The sky is the limit for Bucs' McCutchen
Former top pick continues to shine with big leaguers
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As the youngest in an already baby-faced Pirates clubhouse, it'd surely be forgivable if Andrew McCutchen were a little timid. Instead of standing in the shadows, though, the 20-year-old is making leaps.
Excuse him if he's not playing scared any more, but the age gap is nothing new. In high school, McCutchen routinely played on the older travel baseball teams. Last year, he became the youngest ever to grace Double-A Altoona's lineup. And now, as McCutchen is rolling in his second year of big-league camp, Pirates player development director Brian Graham said the sky's the limit.
"We do anticipate [McCutchen] playing in Altoona, and it's just a matter of performing," said Graham. "We're not sending him there to work on jumps in the outfield or hitting breaking balls, we're sending him there to get experience and perform. His performance is going to dictate how fast he moves."
If the past is any indication of what's to come, there's already a buzz that McCutchen could receive a September callup to Pittsburgh.
The 11th overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft headed to rookie ball for the GCL Pirates shortly after graduation from high school, and finished the year with short-season Williamsport. He had a combined .310 (65-for-210) batting average in his first year of pro ball, along with 12 doubles, four triples and 35 RBIs in 58 games.
In 2006, a .291 average in low-A Hickory earned the center fielder a starting spot on the South Atlantic League All-Star team, and a promotion all the way to Altoona for the final 20 games. He wrapped up the season by snagging Pittsburgh's Minor League Player of the Year accolades.
McCutchen said, if anything, the jump to Double-A was a breath of fresh air because the pitchers were more disciplined.
"In A-ball they've got a guy throwing 95 [mph] at your face, and the next pitch he paints the outside corner," he said. "I think [in Double A] it's a little easier."
Prior to the 2005 draft, Baseball America tabbed McCutchen as the third-best five-tool player among high schoolers. Graham backed this up, and after observing McCutchen's success through each of the first two seasons, added he thought his speedy outfielder's best attribute was hitting.
"The way McCutchen swings the bat, and the way the ball comes off McCutchen's bat, it's impressive," Graham said. "You see big-league hitters, and a lot of the time, the ball comes off McCutchen's bat as well or better.
"He has a great approach to hitting. It's mechanically very sound, and he hits the ball to all fields. Probably the most important part of that is his ability to command the strike zone. For the most part, he swings at good pitches, which makes a huge difference in you as a hitter."
Adding speed to plate discipline makes a dangerous combination, and McCutchen showed this in the Pirates' exhibition game Wednesday against Manatee Community College. He didn't earn a hit, but that was debatable. McCutchen hit the gas out of the batter's box in an attempt to beat out a fairly hard-hit grounder to shortstop. The shortstop bobbled the ball, but it appeared that even if he hadn't, McCutchen would've been at first in plenty of time to greet the ball as it arrived.
The same wheels saw him take second by force a moment later, then scoot home for Pittsburgh's first run on a Dave Kelly double. He walked and scored in his second at-bat, and flew out in his final appearance.
McCutchen may look as if he's always been there, but the whole coming-of-age ordeal wasn't entirely seamless. Thankfully, most of the playful hazing, such as dressing up in homage of rapper-turned-reality-television-stars, is finally past him.
When McCutchen entered the clubhouse for the first time last year, someone commented that because of his twisted hair, McCutchen resembled Public Enemy founder Flava Flav. The rapper's show, "Flavor of Love", was popular on VH1 at the time, and so another teammate grabbed a clock and some tape. The result was a knockoff version of Flava Flav's signature pendant clock necklace McCutchen wore around the clubhouse.
"That was about it. It wasn't that bad," said McCutchen, laughing at the memory.
McCutchen is the first to admit he's got some tinkering to do. And now, with a couple of seasons under his belt and his second Major League Spring Training in progress, he said the pressure is off him and he's free to fine-tune the necessities, such as baserunning.
"The coaches and [Pirates manager] Jim Tracy know I'm a pretty good baseball player," McCutchen said. "I still go out there and treat every day like it's a game of baseball. I don't look at the level of baseball. I just look at baseball in itself. There might be some things I might have to work on at the time ... but they know that I can adjust."
Things such as learning different pitchers' and catchers' timing, which McCutchen agreed would come with age and experience.
"I'm kind of like a baby, just growing up and trying to learn," he said. "I'm sure when I get it down, I'll be stealing bases like it's nothing.
"There's no pressure on me now, I'm just going out there, and I'm having even more fun than last year."
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.