The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 22, 2013

Prospects eager to move closer to majors

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett gave Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon adjoining lockers at the team’s training complex this spring, a symbolic gesture to what the flame-throwing youngsters represent.

The former first-round picks and the future of Pittsburgh’s pitching staff have no problem with the idea but the reminder was hardly necessary. Cole and Taillon know they’ll always be linked no matter where they toss their gear.

It’s what happens when a club that can be thrifty with its dollars spends a combined $14.5 million in bonuses – $6.5 to Taillon in 2010 and $8 million to Cole the following summer – to convince the burly right-handers to become the cornerstone of a franchise turnaround.

Beginning their second spring together as starters in waiting, the 22-year-old Cole and the 21-year-old Taillon are well aware of what’s at stake.

“I’m not naive to the external pressure,” Cole said.

He’s not bothered by it either.

The former UCLA star rocketed up Pittsburgh’s minor league system in 2012, streaking from Class A Bradenton to Triple-A Indianapolis in a matter of two months. He came to spring training as a nonroster invitee so management could get a good look at the kid with the mid-90s fastball and sizzling slider.

If Cole continues his rapid growth – both he and Taillon pitched two scoreless innings during an intrasquad scrimmage Friday – there’s a chance he could be in Pittsburgh sometime this summer. Catcher Russell Martin called Cole’s stuff “phenomenal” and sees all the traits of a talented major league starter.

“I know that he’s an intense competitor,” Martin said. “I know if he misses by three inches he’s not satisfied. Anybody with that type of mentality, that perfectionist mentality, they’re going to be pretty good.”

The Pirates might need Cole to be even better than that. Quickly.

Veterans A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are signed through the end of the 2013 season, and it figures both could be too expensive to keep around. The Pirates hope by then that Cole – who went 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA in the minors last summer and is considered one of the 10 best minor league prospects in the game – will be ready with Taillon perhaps not far off.

Yet manager Clint Hurdle insists the Pirates will not rush either pitcher to the majors until they are ready. Though it’s hard to imagine Cole not making his major league debut at some point in 2013 if he remains effective and healthy, there remain benchmarks to clear.

“You set out the expectations and what we need to see from them for us to open the opportunity to get here,” Hurdle said. “There’s not really a timetable for that.”

Staying patient this close to your ultimate goal can be difficult. Taillon remembers flying to Pittsburgh to sign his contract and walking around PNC Park wondering when he’d be able to step onto the field. He figured it would be a year, maybe two. Three springs later, he’s still waiting.

“What you don’t realize is it’s a process and being 18 I was little young at the time,” Taillon said. “I’m enjoying the process now. Pressure-wise I’ve gotten pretty good at that. I’ve taken it into my own hands and set my own expectations and my own goals.”

Ones the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Taillon exceeded in 2012. He survived a rough patch at Class A Bradenton before flourishing after getting promoted to Double-A Altoona, where he went 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA. He will likely remain in Double-A to start the season but it’s not out of the question he could be in Pittsburgh by September.

Walking into the plush clubhouse at PNC is a dream long in the making for both Taillon and Cole.

The two don’t really talk about it while they lay around Cole’s condo – where Taillon is crashing during spring training – but it’s certainly understood.

“We plan on being up there, plan on pitching in the black and gold for a long time,” Taillon said.

And they plan on bringing a little swagger with them. Though they both have a full understanding of Pittsburgh’s struggles the last two decades, they don’t really care either. They’ve won their entire lives and have no plans on stopping once they get to the majors.

Asked why he chose baseball when his 6-4, 220-pound frame and athleticism certainly could have led him down another path, Cole thoughtfully tugged at his somewhat shaggy beard and smiled.

“I just love it,” he said. “There are some guys that do it for the money or they do it for whatever, I just like to just beat somebody. Kick somebody’s (butt) really. That’s what I like doing and that’s what I’m good at.”

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