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Kevin Gorman: Jameson Taillon ready to be the ace, face of franchise for Pirates | TribLIVE.com
Kevin Gorman, Columnist

Kevin Gorman: Jameson Taillon ready to be the ace, face of franchise for Pirates

Kevin Gorman
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon throws during the first inning against the Cubs Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon walks from the mound after giving up a solo home run to the Cubs' Kyle Schwarber during the second inning Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, at PNC Park.

As Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton, Fla., for spring training this week, Jameson Taillon will keep an eye on the free-agent sweepstakes for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Taillon admitted last month at PiratesFest at PNC Park that he’s interested in how free agency plays out for the players taken before and after him as the top three selections in the 2010 MLB Draft.

“I mean, superstars are great for the game,” Taillon said. “I hope they break the bank and get paid.”

The Pirates are counting on Taillon to be not only the ace but the face of their franchise and ballpark draw they desperately need to lead the club back to postseason play.

That Harper and Machado will break the bank should serve as motivation for Taillon, who watched them shoot to superstardom while he was sidelined by Tommy John surgery in 2014 and ‘15.

Where Harper is a six-time All-Star and 2015 NL MVP as the top overall pick by the Washington Nationals, Machado was a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner for the Baltimore Orioles.

The decision to draft Taillon No. 2 in 2010 and Gerrit Cole with the top pick the next year appeared promising at the time, with the Pirates envisioning the pair of power pitchers at the top of their rotation.

It’s easy to imagine what the Pirates could have accomplished from 2013-15 with Machado at shortstop or third base and batting in the heart of the order. They might have won a World Series. Instead, their title drought will be commemorated with celebrations of their 1979 world champions, a reminder it has been four decades without a pennant.

Trust me: It eats at Taillon, who knows he could have been part of the Pirates’ three consecutive postseason teams if not for his development being disrupted by injuries. The Pirates believe a healthy Taillon could have been a difference between clinching the NL Central division title and qualifying instead as a wild card.

The good news is Taillon has recovered from testicular cancer to develop into a power pitcher who went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA last season and was absolutely dominant in the second half. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was calling Taillon “one of the best young starters” when he corrected himself by saying, “actually, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball.”

Not to mention one of the best bargains.

Where the Orioles already parted ways with Machado, the Pirates will pay Taillon $575,000 this season. That’s a pittance for a pitcher who will anchor what is projected to be one of the top starting rotations in the NL, along with Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. The Pirates also are projected to have one of the lowest payrolls in MLB this season, but Huntington is quick to note it will increase next year when Taillon, Williams and Musgrove are among eight Pirates eligible for arbitration.

“We understand the payroll number is an easy thing to go to and voice a concern or voice a criticism,” Huntington said. “That’s where our payroll growth will come, mostly organically. But we’ll find a way to supplement this group, via free agency and/or trades.”

The Pirates should do everything they can to lock up Taillon long term now, but it’s unlikely he would be willing to give them a hometown discount. As the Pirates’ player union representative, Taillon pays close attention to the economics of the game and openly roots for free agents.

“When they sign a contract, I want to see these 30-year-old pitchers that sign longer deals do well,” Taillon said. “I’m rooting for guys that are getting paid. I want to see them hold up to their end of the deal because it helps us young guys coming up.”

At age 27, Taillon has emerged as a clubhouse leader for the Pirates, both by example and as one who isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. That role should only increase now that the Pirates traded Ivan Nova.

Most impressive is that Taillon has made it clear he wants the ball in the clutch, including on Opening Day. That he was willing to pull a slider out of his back pocket last season shows his confidence. That Taillon is careful with how his words are conveyed shows he doesn’t want to disrupt the clubhouse chemistry he’s helped to cultivate.

“I always pitch better when there’s something on the line or when people are looking at me in a certain way,” Taillon said. “Last year, I remember games when our bullpen was taxed, and it was my day to pitch. I take pride in that stuff and say, ‘Oh, good, Jamo’s pitching. He’s got us. He’s going to go deep.’

“I also don’t want to say, ‘I want to be the guy. Screw everyone else.’ I think we have a bunch of aces. I don’t back down from it or shy away from it, but I don’t want to slight anyone else, either. I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can do the job.”

That might be true, but the Pirates are counting on Taillon to be their superstar and one of the best pitchers in baseball this season.

Even if that means he will eventually break the bank.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.