PITTSBURGH — Gerrit Cole sat on a stool in the cramped locker room at the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league complex in Bradenton, Fla., in late February and thought for a moment.
What, exactly, does the burly right-hander love so much about baseball?
Sure, the money is great. The potential fame too. Yet for the player considered one of the cornerstones of a franchise rebuilding itself from the ground up, the pull is much more primitive.
“I just like to just beat somebody,” Cole said. “Kick somebody’s (butt) really. That’s what I like doing and that’s what I’m good at.”
The 22-year-old will make his major league debut tonight when the Pirates play host to the San Francisco Giants, a moment a lifetime in the making for a player considered “can’t miss” since the first time he pulled on a glove as a kid growing up in California. To be honest, it’s a moment Cole hoped would happen a little sooner.
The top pick in the 2011 draft sprinted through Pittsburgh’s farm system, needing just 26 starts to move from Class A Bradenton to Triple-A Indianapolis last summer.
Yet when the Pirates decided to send him to minor league camp halfway through spring training for more seasoning, Cole’s frustration was palpable. Sorry, but 6-foot-4, 240-pound pound guys who can regularly pump 99 mph fastballs by overmatched hitters are used to getting their way.
There would be no pouting, however, at least not outwardly. Cole bit his lip and went to work.
“As disappointed as he was, he jumped into this with both feet,” Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said. “He asked a lot of questions.”
Not one of them was “when do I get out of here?” That doesn’t mean Cole didn’t think it, even as Pittsburgh’s best start in more than 20 years quelled the drumbeat for his arrival.
This is the same player, after all, who would constantly challenge his teammates to anything and everything while playing at Lutheran Orange High in Orange, Calif., a half-hour southeast of Los Angeles. Long toss. Batting practice. It didn’t matter. Cole’s drive to prove himself was relentless.
“Gerrit is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever coached,” said Mike Grahovac, who coached Cole at Lutheran Orange and is now the head coach at Concordia (Calif.) University. “He doesn’t like to lose at anything. That’s a good quality to have. You give him the baseball and he gets on the mound, he is a fiery guy. That’s what you want.”
And it’s something the Pirates desperately need. While trade acquisitions A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have given the Pirates a much-needed influx of competency and grit at the top of the rotation, they are entering the twilight of their careers.
Cole and 2010 second-overall pick Jameson Taillon are the future. Cole’s run will begin against the defending World Series champions and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who knows a thing or two about handling the role of “phenom.”
It’s a tag Cole has lived with his entire life, which gives Treanor confidence his project won’t be overcome by the stage when he walks onto the mound at PNC Park for the first time as a big-leaguer. Cole rarely looked intimidated during his time in Indianapolis this spring, going 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and ending his run with 14 consecutive scoreless innings.
Despite his electric stuff, Cole had just 47 strikeouts in 68 innings, proof that he’s making the necessary step from thrower to pitcher.
“We tweaked the delivery a little bit and I think over the last 4-5 starts, I think you’re starting to see the guy everybody’s been looking for,” Treanor said.
He could be a guy that could be a difference maker almost immediately for a team searching for its first playoff berth since 1992. Pittsburgh’s hot start means Cole won’t be called on to help salvage the season. And by waiting until mid-June, the Pirates kept Cole from becoming arbitration eligible until 2016, meaning there’s plenty of time for him to settle in and get comfortable.
The guys he’ll be throwing to are certainly anxious to get a longer look. Cole impressed Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin during spring training and Martin hasn’t seen anything over the last couple months to dissuade him from thinking Cole is ready.
“He seems like he has a good head on his shoulders,” Martin said. “He has that type of mentality where it’s not going to be a long learning process for him. He is ready to go and compete right now.”
That’s all the Pirates ask, figuring the relaxed atmosphere in the clubhouse will take care of the rest. Despite the spotlight that follows him wherever he goes, Cole has shown an ability to fit in. When Indianapolis held a “kangaroo court” at the end of the season, the first player targeted was Cole.
His infraction? The $4 million bonus he earned for signing with the Pirates. The fine? A whopping 10 bucks.
“The max fine is $5 but we doubled it for him,” Treanor said. “It was classic. I don’t think he was expecting it, but he was laughing the whole time.”
That smile will likely be gone by the time Cole bounds out of the dugout tonight, replaced by the intensity that the Pirates hope will one day make him one of the premier starters in the game.
Just not yet. All they need now is some help.
“He’s not the savior for Pittsburgh,” Grahovac said. “He’s got to be part of the team. He’s got to help that team win.”
NOTE: The Pirates traded backup infielder John McDonald to the Cleveland Indians on Monday for a player to be named or cash considerations. McDonald was sent to the Indians on Monday after the Pirates recalled him from a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis and activated him from the 15-day disabled list. The 38-year-old McDonald spent his first six seasons with Cleveland starting in 1999. He has also played for Detroit, Toronto and Arizona.
PHOTO: In this March 5, 2013 file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole threw during an exhibition baseball game against Spain in Bradenton, Fla. Former No. 1 pick Cole will make his big league debut on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, against San Francisco after the burly righthander steamrolled his way through Triple A. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)