VIERA, Fla. — Little about Taylor Jordan’s career to date is ordinary. The 25-year-old has already made his major league debut and is competing for a spot in the Washington Nationals’ rotation, yet this spring is his first time in major league spring training, with an official name plate above a locker. He made nine major league starts last year after beginning the season at high-Class A Potomac in Woodbridge. And only fans familiar with the deepest of the Nats’ minor leagues would have known his name before his first major league start on June 29.
How the right-hander with the quirky delivery went from an unheralded prospect to a major league starting pitcher for two months to one competing for a full-time spot in the Nationals’ rotation still boggles Jordan’s mind. That pitching coach Steve McCatty stopped him in the clubhouse earlier this week to tell him he would start the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Friday still shocks him.
“I’m just lucky to be here,” he said, seated at his locker at the far end of the Nationals’ clubhouse near all the regular big leaguers. “I wasn’t even expecting to be in the big leagues last year. So everything from here on out is just gravy.”
When Jordan reported to minor league camp last spring to begin his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, he didn’t expect to be starting in New York against the Mets nearly four months later. But he did, and in his nine-start stint in the majors last summer, he changed his and the Nationals’ plans. His 3.66 ERA over 512 / 3 innings, his heavy sinker and his 57.5 percent groundball rate were good enough to earn him a chance to compete for the last spot in the Nationals’ rotation this spring against Ross Detwiler and Tanner Roark.
“I’m very excited,” Jordan said. “This is my first big league spring training invite. Definitely here to show them what I got.”
Early in his professional career, Jordan didn’t have the mind-set to handle this situation. He admits he didn’t heed his coaches’ advice like he should have. Jordan, who was born and raised in Merritt Island, Fla., only a few minutes from the Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, was selected by Washington in the ninth round of the 2009 draft out of Brevard Community College. In his first taste of professional baseball, with the Nationals’ rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate, Jordan posted a 3.63 ERA over 342 / 3 innings. Then, with short-season Class A Auburn and a short stint with Class A Hagerstown, Jordan regressed and posted a combined 5.37 ERA over 651 / 3 innings.
“I wasn’t always doing the right things the first two years,” Jordan said. “Being a rebel and being young also. But then, whenever you start going with the program and the system, my maturity started to kick in, and I started to listen to them. It was more of if I wanted to listen. They would tell us to go run, and I would cut that short or try to find a way out of it maybe. I was young and immature.”
Then, Jordan said, “it clicked.” Jordan was in the midst of a strong 2011 season with Hagerstown — he had a 2.48 ERA over 941 / 3 innings — when his right elbow began to give way. After elbow rehabilitation failed, Jordan underwent the same procedure several prominent Nationals pitchers and prospects also have undergone.
Jordan was back on the mound in 2012 after rehab, but it wasn’t until 2013 that many learned the identity of this sinkerballer. As Jordan shined at Potomac (a 1.24 ERA over six starts) and Class AA Harrisburg (0.83 ERA in nine games), major leaguers Detwiler and Dan Haren went on the disabled list. The Nationals felt that not only could Jordan’s stuff survive in the majors, but he had the mental makeup to succeed.
“He has an unreal ability to slow the game down,” said Paul Menhart, the pitching coach at Harrisburg at the time Jordan was called up.
Jordan also has the physical tools. At 6 feet 3, 200 pounds, his fastball dives hard as it nears the plate. His fastball averaged 92 mph last season. His change-up dips like a split-finger pitch and can neutralize left-handers. His slider improved with every start in the majors, but he said it is still a work in progress and will help him face right-handers better.
“I would love to get my slider back,” he said. “I know it can be a good pitch. I just need to get more consistent.”
Over the winter, Jordan suffered an apparent setback. In October, he slipped when stepping out of the pool at his house and felt his right ankle break. He underwent surgery, having a plate, six screws and a pin inserted into his ankle. He thought he was done with rehab schedules but found himself back on one with Nationals rehab pitching coordinator Mark Grater. For three months, Jordan did mindless and repeated exercises to rebuild full mobility in his ankle.
The ankle hasn’t slowed Jordan one bit in camp. He has been a full participant in all drills and bullpen sessions. He said his offseason throwing wasn’t affected because he normally rests his arm until Jan. 1 anyway. With a healthy ankle, Jordan has caught Manager Matt Williams’s eye. Of all the young pitchers he has seen in camp, Williams said Jordan is among those who have stood out.
“The ball just comes out of his hand really nicely,” Williams said. “For me, a mid-90s fastball with movement. Good change-up, breaking ball for strikes. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen. It’s electric stuff out of the hand. I can’t wait to see him in a game and get an opposition hitter in there and have some competition for him.”
But how does Jordan approach the stiff competition for a major league roster spot this spring? This winter helped put Jordan’s outlook in perspective. He and his girlfriend, Mandi Meil, are expecting a daughter, whom he hopes to name Alexis, this summer. Sharing the news brought a wide grin to the normally reserved Jordan’s face.
“I’m really just a simple person,” he said. “I have a baby girl on the way. My life is great right now. If I got sent down to the minors, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’d just have to work harder.”