Baseball 2007: McCutchen ahead of curve
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Center fielder Andrew McCutchen became the face of the Pirates' minor-league system this spring -- as a prelude to becoming the face of the major-league team in the not too distant future.
"I think McCutchen has come quicker than we thought, but, at the same time he's earned his way to where he is," said Brian Graham, the Pirates' senior director of player development.
"This guy has played well. He's handled the pressure. It's been more mental than physical. He has the ability to take pitches, to work the count, to play well defensively and make good decisions. He's done a nice job."
In a very short time.
McCutchen is less than two years removed from being taken by the Pirates with the 11th overall pick in the June 2005 draft.
And yet, this high school draftee out of Fort Meade, Fla., is less than six months from making his major-league debut.
"In the outfield, there are probably 75 or 76 things a player has to know," said Rusty Kuntz, a Pirates outfield instructor. "He has to know situations, backup coverages, how to catch the ball, how to do ground ball stuff.
"Baserunning-wise, there are probably 65 or 66 things a player has to know by the time he gets to the big leagues. This guy's going through them so fast. His progression is so quick. And it's not because of a necessity. It's because he's that good in applying information."
"This kid's got good tools, too," said Bill Virdon, a Pirates special instructor who was a pretty fair center fielder in his day. "...He seems to know how to play."
McCutchen, who won't turn 21 until October, hit .297 in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, .346 in the New York-Penn League, .291 in the South Atlantic League -- where the league's managers voted him the league's Most Outstanding Prospect -- and .308 in 20 games with Class AA Altoona in August.
McCutchen played for Altoona with Neil Walker, the Pine-Richland High School graduate who was the Pirates' top draft pick in 2004 and who ranks right behind McCutchen on the top prospect list.
In his first three seasons in the system, Walker made every minor-league stop as a catcher.
This season, partly because of Ronny Paulino's emergence as the Pirates' regular catcher, Walker has shifted to third base. The move could help Walker's emergence as an offensive force.
"The fact he doesn't have to squat 100 times a game, doesn't have to throw the ball back 150 times a game and doesn't have to take his gear on and off and doesn't have to call the game is going to improve his offense significantly," Graham said.
In his first three seasons, Walker batted .286. He also had 72 doubles in 1,046 at-bats, an indication he could develop into a power hitter.
"I've found third base the most difficult position to develop," Graham said. "One, you have to draft a guy who profiles -- a guy who can hit, hit for power and play good defense, and those guys are tough to find. And if you find them, they're usually not third basemen.
"So [with Walker] we've got a switch-hitter who can hit and hit for power."
McCutchen and Walker will play for Class AAA Indianapolis at some point this summer -- as will shortstop Brian Bixler, the second-round pick in 2004.
Bixler had a fine spring in the major-league camp this year after hitting a combined .302 in 493 at-bats for high Class A Lynchburg and Altoona last season.
"He's going to be a big-leaguer," incumbent Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson said. "And he's going to be a shortstop. Sometimes young shortstops get moved to second base or third base, but he's going to stay at shortstop."
Bixler's development enabled the Pirates to feel comfortable enough with that position's depth that they could include minor-league shortstop Brent Lillibridge in the Adam LaRoche trade.
"That's part of your farm system's job -- to help the big-league club through a trade," Graham said.
McCutchen, Walker and Bixler rank at the top of the prospect list in a system that's rebuilding.
"Certainly last year there were some bare spots," Graham said. "We're rebuilding because so many guys got to [the major leagues] so quickly. We had guys get there in a bunch. That's why we thinned out a little bit. And we had some injuries."
Among the Pirates' draft picks who arrived in the big leagues in the past three seasons are pitchers Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, Matt Capps and John Grabow. Position players Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jose Castillo and Paulino also are relative newcomers.
"I anticipate when the season starts we'll have more homegrown players on our 25-man roster than any team in baseball," Graham said. "Now the gradual progression has to start over, but I think we're in a very good state."
Pirates fans might want to keep their eyes on the Hickory club this season. It could include the next wave of young starters -- right-handers Brad Lincoln, Patrick Bresnehan, Jared Hughes and Stephen MacFarland and left-hander Michael Felix. All four were picked within the first nine rounds of the June draft.
Hickory shortstop Angel Gonzalez also is worth following. A switch-hitter, Gonzalez signed as a non-drafted free agent Jan. 23, 2003, out of the Dominican Republic.
"He has an above average arm, good hands, good range, runs a step above average and does everything well," Graham said. "Right now, he plays a little bit out of control, but that's just a matter of maturity and experience."
There will be other top position player prospects with Lynchburg.
Those include outfielders Brad Corley and Jason Delaney, first baseman Steve Pearce and catcher Steve Lerud. The first three are from the 2005 draft; Lerud, whose progress has been slowed by injuries, first played professionally in 2004.
Pearce last season hit 26 home runs and drove in 98 runs while splitting the year with Hickory and Lynchburg. Corley spent the entire season with Hickory and had 32 doubles, 16 home runs and 100 RBIs. Delaney also played the whole season with Hickory and had 27 doubles, 9 home runs and 75 RBIs.
"Pearce, Corley and Delaney all fall into the same mold," Graham said. "They'll play their way level to level and end up being pretty good players. They've all had success to varying degrees. It's a process, and it takes time. You really don't know what you have until they get to the 2,000-at-bat plateau unless they're really special like McCutchen."
First Published March 31, 2007 12:00 am