BRADENTON, Fla. -- Andrew McCutchen believes he can be great.
"The sky's the limit," the Pirates center fielder said. "There is no ceiling."
McCutchen also believes the Pirates can win.
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"I'm overly confident," he said. "I believe and I feel that we have what we need to turn the page and create a new book here."
Sounds like McCutchen is a lot better judge of his own talent than of the talent around him. Either that, or he is one politically correct 24-year-old.
It's easy to find people who believe McCutchen can be great. It's hard to find anyone outside the Pittsburgh clubhouse who believes the string of 18 straight losing seasons is about to end.
Ask about McCutchen, and scouts rave.
"He loves to play the game," one said. "He gives you a great effort, all the time."
Ask about the Pirates, and scouts groan.
"It's bad there," one said. "The only thing they could do -- and this would be unconventional -- would be to fire Dave Littlefield again."
The Pirates fired Littlefield as their general manager 3½ years ago. And the scout's point was that things were so bad when he left that they still aren't close to being fixed.
By the end of last season, the Pirates at least had four promising young position players in their lineup, with McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the outfield, and Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker in the infield.
Breakout ... Jose Tabata: Tabata hit .299, including .324 over his final 76 games, and he showed the potential to steal 30 bases, swiping 19 in only 405 at-bats. The one tool he didn't put on display, as was the case throughout his minor-league career, was his home-run power. That figures to change this year, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "This year," Tabata said, showing off his bulkier frame, "my idea is to hit more home runs." Doesn't get any clearer than that, does it? And it's not like he needs to hit 20-25 to make a difference in Fantasy. With his other numbers, a mere 12-15 would put him in Shane Victorino territory. Tabata will probably go late in drafts because people see him as just another base-stealing specialist, but he has the potential to be so much more.
Bust ... Pedro Alvarez: This isn't a condemnation of Alvarez's raw tools or long-term potential. It's mostly an attack on perception. Alvarez, for all his upside, is going off the board at a point when he couldn't possibly exceed expectations. His .788 OPS was unacceptable for a power hitter, and though he hit more homers as he got more comfortable, his strikeout rate didn't improve. He's in Mark Reynolds territory, which puts him at risk of hitting .240, which of course makes him no sure bet for 30 homers. Reports of him gaining weight in the offseason aren't particularly encouraging either. Third base is weak after the top six go off the board, which could cause you to reach for the next-best thing. But keep in mind Alvarez is a full two or three steps behind that elite group.
Sleeper ... James McDonald: McDonald was the No. 56 prospect according to Baseball America in 2009. It sounds crazy because he was so ineffective with the Dodgers, failing to secure a rotation spot and pitching too poorly in relief to remain in the major leagues. But something clicked for him when he went over to the Pirates in the Octavio Dotel deal last July. With an organization that was able to commit a rotation spot to him, not worrying so much about the results, he regained his confidence, pitching more or less like an ace down the stretch with a 1.80 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and 7.2 strikeouts in nine innings over his final five starts. McDonald won't get any attention on Draft Day because he stepped up for a team no one was watching at a time when most Fantasy owners had already stopped caring, but at age 26, he's poised for a breakout.-- Scott White
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Ask scouts about those players, and you still get mixed opinions -- except about McCutchen.
He stands out.
"He can do everything," shortstop Ronny Cedeño said. "Power, speed, steal bases, defense. He can do everything."
New teammate Matt Diaz told one reporter this spring that he figured McCutchen is worth 300 runs a year, because he could score 100, drive in 100 and save 100 with his glove.
And besides that, he's a guy who is easy to like.
"Incredibly confident, and yet humble," general manager Neal Huntington said.
Huntington insists that the situation in Pittsburgh isn't nearly as bleak as it looks. He sees a group of pitchers the Pirates currently have in Double-A and another group behind them, and he sees the end of all the losing -- maybe not this year, but soon.
He sees the Pirates winning soon enough that McCutchen can be part of it.
"He's going to play with us as we win, and he's going to be part of it," Huntington said.
But will he?
McCutchen doesn't even have two years of major-league service time, so the Pirates still have five years to go before he can become a free agent. He's not expensive, because he's still not arbitration-eligible.
No one is yet suggesting the Pirates should trade him, but it's natural to wonder how many more years of losing it would take for that speculation to begin. Even worse, it's natural to wonder how many years of losing it would take for McCutchen to want out.
It hasn't happened yet, not that it should have. McCutchen still sees himself as being a career-long Pirate, as he should.
"I do," he said. "You don't want to move. You don't want to go to another team. It's like growing up in your neighborhood, with your friends, and then having to go to another school. You don't want to do that."
Pirates fans will worry that it won't be his choice. They remember that Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were traded, that Nate McLouth was traded, that Jack Wilson was traded.
But there's a good chance McCutchen will be a better player than any of those. There's a real chance he already is.
And maybe that means there's a good chance he's the hometown favorite who the Pirates will choose to keep.
McCutchen understands the history. Unlike so many players, he won't tell you the 18 straight losing seasons don't matter, or that he shouldn't have to answer questions about them.
"We're aware of the past," McCutchen said. "We know about our winning, and we know about our losing. But we cannot change the past."
The winning is in the ever-more-distant past, but McCutchen is right. There was a time when the Pirates were winners.
McCutchen sees how the Pittsburgh fans still embrace those who won as Pirates, and how the fans embrace the Steelers and Penguins when they win.
"They want to be part of it," he said.
He's confident he can be part of it, that the Pirates can build -- or already have built -- a winning team around him. He likes new manager Clint Hurdle, who has brought needed energy to a clubhouse that was dull under John Russell.
"He's brought a lot of people out of their shells," McCutchen said. "He's going to make you think, and he's going to make you feel good."
Andrew McCutchen can make you feel good, too. He can make you feel at least a little better about the Pirates.
He can't convince me they're ready to win now.