BRADENTON, Fla. — Jameson Taillon has always been projected to pitch at the top of the rotation and has embraced those expectations since becoming the No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 MLB Draft.
“I've always enjoyed expectations, and I've dealt with it since I was in high school, so I feel like I'm pretty well-suited for it,” Taillon said. “Every time I got pushed up a level in the minor leagues, I performed well. Every time people were looking at me to save the bullpen in a game or pitch deep into a game, I enjoy that kind of pressure. It brings out the best in me.”
The Pirates are counting on Taillon's ascension to staff ace to do the same, and his wait is almost over.
Taillon's timing was sidetracked by surgeries, first for Tommy John and then for testicular cancer. They were obstacles he couldn't control, so he treated them as learning experiences in his maturation that made him mentally tougher.
Now, with Gerrit Cole gone in a trade to the Houston Astros, it's Taillon's turn to anchor the pitching staff in the way both “Jamo” and the Pirates always envisioned.
“The buttons on my shirt want to pop off because I'm proud of him and what he's gone through,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said.
“That's been Jamo's M.O., but the service time prevented him from doing that, and he knew that. He was well aware of it. Now that he sees how things are and how things are going right now, it's good.”
Quietly, Taillon is going about his business to prepare himself — but he's doing it in a way so he's not all alone.
Taillon is taking on a leadership role on a young but talented pitching staff that is bonding by eating breakfast together every morning at Pirate City.
“I don't see myself above anybody or below. We're all on the same page,” Taillon said. “Part of me is excited to step up and take the reins, but another part of me is like, ‘I better not get ahead of myself, keep working and establish myself more.'
“I'd be honored to step up and take on that role, but I need to perform well and do what I'm capable of — and I'm confident I will.”
Taillon is borrowing a page from his predecessor after serving an apprenticeship of sorts under Cole the past two seasons. They would play catch and stretch together every day, and Taillon watched how Cole took care of his body to throw a 200-inning season.
That's Taillon's primary goal, to prove that he can be a 30-game starter and workhorse whose durability matches his talent.
“Watching Gerrit pitch, it was like every time he took the mound he was so prepared,” Taillon said. “A fiery competitor, but every time he went out there you knew he was the most prepared guy on the field that day. ...
“I feel ready to do what I'm asked. I'll go about it in my own way, but I learned a lot from him.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sees “opportunities for growth” in Taillon, seeing someone who followed a structured routine that involves drinking green smoothies, taking turmeric shots and using wearable technology but also creativity.
“There were times when it was just about, you make the calls back there and I'm just going to follow the game plan,” Hurdle said. “Then there were times during the season where he started getting more creative as he started to gain more experience to use the ability to pitch without his best stuff, the ability to pitch with a pitch removed for whatever reason. He's shown all of those things going forward.
“We like him a lot,” Hurdle added, “and there's a ton of reasons to like him a lot.”
So the Pirates refuse to put a ceiling on Taillon, who was 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA last season in 25 starts and 133 2⁄3 innings despite undergoing testicular cancer surgery May 8 and not being reinstated until June 12.
That's why Taillon is focused not on statistical goals but rather making all of his starts.
“As a starting pitcher, your biggest goal would be to make your starts, post up every time your name is called for your team,” Taillon said. “That's No. 1 for me, but I've learned to be careful with setting numerical goals. Last year, my goal would have been to make all my starts, but that wasn't really under my control.