Bucs to open year with McCutchen hitting third
Hurdle tabs Overbay to clean up, Alvarez as No. 5 hitter
TAMPA, Fla. -- Manager Clint Hurdle promised early this spring that he would give it a close look. And after four weeks of games, he was ready to make his decision official on Saturday: Andrew McCutchen will hit third in the Pirates' lineup to begin the regular season.
Take a close look at the lineup that Hurdle wrote out for Saturday's game against the Yankees, because it resembles the one the Pirates expect to use at least through the early weeks of the season. Jose Tabata will lead off and be followed by Neil Walker and McCutchen.
Sitting in the cleanup spot won't be Pedro Alvarez, but rather Lyle Overbay, who has had a terrific spring at the plate. Alvarez will hit fifth, with Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz, Ronny Cedeno and the catcher trailing him in the order.
"I think right now it just sets us up best," Hurdle said. "Pedro has a lot on his plate right now, and I think Overbay -- at least with the spring he's had -- his confidence is good. We'll start that way and see where it takes us."
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Overbay has plenty of experience hitting fourth, having done it 127 times before. Though Alvarez is expected to ascend into that cleanup spot eventually, starting him behind Overbay should take away some of the pressure the second-year third baseman is likely to feel.
"I don't care where it is as long as I'm in there," Alvarez said.
The most debatable aspect of Hurdle's batting order, though, seems to be his placement of McCutchen. The center fielder hit third for a good part of the first half of 2010, but then settled into the leadoff spot to end the year. Overall, McCutchen has hit .302 in 53 career games hitting third and .283 in 190 games batting atop the order.
McCutchen shrugs off the notion that his approach will be any different depending on where he hits. The only difference now is that McCutchen should have more opportunities to drive in runs.
"It's not like I'm an Albert Pujols that was a leadoff guy," McCutchen said. "That would be a big deal. I'm a guy that can do a lot. I can bring a lot to the plate. I can hit first. I can hit third. It's not really a big deal.
"The sky is the limit from here. Run production should go up, and hopefully everything else will be able to go up as well. It really doesn't matter where I'm hitting at. I'm going to be comfortable hitting there."
The other promise McCutchen made is that he will not hesitate to use his speed, even though he will be hitting in front of the team's two most prolific power hitters. McCutchen provided some proof to that promise as he attempted to steal a base with Overbay up and two out in the third inning of Saturday's game against the Yankees.
"There is nothing that's going to stop me except [third-base coach] Nick Leyva," McCutchen said. "If he stops me, that's when I'll stop. I'm still going to continue to be aggressive."
The threat of McCutchen running could be a benefit to Overbay, too. As opponents try to keep McCutchen still, they are likely to throw more fastballs to Overbay.
While McCutchen has a track record of hitting wherever he is in the lineup, Tabata still has to prove that he has the patience to be successful as a leadoff hitter. He has shown improved plate discipline this spring, but drawing more walks and getting on base are going to continue to be keys now that he is the team's tablesetter.
"Jose is a professional hitter," Hurdle said. "He's professional beyond his years. I think he can do it. He's going to have to show me he can."
"I love it," Tabata said of the opportunity to lead off. "I can walk. I can score more runs. I can steal more bases. I can do more things."
Hurdle will stick to this lineup for a while, emphasizing on Saturday that he believes in maintaining continuity. That said, the new Pittsburgh manager also left open the door to switch things around if that is necessary later in the season.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.