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03/11/09 1:52 PM ET

Unheralded McCutchen gaining steam

Minor League prospect gains foothold with Pirates squad

BRADENTON, Fla. -- This isn't the first taste of Major League camp for Daniel McCutchen -- he was a non-roster invitee to Yankees' Spring Training last year. But excuse the 26-year-old right-hander if it feels a little bit different.

McCutchen's invitation to Spring Training in 2008 was exclusively to allow him to showcase his potential in front of Major League eyes. In other words, it was an invitation intended to give McCutchen the opportunity to meet some of the organization's more established players and to pitch in front of those who might consider him for a call up later in the year.

Yankees management told him that he had no chance of making the big league roster to start the season, a disclosure that didn't come as much of a surprise to McCutchen since he hadn't pitched above the Double-A level at that point.

Management had one other piece of advice for McCutchen as well.

"They told me that 'You're not just pitching for us,'" McCutchen recalled. "'We see you as a big league pitcher, maybe not for us but somewhere.'"

That turned out to be exactly the case, as McCutchen found out less than six months later.

McCutchen was one of the four players acquired by the Pirates last July in the trade that sent reliever Damaso Marte and outfielder Xavier Nady to New York. McCutchen might have been the least hyped of the four players received simply for circumstantial reasons.

Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf both spent time in Pittsburgh at the end of last season and therefore became names that fans recognized. Another piece of that trade, outfielder Jose Tabata, was labeled as the high-ceiling player in the group, gaining him an instant following in the Minors.

McCutchen, though, joined the organization, immediately started in Triple-A and spent the rest of the season there. He became lost in obscurity a bit and was the forgotten name for those not in tune with the happenings in the Minor League system.

However, there is reason to believe that McCutchen won't be unknown for too long. He could actually develop into the best of the three pitchers acquired in the deal, as some baseball talent evaluators have projected. General manager Neal Huntington didn't rule out that possibility either.

"Absolutely, he could," Huntington said. "He's had a very successful Minor League career and definitely has potential to be as good, if not better than those guys. It's just a matter of him learning how to use his stuff at the Major League level. But the potential is certainly there."

McCutchen was recently rated as the organization's ninth-best prospect in the annual Baseball America rankings. The publication also listed McCutchen as having the "best control" of any pitcher in the Pirates' Minor League system.

In eight starts with the Pirates' Triple-A team last year, McCutchen went 3-3 with a 4.69 ERA and 41 strikeouts. He walked just seven. Earlier in the year, he posted a 2.55 ERA in nine Double-A Trenton starts. He then moved onto the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, where he went 4-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 11 starts.

After making just one Spring Training appearance with the Yankees last year before being sent down to Minor League camp, McCutchen arrived for his first spring in Bradenton, Fla., with his name in the conversation of potential rotation candidates.

"I try not to get caught up in competition, but competition definitely does feel good," McCutchen said. "But at the same time, these are my teammates and I'm rooting for them. When you get in a situation where everybody's pitching good, that's where you want to be."

Though McCutchen has had a solid spring showing thus far, he's still likely to be a part of the Triple-A Indianapolis rotation to begin the season. Though, even if McCutchen does start in the Minors, he could very well find himself up in Pittsburgh soon should someone in the rotation stumble or suffer an injury.

McCutchen has made three appearances so far in Grapefruit League games and continues to build himself up as a starter. The righty allowed two runs on a walk and three hits in his first one-inning appearance of the spring. Since then, though, he has settled in and allowed just one run and three hits in four combined innings.

"He's starting to relax more," manager John Russell noted. "He's starting to trust what he's doing more. I think he was a little jittery earlier. The more outings he gets, the better rhythm he's getting. It's nice to see."

Interestingly enough, Russell and McCutchen have a connection that goes beyond the manager-player relationship. Both are Norman, Okla., natives, who attended Norman high school and the University of Oklahoma. They have even hunted with some mutual acquaintances back in Sooner country.

"There are definitely some ties there," McCutchen said, smiling. McCutchen added that as far as he knew, Russell was the first and only Norman high graduate to play in the Major Leagues, a distinction that McCutchen hopes to match with Russell as his manager.

In the meantime, though, the development process continues for McCutchen. He still hasn't shown the velocity (typically in the 90-94 mph range) that the Pirates saw with him last season, though that's often normal early in spring. The right-hander has some power in both his breaking ball and fastball and a changeup to complement them.

"He's a very aggressive strike thrower, which is one of the things we love about him," Huntington said. "His command hasn't been as crisp this spring, but he's shown flashes of it. He's fearless. He attacks hitters."

This spring, McCutchen and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan have modified his set position during his delivery to keep McCutchen from tipping his pitches. The two have also focused on situational pitching and targeting ways that McCutchen can better ensure getting hitters out after getting ahead in the count.

"I am inching my way there," McCutchen said of his climb to the Majors. "I'm still not trying to change what got me here -- being a competitor, throwing strikes, having a good work ethic. [I'm] just controlling the things that I can control and not worrying about the things that are out of my control."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.