Spring Training: For McCutchen, being No. 1 no sweat

But Pirates' top prospect needs to rediscover hitting zone

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Lorenzo McCutchen stood behind a batting cage as his son took batting practice the other day and let out a big laugh, recalling the same conversation the two had several times last summer.

"Don't worry about all that pressure they put on you," Lorenzo would say.

"Dad," would come the sighing response from Andrew, "they can't possibly put more pressure on me than you do."

Check any list of the Pirates' top prospects, and Andrew McCutchen ranks No. 1.

Check Baseball America's list of the game's top 100 prospects released last month, and McCutchen ranks No. 14. To put that into local perspective, the only other two Pirates on the list are Neil Walker, at No. 61, and No. 89 Steve Pearce.

The Post-Gazette profiles the Pirates' top three prospects:

Check the rest of the Pirates' system for impact prospects of any kind beyond those three and, well, good luck with that.

Yeah, no pressure, kid.

"Not really," McCutchen said yesterday. "At first, I think it was kind of cool to be considered the top prospect in the organization. Once you get playing, though, you're just like anybody else. Nobody looks at you any differently. You have to do the same job as everyone else and, if you can't do it, they'll find someone else."

He motioned across the clubhouse to Walker and Pearce.

"There are guys in the same shoes I'm in, and being around guys like that, it kind of takes the pressure off you. Honestly, I don't put pressure on myself."

General manager Neal Huntington expressed hope that pressure plays at least some small role in McCutchen's maturity.

"Hopefully, we as an organization are putting pressure on Andrew to live up to his billing," Huntington said. "We're excited about him. But we also know it's our job to help him develop as a person and as a player. And some of that is learning to live with that label, to control what he can control and understand that we're trying to help him get there."

McCutchen's naturally cool, confident personality surely minimizes the mental aspect.

As Trent Jewett, his manager at Class AAA Indianapolis, put it, "Andrew never seems like he's on a field where he doesn't belong."

That trait has been evident throughout McCutchen's rapid rise through the system: He was a first-round draft pick out of Florida's Fort Meade High School, 11th overall in 2005, and is set to begin his first full season at Class AAA at age 21 after finishing last season there. He has batted near or above .300 at every level, too.

No player so young has moved so quickly since Aramis Ramirez played for the Pirates as a 19-year-old.

But McCutchen remains, without question, a work in progress, as his tumultuous 2007 illustrated.

Coming off a strong spring, he was sent back to Class AA Altoona and went hitless in his first 15 at-bats. His average was .189 through April, .230 through May.

The minor-league evaluators blamed the wicked cold in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania in that early going for icing McCutchen, and he shared that view. After that, the thinking went, he was so eager to get his average up to a respectable level that he reached out of the zone to grasp for hits.

Big mistake.

"That's not my game," McCutchen said. "It just snowballed."

He settled eventually and, after a .301 run in his final 41 games with the Curve, was promoted to Indianapolis in late August and batted .313 in 17 games.

More important, he regained command of his hitting zone in the elite-prospect Arizona Fall League, batting .286 with five doubles and two triples in 29 games.

"You're always going to have a little downfall, but it's how quickly you bounce back," McCutchen said. "I felt like I got my eye back in Arizona, and I've just got to keep that approach and go with it."

McCutchen has above-average speed, an above-average glove and an average outfield arm, but there surely is no more important trait to his game than his command of the zone: He has a compact, powerful swing, one often likened to that of Ron Gant -- who was an All-Star twice in 16 major league seasons -- largely because of McCutchen's 5-foot-11, 175-pound stature. But he has to stay within his zone to make it matter.

When he joined the Pirates' system, that trait came naturally. He hit for average and power, and he drew walks, making for a fine on-base percentage everywhere: It was .411 in rookie ball, .443 in short-season ball, .356 in Class A.

But that sunk to .341 in Altoona and .347 in Indianapolis, and the Pirates' new management aims to cut that off.

"The focus for Andrew is to continue to control the strike zone, identify the pitch he wants depending on the situation and execute that plan," director of player development Kyle Stark said. "This comes down to pitch recognition, strike-zone recognition and staying within his plan consistently."

Specifically, it means steering clear of the slow stuff many pitchers have been successful in getting him to chase.

"He needs to refine his ability to recognize and lay off tough breaking balls early in the count, as well as chasing those pitches later in the count," Huntington said. "And he has to attack his pitch when he gets it."

"Pitchers at our level test that with young players," Jewett said. "Do I have to throw you a strike? And, if so, what portion of the plate is yours, and where can I have success? Andrew gives you the feeling that he can make those adjustments and that he can make them faster than most young players, and we did see some of that last year."

They have seen some of it this spring, too: McCutchen is 3 for 11 with a double and two walks in Grapefruit League games, including a groundout in the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday at Bright House Networks Field.

"He has shown a quality command of the zone, maybe even better than we anticipated," Huntington said. "That's encouraging."

There also has been cause for pause: Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds, with speedy Nyjer Morgan at first base and two outs, McCutchen swung at the first pitch and popped up. And yesterday, in a morning B-game against the Phillies, he lunged well outside the zone at a Jamie Moyer changeup for strike three.

"I'll keep learning," McCutchen said. "There's a new staff here to help me, and I believe I can go out there and handle this level in spring training just like I did in the last two. I'm just going to keep setting my sights high and play hard."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published March 4, 2008 5:00 AM


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