BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' demotion yesterday of outfielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Brian Bixler, two of their top prospects, were "difficult moves" in the words of general manager Neal Huntington.
And Huntington had ample cause to feel that way.
Start with the obvious ...
McCutchen, 22, batted .318 in Grapefruit League play, highlighted by a 5-for-5 Saturday that included a home run and three doubles. He had two home runs, seven RBIs and two steals in 26 games. All that, and Huntington called him "our best defensive outfielder."
Bixler, 26, batted .345 with three RBIs and three steals, and infield instructor Perry Hill described him as the team's most improved defensive player under his watch.
"In both instances, the player reaffirmed our belief in their ceiling as everyday to above-average major league players," Huntington said. "They've shown us signs of things to come."
OK, now the not-so-obvious, specifically as it relates to McCutchen ...
By keeping McCutchen in the minors for a stint this season, the Pirates can delay the year in which he is eligible for free agency from 2015 to 2016. That is because, by way of simplest explanation, a player must have six full years of Major League Baseball service time to qualify. Thus, even if he plays most of the coming summer in Pittsburgh, it will not have been a full year.
For a similar reason, other teams doubtless have made a priority of this with top prospects in the past two years, from the Tampa Bay Rays' demotion of third baseman Evan Longoria last spring to pitcher David Price this year to the Baltimore Orioles' demotion of catcher Matt Wieters two weeks ago. All were -- or are -- seen as ready by most but, even though this motivation is seldom discussed, the extra year of rights weights into the equation.
In McCutchen's case, the Pirates were adamant yesterday that the primary motivation was their view of his readiness, though it is known that the free-agency term was at least a small factor.
"There's no question Andrew came into this camp prepared to show us something, and he did that," Huntington said. "But work remains, and we have to look at the whole body of work."
McCutchen batted .283 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs last season for Class AAA Indianapolis, where he and Bixler will return. He was the International League All-Star Game's MVP and, after the season, was ranked the Pirates' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America.
This offseason, management stressed better patience at the plate, as well as some small-ball elements aimed at having him be a leadoff man in Pittsburgh.
"He slowly but surely has ticked off a lot of the elements we wanted to see from him," Huntington said. "We still have to work on the base-stealing, on the bunting, so that, when he does struggle, he can pull that third baseman in and find his way on base."
McCutchen took the demotion well, despite having visibly raised his hopes.
"You're knockin' at the door, and you're just waiting for them to open it," he said. "They told me to just keep doing what I'm doing: Don't change my approach. Don't change anything. Don't go down there and feel like you have to hit .400 to make it to the big league team."
Asked if he felt he outperformed people who might make the team, he came back quickly, "No, I don't look at it that way at all. I did what I could, and I felt like, hey, it was up to them to make the decision. I believe I made the decision tough because, coming into spring training, I don't believe I had any chance at all. But I think I made it hard on 'em. I'm good with that."
Bixler's emergence was more of a surprise.
He entered the spring viewed as a utility infielder, but he changed that by "exceeding expectations," as Huntington put it, all spring.
"The Brian Bixler people in Pittsburgh are going to see is not the one they saw last year," Huntington said.
That referred to his .157, eight-error showing in 50 games of replacing Jack Wilson last year.
"He's worked on an awful lot of things and, as we told him, if we saw him as a utility player, he might be our best option right now," Huntington said. "That's not how we see him."
Bixler and Luis Cruz had been considered for the lone infield vacancy on the bench, so he was clearly disappointed. But he also sounded heartened that the view of his potential changed.
"If that's how they see it, yeah, it's nice to know that the work I put in made a difference," Bixler said. "I believe in myself, and I want to be an everyday player. I'll just keep working to make that happen."
Huntington would not say Cruz made the team but added he "probably has the inside track."
Thirty-five players remain in camp.