BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before the 2011 Pirates lost their way, they lost their will. Before they lost 10 straight games to free-fall out of the National League Central race, they lost their focus. Before they lost their traction, they lost their bearings.That, in a nutshell, is how the strange ride is recalled by Andrew McCutchen, who checked into Pirate City on Wednesday and expressed his gratitude to 2011. Seriously. "Every year you learn something, and from our ups and downs we learned from that, too," McCutchen said. "So my takeaway from last season was that the way we reacted to the downs should now be able to help us out this year. Until everything went bad, we were able to do pretty well the first half. So we know what we're capable of doing, if we handle the downs without falling off so much." In many ways, McCutchen is the face of the 2012 Pirates. He is their leader on the field and on the stat sheet. He is an All-Star center fielder. He is a barometer of the team's prognosis, since the club's long-term direction will inevitably be tied to its willingness to tender him a multiyear contract as he approaches free agency.
McCutchen realizes he fell on that face in the latter stages of the 2011 season -- and in so doing had a lot of company. These Pirates hadn't previously experienced ups and downs, only downs; you have to ride the proverbial roller coaster before you can learn how to stomach it."It's knowing when you're down, to how to keep from staying down for a long time. You have to find a way to get out of it. That's the big thing for us," McCutchen said, his piercing eyes revealing that this is something to which he has given a lot of offseason thought. "Yeah, it's part of the game. A big part. You're going to fail. You play 162 games, you're going to fail a lot. "Still, you can't have that mentality, 'Well, we've lost three in a row, so we're planning on losing again.' The object is to go out and win every single game, but that's not the reality. And when we hit a downtime, we've got to remember what we were doing when we were playing well. "Game by game ... pitch by pitch ... inning by inning," added McCutchen, who apparently had already gotten manager Clint Hurdle's "We've got to finish" sermon. "What we did the first half, we just have to maintain that focus." Not just empty words, or a flimsy theory. Until the 10-game losing streak that began on July 29, the Pirates had only three skids of longer than three games. Much of that consistency flowed from an unexpectedly dependable starting rotation, which now has added two veteran pillars in A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard. Those two starters are part of an influx of newcomers also including infielders Casey McGehee and Clint Barmes, outfielder Nate McLouth and catcher Rod Barajas. "I give the [front office] guys on top a lot of credit for getting the team something we didn't have, to help us be even better," McCutchen said. "I believe they went and did that. Great additions." Much of the country does not realize what a special talent McCutchen is. The reason for that is clear: At about the time the nation, attracted by upstart contention, began to tune in the Pirates last summer, they and their centerpiece both fell quiet. From the Bucs' final day atop the division -- July 25 -- to the end of the season, McCutchen batted .220. He went 16-for-91 (.176) to the wire, in the final 29 games. That swoon was in sharp contrast to his brief career chart. Through his first three Major League seasons, McCutchen has improved consistently across the board. His homers have gone 12 to 16 to 23. The RBIs have gone 54 to 56 to 89. This appears to be a 25-year-old primed to take it to a new level, precisely the carrot he had chased throughout an offseason of commitment. "My goal in the offseason was to work hard to the point of knowing I'm getting to Spring Training ready to go. I didn't want to be in a position of thinking, 'Wish I'd done this or that.' I believe I accomplished that," McCutchen said. "So, yeah, I'm goal-oriented. The main goal I set for myself was to do everything I could to help myself and the team in the course of the season. But I'm not numbers goal-oriented." So 30-30 would be an accident? Barry Bonds is the only player in Pittsburgh history to pair 30-plus homers with 30-plus stolen bases, doing it both in 1990 and 1992. McCutchen has already scratched that ceiling (33 steals in 2010), so it must be considered within reach. Perhaps not an accident, but it would be a byproduct. "That stuff takes care of itself," he said. "If I work hard, if I prepare properly, I know everything that I can do. If I do the offseason right, my natural ability will take over and I'll have a good season." Matt Kemp, you have been warned. The Dodgers outfielder, ranked by MLB Network as the Majors' top 2011 center fielder, got his warning from McCutchen, himself. What McCutchen's message to his friend boiled down to: "You've got the award, but you aren't keeping it." "I texted him my congratulations," McCutchen recalled the exchange early in the offseason, "and told him it was well deserved, but I wasn't going to let him have it this year. I know him well enough that I could say that to him." Kemp probably knows McCutchen well enough to realize he means it.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.