The burden of expectation should probably weigh more heavily on a young pitcher being groomed for stardom.
Jameson Taillon is the highest-drafted Canadian in major-league history after being taken second overall – one spot behind Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper – in 2010. He’s the pitcher the Pittsburgh Pirates hope will one day anchor their starting rotation.
He’s also Canada’s wild card at the World Baseball Classic.
Taillon will start against the United States on Sunday, a strategy Canada hopes will surprise its powerful rival in the same way Adam Loewen did when he held the U.S. scoreless in an 8-6 win in 2006. Taillon’s being asked to give Canada a chance against all-star hitters such as Ryan Braun, David Wright and Giancarlo Stanton.
No sweat. Taillon can’t wait.
“I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating,” said Taillon. “For me, I’ve really got nothing to lose. Those guys are five-, six-, 10-time all-stars, so I’m just going to go out there and have some fun with it, see what I can do.”
Any fear Taillon might have felt was wiped away last Thursday during his first spring training start for the Pirates against the Boston Red Sox, when he gave up one unearned run and one hit with three strikeouts through two innings.
“I’m out there facing, I don’t even remember who it was, it was a big leaguer,” he said. “And I was sitting there and I was like, ‘Man, how am I going to get this guy out? I watched him on TV. How am I going to get him out?’ It worked out well for me, but I think getting that experience out of the way, I’ll be fine going into this.”
At 21, Taillon is the youngest player on the Canadian team. Before the team’s roster was announced, many of Taillon’s teammates didn’t even know he was Canadian. Born in Winter Haven, Fla., to Canadian parents, Taillon grew up in the U.S. The six-foot-six, 225-pound right hander holds dual citizenship and played for USA Baseball as a junior.
When Baseball Canada offered him a roster spot that wouldn’t have been available on a stacked U.S. squad, Taillon accepted. It didn’t go over well with everyone.
“I think I shocked a lot of people when I decided to do this,” he said. “But it’s something my parents made sure we knew when we were young is that we’re dual citizens. And they always said it will pay off in the future and they made sure we got cultured both ways so I think this is a pretty cool opportunity for me.”
If people were upset, it’s because Taillon gives Canada a powerful arm. He’s got four pitches – four-seam and two-seam fastballs that touch 94-97 miles per hour, a curveball he calls his strikeout pitch and a change-up he is developing.
He’s also quickly moving up in the Pirates’ minor-league system. After spending most of last season with a single-A team, Taillon finished the year with three games in double-A. In those few games, he finished with 18 strikeouts, just one walk and a 1.59 earned-run average in 17 innings pitched.
Taillon and pitching prospect Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh’s No. 1 pick in 2011, represent hope for a franchise trying to return to relevance. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said he’s impressed with Taillon’s progress so far.
“He’s on a good pace for getting better,” he said. “He’s a great person, he’s a hard worker, he comes from an unbelievable family and he’s taken some quality steps forward for us.”
Taillon was 18 when he was drafted. One year prior the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the top pick and only waited a year before calling up the ace pitcher to the majors.
At first, Taillon said he thought more about the expectations for his career. Nobody wants to be a draft bust, but Taillon has learned to relax and embrace the Pirates’ hopes for him.
Pirates reliever Chris Leroux, who will start for Canada against Mexico on Saturday, said Taillon has one of the best arms he’s ever seen. He added Taillon’s potential goes beyond the Pirates’ rotation, and that he could be one of baseball’s top pitchers.
“He’s a really quiet guy and he just goes about his business,” said Leroux. “He’s not nervous at all about the World Baseball Classic. He’s a very confident kid. He knows he’s got all the skill sets that it takes to become a dominant pitcher. I’m excited to see him pitch to be quite honest.”
Huntington said he had no reservations about his players competing in the WBC – besides Taillon and Leroux, Pirates closer Jason Grilli is also playing for Italy – but Baseball Canada’s Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams, said his team is taking care with one of the Pirates’ prized prospects.
Initially Canada planned to start Scott Mathieson on Sunday, but the team decided Taillon might provide more of a surprise against the Americans.
“He has a big arm,” said Hamilton, adding that Taillon makes up for his lack of experience with a pitching arsenal that he hopes U.S. batters will struggle with. “His stuff is major-league calibre now. It’s plus major-league calibre right now.
“You’re going to have to come in and deal with a mid-90s fastball and a plus breaking ball from him. He’s a big, strong guy who’s coming at you.”
Taillon hasn’t been told what his future will be following the WBC. There’s a chance he moves up to triple-A, but he won’t be surprised by a season in double-A. Barring a major setback, Taillon is on his way to the Pirates’ rotation eventually.
There’s also the chance he could still pitch for the U.S. in the future, but Taillon said if he has to choose he won’t forget the opportunity Canada has given him. He’s looking forward to showing off what he can do.
“I feel like going into the game I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “I’m a younger guy, I haven’t made my major league debut yet. That’s how I’m approaching it – nothing to lose. I know if I make my pitches, I’ve got the stuff that I feel can get anyone in the world out.”