will be fastball command, as it is with all entry-level prospects, and Taillon is working on taking his arm slot higher in part to establish that. There is extra reason to stress the fastball with Taillon: A pitcher with his arsenal could put up staggering numbers in the low minors by leaning on elite offspeed stuff, as batters there are unaccustomed to it.
"If I can pitch off my fastball, I'll be good," Taillon said. "My curve is always going to be there, and I've developed a really good changeup already. I've got the mentality that I can be a 200-inning guy in the majors, a guy who throws a lot of different pitches. But you can't do any of that without fastball command."
Taillon already has been a hit off the mound, popular with his teammates and coaches. There is extra reason to stress that assimilation, too, as first-rounders -- especially one who lands a franchise-record $6.5 million bonus -- often struggle for acceptance.
"It's one thing for you to go to Pittsburgh for the press conference and all that," Taillon said. "But, once you come out here and you're with 50, 60 guys in the clubhouse ... hey, you've got to prove yourself just like a 50th-rounder."
That proving has begun on the mound.
"He's got amazing stuff overall, and a heavy, heavy fastball," Sanchez said. "He's a lot of fun to catch."
"Hey, he's going to be the future of the Pirates. This guy's the real deal, man."
Shortly after the Pirates made Allie a high-profile -- and high-priced, at $2.5 million -- second-round pick last summer, Allie faced reporters at PNC Park and bluntly stated, "I want to be a closer," even though he knew management had designs on him starting.
Allie will join Taillon as a member of West Virginia's rotation to begin his professional career. And, although he sounds amenable on the surface -- "I'd like to start," he will say now -- there seems to be little change below the surface.
Would he like to add a pitch to his simple repertoire of that 100-mph fastball and perhaps the best slider in the system?
"I have a changeup that's a work in progress," he said.
"No, never learned that one."
Any thought to shaving some heat off the fastball for better command or longer starts?
"Uh, not really. Sometimes, I tone it down so I can throw strikes. But, when I'm in the counts where I can throw a little harder, like 0-2, I'll rear back and throw 93, 95 ... just be myself."
Allie, who turned 20 two weeks ago, comes across as rough as his pitching: His 6-4, 225-pound frame is thick and imposing, his hair is down over the eyes, his chin raised, his stride accompanied by a swagger. One can almost hear closer's music blaring behind him as he walks.
But the Pirates sound adamant about giving Allie a chance to start. Stark has employed some future relievers as starters in the low minors primarily to build up arm strength and versatility, but he said, "This isn't about some development thing."
Allie and Taillon have become friends, getting together for offseason workouts. And Taillon sounds nearly as wary about Allie's desire to be a starter as Allie does.
"For Stetson, I think the mentality is going to be big," Taillon said. "What he wants to do is go out there for an inning and throw 100 miles an hour. And it works great for an inning. But he pitches better when he gets early ground balls, 93 or 94 down in the zone. He's just going to have to adopt that mentality."
Or not. If the worst result is that the Pirates develop a fiery, flamethrowing closer who prefers just blowing the ball past batters, that hardly would qualify as a disaster.
In the interim, Allie appears to be enjoying every bit of his new life since leaving St. Edward High School outside Cleveland.
"It's pretty special," he said. "I was never a big school guy, to be honest. Just to come out, clear my head and pitch has been a lot of fun. Even last year, when me and Jameson were with State College just to watch, it wasn't as bad as I'd thought. The bus rides were a little long, but playing baseball and not having to go to school ... you can't really beat that."
Sanchez had the double misfortune of being hit in the left cheek twice last season with Class A Bradenton, the second one shattering his jaw. He spent much of the next two months sipping soup through straws and losing 20 pounds.
Small wonder some scouts quietly express concern that he could become gun-shy.
"Yeah, that's funny," Sanchez said, with a derisive laugh. "It's part of the game. Ever since I can remember, I've gotten hit a lot. Being a catcher, I've taken balls off the chest, the arm, the leg, the facemask ... the only thing different those two times was that I didn't have my mask on. When I go to bat, obviously, I think about it. But I have no fear."
Skepticism is not new to Sanchez: When the Pirates made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft, critics howled that the team took the cheap route because Sanchez had been rated a late first-rounder by most publications, and because management paid Sanchez not a penny more than Major League Baseball's recommended bonus of $2.5 million for his slot.
Since then, many have issued mea culpas because Sanchez has hit better than expected: His minor league totals in two years include a .312 average, a .413 on-base percentage, 11 home runs, 35 doubles and 83 RBIs in 107 games.
"I feel just as good at the plate as I do behind it," Sanchez said.
The defense never has been in doubt: Sanchez shows above-average arm strength, moves his 6-0, 220-pound frame quickly and is exceptional at blocking pitches. The Pirates invited him to major league spring training for extra tutelage, and he fit right in with -- or outshined -- more experienced players.
He is a catcher to the core.
"Man, I love putting that gear on," Sanchez said. "I love sweating. I love catching bullpens. I love throwing runners out. I love stealing pitches from umpires by making a ball look like a strike. I love blocking sliders. And getting down in the dirt is probably my favorite thing to do in the game. I love it!"
Sanchez, who will turn 23 in May, will catch for Class AA Altoona this year, with a realistic outlook of being promoted to Class AAA Indianapolis late this summer, then the Pirates sometime next year.
His focus will be game-calling, something he did not do in high school or at Boston College.
"Tony's just starting to develop some instincts for how he wants to manage a game," Stark said.
Sanchez's other goal, which would be greatly assisted by avoiding fastballs to the face, is much simpler.
"I just want to get a full season under my belt," he said. "I have no idea what my body's going to feel like in August, or the playoff run in September. I know somebody's always watching me during catching drills or when I'm in a weight room with 50 guys and four trainers, but how do I do more? I need to push physically and mentally. I consider myself a mental warrior, a mental gladiator."
"Hey, I just want to get to Pittsburgh. I know a lot of people are looking at Taillon, Allie and me as the answer. But I see a ton of talent down here, guys who are winners. None of us can wait to get there."
First Published March 28, 2011 12:00 am