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03/24/09 4:11 PM ET

Bucs not rushing McCutchen into bigs

Bucs top outfield prospect will probably start season in Triple-A

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen could very well be with the the Major League club up until the final days of Spring Training. But the prospect's prospect of traveling with those teammates to St. Louis for the April 6 season opener still doesn't look likely.

That comes as a disappointment to many who have been hearing about McCutchen's star potential since the Pirates chose him as the 11th overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. But there's good news also on the horizon: McCutchen is not far away.

This spring, unlike the previous three, it's safe to project that McCutchen will be in Pittsburgh before year's end. When, exactly? Pirates management says that will depend on McCutchen.

It's no secret that the organization is thrilled to have McCutchen blooming in the top tier of its Minor League system. But management still has a checklist of sorts for the future Pirates outfielder.

It's a checklist that highlights areas to refine, not necessarily areas to develop or overhaul. While McCutchen could probably start the season in the big leagues and do just fine, the Pirates don't want him to just do well. They want him to maximize that potential, even if that means a little more time in Triple-A.

That checklist, according to Pirates Director of Player Development Kyle Stark, is as follows:

• Drive the ball more consistently, something the Pirates believe McCutchen is more able to do than his 2008 season showed.

• Trust his swing a little bit better when he sees a good pitch and consistently put a good swing on pitches to hit.

• Incorporate his ability to bunt, both as a sacrifice and more importantly as a tool to reach base, more frequently.

• And continue to use his speed to be a greater threat on the basepaths.

It may seem like the Pirates are being nitpicky when it comes to paving a path to the Majors for McCutchen. And maybe they are, because they feel they can be.

One, management believes it needs to ensure that McCutchen doesn't rely solely on his athletic ability to survive, something he's always been able to do throughout his Minor League climb. And two, the Pirates still have time to focus on development with McCutchen, who won't be 23 until after the season ends.

"You look at him, and he's 22 years old and would just be coming out of the Draft this year," manager John Russell pointed out. "You have to keep that in perspective. If he went to college, then we would just be getting him to start his development."

Management has maintained since the start of spring that McCutchen was not counted out of a possible Major League spot to begin the season. However, there has really never appeared to be much serious consideration for starting McCutchen anywhere but Triple-A, unless an injury prompted his early arrival.

Still, McCutchen has refused to look at it that way. He came here -- and is still here -- fighting for a big league spot.

"I didn't come here just to get at-bats and then to be sent down to Minor League camp where they say, 'I don't know if he's ready,'" said McCutchen, who was listed as the organization's second-best prospect by Baseball America this year. "I want it to be, 'He looks like he's ready.' I want it to be that. Even if I don't make the team out of Spring Training, I want them to say, 'This kid looked good.' That's the impression that I want to leave with them."

The coaching and development staffs have already noted significant strides being made, beginning at instructional leagues last September and carrying over into Spring Training this year.

"Now he has to go out and do it in a competitive setting," Stark said.

Last year marked McCutchen's first full season in Triple-A, and he finished the year with a .283 average, 50 RBIs, 38 extra-base hits and 34 stolen bases. He was caught stealing a league-leading 19 times and did have some prolonged offensive slumps midsummer.

McCutchen has participated in Major League camp each year since being drafted, though this is only the second year that Russell has been able to watch him in the Grapefruit League setting.

McCutchen is hitting .255 this spring with three doubles, two triples, a homer and five RBIs. He has walked a team-high 12 times, but has struck out 15 times. He has worked extensively on utilizing the bunt, and he's showed more aggression on the bases.

"There's a lot of little things that he's gotten a lot better at -- his approach at the plate, not trying to do too much, go with what they give you," Russell said. "He's on a good pace. He's working hard. We'll continue to see how he develops."

Assuming the Pirates don't waver in their insistence that McCutchen could still use a bit more development time, what does that mean for McCutchen?

He would start the year as the everyday center fielder in Triple-A Indianapolis. Then, it's just a matter of time until the Pirates deem him ready. But be assured of this -- when management thinks McCutchen is ready, room will be made for him in the outfield, either in left or center.

It's now just a matter of time.

"They expect me to do great things here and to be a great player," McCutchen said. "I believe that they know I can do it, and I know I can do it. I've just got to go show it. That's the way I feel about everything."

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