Every minor league manager relishes the opportunity to invite a prospect into his office, close the door and tell him he's headed for the Show. It's the type of heartwarming perk that keeps organizational soldiers going as they navigate long hours in the hot sun for relatively low pay.
Dean Treanor, manager of Pittsburgh's Triple-A Indianapolis farm club, has helped nurture the dreams of dozens of aspiring big leaguers in 26 years as a skipper and coach with teams from Fresno to Albuquerque. But he'll always remember Gerrit Cole as the Guy who Beat Him to the Punch.
Treanor was in the home clubhouse at Victory Field talking to another player Saturday when Cole, seated on a couch in front of the TV, suddenly let out a chuckle.
"I said, 'What are you laughing about?'" Treanor said. "He tells me, 'I just saw my name going across the bottom of the screen. It said I'm pitching next Tuesday in Pittsburgh.'"
Cole, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, is set to make his major league debut at PNC Park in what promises to be one of the more entertaining pitching matchups of the season. He will be opposed by San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, who is looking to build on a strong outing against Toronto his last time out and take another bite out of that 4.75 ERA.
The matchup isn't quite on par with the recent Matt Harvey-Stephen Strasburg extravaganza at Citi Field in terms of fantasy league hyperventilation appeal. But as early June pairings go, it's must-see viewing. Cole reportedly is dating San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's sister, Amy. So there's even an angle for the "Married to Jonas" crowd.
The game might rekindle a few memories for Lincecum, who gave up home runs to Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino and failed to last five innings in an 8-5 loss to Cole Hamels and the Phillies in his big league debut in May 2007. Lincecum recovered quickly and went on to win consecutive Cy Young Awards at age 24 and 25, while developing an ardent following for his skater-boy look, outrageous fastball and unorthodox delivery.
When the Giants signed Lincecum to a monster two-year, $40.5 million contract that bought out his final two years of his salary arbitration, the big question was whether they could ever afford to keep him for the long haul. Now Lincecum is a few days shy of his 29th birthday and doing the whole career crossroads thing -- adjusting to reduced radar gun readings and trying to re-establish his market value in his free agent "walk" year. He has even made a few forays to the bullpen along the way.
Cole, 22, signed with Pittsburgh for an $8 million bonus and has graduated to PNC Park after only 200 innings in the minors. Along with Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, he is regarded as a pitching savior-in-waiting for a franchise that's coming up in the world.
The surprising Pirates have the fourth-best record in the National League at 37-26, thanks in large part to a staff that ranks third in the league with a 3.24 ERA and leads the majors with 10 shutouts. Injuries have created an opportunity for Cole, but enough Pittsburgh pitchers are on the mend that he might be in town for just a cameo. James McDonald and Charlie Morton are on rehab assignments, Jeanmar Gomez is moving in that direction, and Wandy Rodriguez has been trying to avoid a trip to the disabled list after suffering tightness in his forearm.
General manager Neal Huntington is noncommittal about how long Cole will stay, for a variety of reasons. The Pirates are trying to balance short-term expediency with their long-term interests while navigating the always-entertaining Super 2 arbitration service time maze.
"Some of the determining factors are within Gerrit's control, some are not," Huntington said in an email. "Given the number of starting pitching injuries we have had to work through and the fact that some of those guys are working their way back may have an impact on our future decisions."
Cole pitched well for the Pirates in spring training and called it "frustrating" when the team reassigned him to minor league camp on March 18, but he went right to work in the International League. The Pirates gave him a mandate to improve his fastball command and get a better handle on his secondary stuff, and he's made progress with the help of Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer and organizational pitching guru Jim Benedict.
Cole has a cleaner, more efficient delivery than he did in 2008, when he spurned the Yankees as the 28th overall pick in the draft to attend UCLA. He throws his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s with regularity and is no stranger to triple digits. But his 47 strikeouts and 28 walks in 68 innings with Indianapolis this year lend credence to the notion that he's not a finished product.
At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Cole has an imposing physical presence, and some scouts envision him as more of a No. 2 starter and a 200-inning workhorse than a Justin Verlander-caliber dominator over the long run. But ace-hood awaits if he becomes a more consistent strike thrower and continues to improve with his slider and curve. His changeup already elicits raves.
"He's got a great arm," said a National League scout. "He's a big, strapping kid and he'll throw a lot of innings. The curious thing is, he doesn't get a whole bunch of swings and misses for the kind of stuff he has. Maybe he lacks some deception. Guys seem to see the ball against him."
Cole has won admirers on his journey through the minors by stowing the mega-prospect ego, constantly asking questions and mixing well with his teammates. He arrived in Indianapolis from Double-A Altoona last summer just in time for Kangaroo Court, and his new teammates quickly welcomed him to the fold by giving him the business. The standard fine for a transgression was $5, but Cole's fellow Indians "double-max fined" him $10 for his extravagant draft signing bonus. Cole, by all accounts, laughed right along with everybody else.
The season ended on a more sobering note when Cole failed to make it out of the third inning in a 14-13 loss to Charlotte in the PCL playoffs.
In Cole's 12 starts with Indianapolis this season, it wasn't unusual for him to be cruising along at a comfortable 94-96 mph, then ratchet it up to 99 whenever he got in a jam. Treanor saw that competitive gleam in Cole's eyes and a little extra zip on his fastball recently when the Indians faced the Durham Bulls and their highly acclaimed hitting prospect, outfielder Wil Myers.
"He wanted that challenge of facing Myers," Treanor said.
Treanor missed out on the opportunity to spring some good news on Cole over the weekend, but he managed to share a little paternal advice before the kid headed off to Pittsburgh. As it turns out, Cole is in line to face Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers this weekend if he sticks around for a second start. But first he has a date with the defending World Series champions -- and the Freak.
"We talked about how this is going to be a game he remembers for the rest of his life," Treanor said. "I'm sure his family is going to be there, and he's going to be amped up out there. I told him, 'Just enjoy it and take it all in and remember this one.' We all hope it's one to remember."