Pirates 2012 Preview: The start of something big?

Only 10,304 people were at Great American Ball Park on Sept. 1, 2009, which was a shame, because it was 74 degrees and sunny in Cincinnati. It was a Tuesday night, and the only team in the NL Central that was worse than Dusty Baker's Reds were John Russell's Pirates, who at 53-78 were 24 games out of first place.

The fans that did drop by for the Reds' 11-5 victory would have seen a speedy young outfielder go 0 for 1 with four walks and a rookie switch-hitter in the midst of changing positions pinch-hit and ground out to second base. Two and a half years later, that speedy young outfielder and the switch-hitting rookie will march up front, beating the drums and carrying the flag, leading the other 23 members of the cavalry into the battle that is the 2012 season.

That outfielder evolved into one of the best center fielders in the game, a threat to hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases, and recently received a $51.5 million contract. That switch-hitter found a home at second base, began to play every day, and provided power and average from both sides of the plate. Together, they form the fulcrum around which the lineup pivots and an important defensive tandem in the middle of the field.

The Pirates remain mired in the same losing streak as on Sept. 1, 2009, the day Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker first appeared in the same major league game. They could be the duo that helps break it.

Before the Pirates brought them together, McCutchen and Walker explored their above-average skill sets on high school fields. Even then, their future potential was evident.

"Obviously, it goes with being great high school players, the rest of the teammates looked to them," said Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister, a former major and minor league field coordinator who watched McCutchen and Walker play in high school. He didn't get the full picture -- Walker was a catcher at the time, McCutchen was pitching -- but he saw enough.

"You could see that they had leadership then, just by who they were and what they could do on the field."

Walker and McCutchen played three sports in high school, but professional baseball lured them both, and the Pirates drafted them both in the first round, Walker with the 11th overall pick in 2004 and McCutchen with the 11th pick in 2005.

McCutchen, 25, is still built like the state champion sprinter he was in high school -- muscular, graceful, fluid. He glides, ghost-like, under fly balls in the outfield, floats down the first-base line. He wears a stellar poker face during games: No matter the outcome, he walks calmly into the dugout, no thrown bats, no spiked helmets.

"I was taught to be humble," McCutchen said. "That can take you a long ways. I feel like that really helped me out in my career."

That teaching came from his parents, Lorenzo and Petrina. McCutchen said he was born when they were 17, that they sacrificed for the sake of his baseball career, that they enlisted help from other family members so they could afford to send McCutchen to the Roberto Clemente baseball camp in Puerto Rico.

"They've always been there for me as far as taking care of me, being there for me," McCutchen said. "They knew I excelled in baseball at a very young age."

His excellence continued with his foray into professional ball. He hit .297 in the Gulf Coast League in 2005, his first season, and hit .294 in 2006, when he was named the Pirates' minor league player of the year. The lower levels of the minors still taught him a thing or two.

"I was just overwhelmed at how smooth and how swiftly and how great infield and outfield [practice] looked just by watching it," he said. "In high school, we'd probably lose three, four, five balls because we'd overthrow them, stuff like that. We used one ball [in the pros]. We used one ball the entire time. I thought that was the coolest thing. I thought double plays were the coolest thing. I'd never seen anything like it."

He also learned his power stroke. He hit two home runs during his first season in the minors before Jeff Branson, his manager at Class A Hickory and now a coach with Class AAA Indianapolis, helped McCutchen incorporate his legs into his swing. The next year, McCutchen hit 17 homers.

In contrast to McCutchen's sprinter form, the football player in Neil Walker, 26, still peeks through occasionally, sometimes when he rounds first base at full tilt on his way to a double. His hands and elbows waggle before his swing, but once he puts the bat in motion, he makes good contact from both sides of the plate.

After he was drafted, the Gulf Coast League provided him a challenge, not as much on the field but at home.

"I'm 18 years old, living on my own," he said. "Just the menial everyday things were difficult for a couple years, and then, like anything else, you get used to it and develop a routine. You start to grow up."

Walker hit .298 in 2005, .271 in 2006.

Like McCutchen, he participated in the Arizona Fall League as a minor leaguer. Their first extended period playing together began on Aug. 15, 2006, when both were promoted to Class AA Altoona.

"The first time I saw Andrew play, I thought he was one of the best players I've played with," Walker said.

With Altoona lacking in the way of off-field entertainment, they went bowling at a nearby alley that let them bowl for free. Walker's friends from Penn State came to visit, or he went home to Pittsburgh on off days.

"He was always one of the guys who I was the most comfortable with," McCutchen said. "And people forget that he was drafted as a catcher. He's the type of player that you would think that he would always be a second baseman. He's that type of athlete."

Not long after they joined Altoona, they experienced a heavy dose of adversity, something each had encountered only in small helpings.

For McCutchen, it occurred at the plate. He hit .189 in April of 2007, .230 in May.

"I didn't know what .200 was," McCutchen said. "I didn't know what .280 was."

Brandon Moore, the Curve's hitting coach at the time, helped McCutchen realize that he wouldn't hit .295, maybe not even .275, but if he focused on his current at-bats rather than the average, he could improve. He hit over .300 in the second half and was promoted to Indianapolis Aug. 17.

For Walker, the struggle came with the adjustment to the triple-A game as well as uncertainty regarding his home on defense. He moved from his original position as catcher -- and as recently as last season, Walker said, he was the Pirates' emergency backstop -- to third base, then all over the diamond.

"I knew that I was going to be there, but there came a time three or four years ago when I didn't know how, or what position, I was going to play when I got to the big leagues," he said.

Walker hit .242 in 2008, his first full season in Indianapolis.

"Your approach has to be a little bit better as a hitter," Walker said of what he learned. "You have to be a little more selective. Sometimes you have to take some pitches earlier in the count to get the pitch you want later in the count. You can't just go up there and start wailing away."

But McCutchen and Walker overcame their struggles.

McCutchen made his big league debut June 4, 2009, one day after the Pirates traded Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves.

Walker debuted three months later.

McCutchen started 2010 with the Pirates, and Walker joined the Pirates on May 25 that year.

The wheels were in motion.

Three years later, they're the centerpieces of the team, not only in stature or popularity but also in reality; they often hit third and fourth in the lineup and they defend the middle of the field.

They also go "post to post," as manager Clint Hurdle calls it, playing almost every game. Walker played in 159 games last year, McCutchen 158.

"I know [Hurdle] wants both Andrew and I every single day, and we're capable of playing well even when we're not playing our greatest," Walker said. "That speaks volumes to the rest of the team, the rest of the organization."

Banister also was drafted by the Pirates and is entering his 27th season with the organization.

Asked about the previous time the Pirates had a twosome similar to McCutchen and Walker, he referenced Brian Giles and Jason Kendall, who played together for the Pirates from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke, 1987 to 1992.

"It's been quite awhile since we've had a duo to that magnitude," Banister said.

Walker said he represented the vocal leader, while McCutchen leads by example. Maybe.

"That's how it plays out openly, but don't kid yourself," Banister said. "Cutch is in there talking as well. When he decides to say something, the importance of it resounds loudly."

They're not perfect.

McCutchen, an All-Star selection in 2011, hit .216 in the second half of the season, lowering his average to .259 from his 2010 mark of .286.Walker hit .227 in May, .213 in June.

Nor can they alone sustain the success that the Pirates enjoyed for the first four months of last season. Free agent acquisitions Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas will play a role as will outfielders Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, if they stay healthy. Bedard and A.J. Burnett will strengthen a pitching staff with the potential to stay strong throughout the season.

But McCutchen and Walker are an awful good start.

The Pirates have Walker under control for the next five seasons and signed McCutchen to a six-year contract extension this spring, cementing him as the face of the franchise.

"It shows, to the fans, to the people of Pittsburgh, change is coming," McCutchen said. "Change is here."

The two have high expectations.

Walker: winning.

"That's absolutely the biggest thing right now," Walker said. "Andrew and I have talked about that a lot, especially these last couple years, on how important it is for us to be leaders."

McCutchen went a step further: Win the World Series. To do so, focus on the here and now.

"Have that mentality of just getting after it, of saying, 'You know what? " he said. "'Let's just go do it.'"

The sun isn't shining on the Pirates quite that brightly yet. Should it rise over PNC Park in the near future, the speedy young outfielder and switch-hitting second baseman will have a good deal to do with it.


TODAY: The foundation: Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen.

MONDAY: A quick tour through the NL Central Division.

TUESDAY: Clint Hurdle on the eve of Season No. 2.

WEDNESDAY: The prospects waiting in the wings.

THURSDAY: The Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 126th season begins at 1:35 p.m.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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