CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Pirates camp report: McCutchen up next, doesn't want to disappoint

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Andrew McCutchen hit .259 last season, but believes he can do better in 2012. (US Presswire)  
Andrew McCutchen hit .259 last season, but believes he can do better in 2012. (US Presswire)  

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Freddy Sanchez ... Ian Snell ... Nate McLouth. ...

Look, the Pirates have hitched their future to another phenom! Andrew McCutchen becomes the latest poster boy of hope for a team attempting to pull itself out of the pits and ...

Ryan Doumit ... Paul Maholm ... Brian Giles ...

The guy is one-part All-Star and one-part roadrunner. His five tools, work ethic and passion for the Pirates earned him a six-year, $51.5 million deal last month for a team that was one of the game's coolest stories for four months last summer. But ...

Jason Kendall. ...

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We know what must happen next. It is up to McCutchen and the Buccos to keep his name out of the roll-call italics of bad and embarrassing history. Together, they must make sure his name lands in the bold-face, marquee type of October.

Can they? Will they?

"It was all part of the plan," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says on another warm, sunny and, yes, optimistic spring day here. "There were certain steps that needed to be taken before we got there. It was the right guy to sign for the right reasons at the right time.

"The picture continues to get cleared up a little more with each of these moves. It started in Latin America, continued with re-establishing ourselves there, and then with the amateur scouting and the money spent ... and, hopefully, last year some of the tangible evidence of doing better things at the major-league level."

The franchise that found Roberto Clemente has re-emphasized scouting in Latin America. The organization that developed Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds has poured $47.6 million into the draft during Neal Huntington's four years as general manager. The Pirates spent $13 million alone on their top two picks in last year's draft, pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Josh Bell, and their system has climbed to 13th in the majors in Baseball America's current ranking.

All of this adds up to not only the decision to lock up McCutchen ... but, on the other end of that, for McCutchen to actually want to stick around and not play out the string until free agency beckons.

"That little glimpse of what we were able to do last year gave us hope," McCutchen says.

Lugging 19 consecutive losing seasons into 2012 -- a record for a North American sports franchise -- the Pirates for a time last summer thought they were close to breaking through. They even moved into first place in the NL Central in late July before a spectacular fall in which they lost 47 of their final 72 games.

Like the rest of his teammates, McCutchen, the Pirates' first-round pick in 2005 (11th overall), fizzled more often than dazzled during the final two months. After making his first All-Star team, McCutchen, 25, batted just .216 with a .330 on-base percentage, nine homers and 35 RBI in the season's second half. This after batting .291 with a .390 OBP, 14 homers and 54 RBI in the first half.

Fantasy Writer
Breakout ... Jose Tabata, OF: Though Tabata is a breakout candidate, he's one with an asterisk, as he had problems staying healthy last season. That said, he has the potential to steal 30 bases if he plays a full season. Also, Tabata virtually never pops out, so seasons like his last one, in which he batted just .266, should be the exception. While he may never be a 20-homer threat, Tabata's minor league history suggests that there is a little more thump in his bat than what he has shown in his first two seasons. While Tabata is something of an injury risk, he is expected to be ready for opening day, and he should produce like a No. 4 OF in mixed leagues.
Injury-risk sleeper ... Erik Bedard, SP: Bedard, who is a perennial injury risk, missed time again in 2011 due to injuries, but his surgically-repaired left shoulder held up fine. Knee and lat injuries limited the 32-year-old to 24 starts, but he was largely effective in his turns in the rotation. Bedard can still rack up a strikeout per inning, and he will get the benefit of home games at pitcher-friendly PNC Park. Because of his injury history, Bedard can be passed over until the later rounds of mixed league drafts, but if he pitches even as much as he did last year, he could pay a nice dividend to his owners. -- Al Melchior
Depth Chart | Pirates outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

The numbers added up to a .259 batting average after he hit .286 in 108 games as a rookie in 2009 and an identical .286 in 154 games in 2010.

The Pirates' buzzword with him this spring is "hittability."

"Last year, there was good news and bad news," Hurdle says. "The bad news was he hit .259. The good news is, he'll never hit that again. I think he learned a very valuable lesson of what will happen to his game if he tries to be more than he really is.

"He struggled offensively, and when we started sputtering the last two months he really tried to change things with one swing every time he went up. It's the right reason. He meant well. But it doesn't help you do well. I think he learned a very valuable lesson from that."

It's been so long since the Pirates have won, it seems like Pie Traynor was still on the team. And as the quicksand of one failed rebuilding model after another has sucked recent teams in, the current group is battling all sorts of ugly history in addition to rival pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay.

So when they started 47-43 last summer, it seemed cause for nightly fireworks over the Allegheny River. McCutchen emerged as the face of a future that was coming fast.

Now, it's here.

McCutchen is entering his third full season. His future is secure.

Now, it's time.

Can he out-run those haunting ghosts of the failed phenoms of Pirates past?

"I feel like the sky is the limit," he says. "I can do a lot better than what I've done. I worked hard this offseason. I wanted no regrets coming into spring training. No, 'I wish I would have tried harder or done this' in offseason workouts.

"I feel I've done a great job of that."

What he'll apply this year from last is the approach of the first four months. What he learned from those last two months is exactly what his manager says. No matter how badly he wants to, he cannot change the fortunes of his team with one swing.

"I was trying to swing too hard to get a big hit," McCutchen acknowledges. "I've got to stay consistent. I've got to stay with the process throughout the season. When opportunity comes, you'll have time to rise to the occasion."

He is a smart, engaging kid who has the rare ability to produce crackling electricity every single night, particularly when his legs are involved. Hurdle says he's "very engaged" in becoming more of a threat on the bases this summer. He swiped 33 bags in 2010, a career-high. Last year, that was reduced to 23.

"Defensively, he improved in front of our eyes last year on routes and reads," Hurdle says. "He made some fantastic plays. I mean, there's a top 10 for him [alone] out there."

Now comes the next stage, channeling the physical and mental toughness so that it lasts for six months, all 162 games, and doesn't come up empty early.

It's all part of the process. Signs that the Pirates are on the right track are beginning to sprout up. We saw some last summer.

They are still so young that McCutchen can emerge as a team leader even after just two full seasons. That he has speaks to both his talent and to the Pirates' lot in life. His teammates were thrilled when he signed the five-year deal.

"Everybody wants him around," left fielder Alex Presley says. "He's a guy you need to hang onto. He's the cornerstone of this franchise.

"He's going to help us win a lot of games."

The Pirates not only hope that's the case, they're planning on it being the case. The sooner, the better.

"He's going to get better," Hurdle says. "The ceiling, there's room for growth. The combination of power and speed is unique in today's game. His defense is special. He's got five tools, and they all have a ceiling to work with.

"He's a blast to watch."

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