Spring Training: McCutchen on fast track
Premier prospect could reach Pirates by season's end
Sunday, February 25, 2007
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Andrew McCutchen races and reaches for a line drive shot out of a machine yesterday in Bradenton.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- A point guard in basketball is a better player when his forwards finish plays near the hoop.
A center-iceman in hockey is a better player with wingers who can shoot the puck.
And Andrew McCutchen will be a better player when he reaches Pittsburgh than he will be this summer in Altoona.
But not necessarily because of his teammates.
Because of the opposition.
As he puts it, "Let me face good pitchers. Give me that any day of the week over the A-ball guys."
Consider the 2006 path of McCutchen, the 20-year-old outfielder who is the Pirates' premier prospect and, perhaps, greatest natural talent at any level of the organization.
He started out with Hickory, the low Class A affiliate, and struggled in his first full professional season after being the team's first-round draft pick the previous summer. It was late June, his average had dipped to .215, and his trademark patience was all but gone. He was frustrated at opponents avoiding him and flailing at pitches he once coolly ignored.
"That wasn't me," McCutchen said. "Chasing everything."
He leveled his head and his swing to mount a .352 surge over the next month, enough for management to promote him. He skipped high Class A and headed for Class AA Altoona, mostly because the Curve was playoff-bound and would offer more at-bats.
Some saw it as a risk. McCutchen saw it as long-sought freedom.
Finally, the opposing pitchers would have some idea what they were doing. Finally, the pitches would look as refined as he always envisioned they might. Finally, all his knowledge and instinct for the strike zone would pay off.
Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski studies Freddy Sanchez' footwork at second yesterday during drills in Bradenton.
Click photo for larger image.
And it did: He played 20 games as the youngest player in Altoona history -- 19 years, 10 months -- and batted .308, including a 15 for 40 opening tear, a line-drive home run in his Blair County Ballpark debut and 12 RBIs.
It was only afterward, it seemed, that it all made sense.
"There was never any doubt in my mind," McCutchen said. "A pitcher's not going to be wild like you see in A-ball. A hitter like me, that helps a lot. I don't have to worry about focusing above my head or below my knees or whatever. I can pinpoint a lot better."
Pinpoint and pound.
"The pitching is much better at this level," Altoona manager Tim Leiper said. "And these guys, they wanted to challenge Andrew. They wanted to go after him.
"And he hit them."
The concept was no revelation to Leiper. Elsewhere in his minor-league coaching career, he worked with the Florida Marlins' Hanley Ramirez and the Cincinnati Reds' Brandon Phillips, each a fine, young infielder whose performance improved with promotions. Ramirez, for example, batted .271 in Class AA in 2005, then .292 with the Marlins last season in winning National League rookie of the year.
"With each of these guys, you'd see them struggle in the minors and wonder what's wrong," Leiper said. "You look at Hanley, he was coming off what some people thought was a disastrous year. When he finally blossomed, it happened in the big leagues."
It does not take much to detect that the Pirates believe McCutchen is on a similar path. He will start back in Altoona, with an eye toward a midseason bump to Class AAA Indianapolis, and then ... Pittsburgh in September?
Not even close-to-the-vest general manager Dave Littlefield will reject the possibility.
"The ball's in his court," Littlefield said. "We'll see how he does. We want him to do well."
Some might suggest that the Pirates would be foolish to promote McCutchen at such a young age, if only because he would begin to accrue service time in Major League Baseball. Once he gets three years, he is eligible for arbitration. Six years, and he can leave through free agency.
Why not wait and start him at an older age to ensure more of his prime years are spent in Pittsburgh?
"That is a part of your decision-making process, but it's sixth, seventh or eighth down on the priority list," Littlefield said. "What's most important is having people at the levels that they can handle and being able to have success. You never want to put guys in a position where it's a coin flip as to whether he's going to do OK or not. That's A-No. 1."
Which might explain why Littlefield is not ruling anything out with McCutchen.
"No question he's already been above expectations. Just look at the masses of players who, in their first full professional season, can finish up in Double-A. And this was a high school signee."
Brian Graham, director of player development, usually bristles at any discussion of rapidly advancing young players. Not so with McCutchen.
"His performance will dictate how quickly he moves through the system and when he arrives in Pittsburgh," Graham said. "He's a very talented player and, because of that, he doesn't need as much experience to learn how to play the game."
It is fairly common for talented draft picks signed out of college to accelerate so quickly, but it is rare for a high school pick such as McCutchen.
He started out in the Gulf Coast League last summer and batted .297, then moved up later that summer to the New York-Penn League and improved to .346. And last season, he batted a cumulative .294 with 17 home runs, 74 RBIs and 23 steals in 134 games.
That earned him the Pirates' Minor-League Player of the Year designation, as well as unusual national attention for someone in their system: McCutchen is rated the No. 14 prospect in all of the minors by Sports Illustrated, No. 15 by MLB.com.
It is no accident.
"The biggest thing about Andrew is ... well, he does everything well," Leiper said. "He can hit, he's eventually going to hit for power, he has a great glove, he has exceptional speed, and he can throw. And he works hard, too, and isn't full of himself."
One National League scout rates every aspect of McCutchen's game to be above-average, with the exception of his arm, which grades at average.
What stands out to most observers is his eye.
"This was a 19-year-old kid last season, and you would see him looking to drive the ball early in counts, not chasing pitches out of the zone with two strikes, and shortening up to swing for right field when he was behind," Leiper said. "Those are things you look for in players with a lot, lot more experience. It's incredible."
McCutchen's compact but swift swing makes for a perfect complement.
"His bat stays tight in the zone and, because his bat speed allows him to wait so long for his pitch, he can put that bat right where he wants to," Leiper said.
With force, too. Although McCutchen stands only 5 feet 11, 170 pounds, his bat speed -- which reminds some scouts of Ron Gant -- makes for powerful contact.
"No question, he's going to hit home runs," Leiper said. "Right now, they're line drives. That will change as he fills out."
That might explain why, when asking management types what McCutchen can do to upgrade his game, the initial reaction tends to be a long hesitation.
"I don't see a shortcoming," Graham said. "He just needs to play more baseball."
"He just needs to keep playing," Leiper said. "He just needs more games."
Even McCutchen fails to deliver a firm answer, other than citing his goal of improving upon his 2006 stolen-base total of 23.
"The steals are the main thing," he said.
And other facets?
"The hitting's there. The fielding's there. But there are some things I still need to work out with stealing."
McCutchen's humble, quiet nature -- apart from the occasional clubhouse crooning he does to entertain teammates in the minors, acquaintances say---- limits his boasts about his potential. But it apparently does nothing to limit his expectations.
"It crosses my mind a lot, playing in Pittsburgh this year. I think about it all the time. I look at the lineup they have right now, which I think is going to be pretty strong, and ... I'll be honest with you: I believe I can add to that. It's just a matter of time."
Maybe not much.