PITTSBURGH—Andrew McCutchen’s personality and confidence were on display during his first few minutes inside a major league clubhouse.
McCutchen was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis on the morning of June 4, just hours after the Pirates had dropped a bombshell by trading center fielder Nate McLouth to the Braves for righthander Charlie Morton and two prospects.
McLouth had assumed the role of face of the franchise in February when he signed a three-year, $15.75 million contract shortly before he was scheduled to go to an arbitration hearing. He won a Gold Glove and made the all-star team last year in his first season as a regular.
Thus, McCutchen was not only being asked to become the Pirates’ starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, but also take the spot of their most popular player.
So how did McCutchen handle it? By being about as cool as any 22-year-old could be.
McCutchen came strolling into the clubhouse about two hours before a 12:35 p.m. game against the Mets wearing a knit ivy cap that made him look like Tito Jackson from back in the Jackson 5 days. He stopped to hug several of his new teammates, settled in at his locker in the corner of the Pirates’ clubhouse at PNC Park and calmly held court with several media members.
This had all come after he had stayed up all night to catch an early morning flight from Indianapolis that included a layover in Cleveland then a turbulence-filled ride on a propeller plane to Pittsburgh.
Yet, McCutchen looked like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I’m not the type of guy who gets upset very easily,” McCutchen said. “I try to go with the flow.”
McCutchen went with the flow for four months until he reached the end of the season with impressive statistics. He batted .286/.365/.471 in 433 at-bats, with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases in 27 attempts.
For his efforts, McCutchen is the Baseball America Rookie of the Year for 2009.
McCutchen’s rookie season fulfilled the great hopes of the Pirates since they selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft, following his senior season at Fort Meade (Fla.) High. Ed Creech, then the Pirates’ scouting director, compared McCutchen to Marquis Grissom on the day of the draft—and there is every reason to believe he can be as good as a 17-year veteran who won four Gold Gloves and appeared in two All-Star Games.
“There has been so much talk about Andrew, so much hype the last few years,” Pirates manager John Russell said. “He had a lot of expectations to live up to, and he did. He got to the major leagues and was comfortable. You don’t see that in every player who comes up from the minor leagues. That’s what separates the really good players.”
McCutchen was selected as the most exciting player in the International League this season despite playing in just 49 games for Indianapolis. He certainly added excitement to the moribund Pirates, who finished 62-99 and set a major North American professional sports record with their 17th consecutive losing season.
McCutchen showed outstanding speed, good plate discipline, developing power and the ability to go from gap to gap to chase down fly balls.
“He is still a young player,” Russell said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. He’s still going to grow and get better.”
McCutchen took his rookie success in stride.
“I expected to do well,” he said. “I would have been disappointed if I didn’t.”
That may sound arrogant, but McCutchen is actually anything but that. He is a young player with unwavering confidence who has long felt it was his destiny to not only become a major league player, but a star.
“I was probably 5 years old when I first started playing T-ball and I knew then that playing in the big leagues is what I wanted to do,” McCutchen said. “We’d watch the Atlanta Braves play on TV all the time back when a lot of their games were on TBS. I’d watch those games when I was a little kid and I’d be fascinated.
“I always felt this is where I was going to be and I’ve always prided myself on being the best I could possibly be. I have high standards for myself, and I expect to reach them.”
Foundation For A Fast Start
That McCutchen began the season back in Triple-A was the source of some consternation among Pirates fans, especially after he had spent all of 2008 there and hit .283/.372/.398 with nine homers and 34 steals. The Pirates’ decision to have McCutchen return to Indianapolis seemed more curious after he had a fine spring training.
Sending McCutchen back to Triple-A smacked of another penny-pinching move by the penurious Pirates, an attempt to delay his arbitration and free agent eligibility. However, general manager Neal Huntington said the decision was based on the Pirates wanting McCutchen to build on the gains he had made after attending their instructional league last fall and in spring training.
“We could have brought him north with us and he probably would have done OK, but he likely would have been in survival mode,” Huntington said. “We wanted Andrew to be in a position where he was ready to thrive when he came to the major leagues. You could see the improvement in all phases of the game between spring training and the time we called him up.
“He had some rough spots like any rookie does, but he really performed as well as we could have hoped for a player that young.”
The Pirates underwent a major overhaul this season, making seven trades from June 3 to July 30. By the time Huntington was done wheeling and dealing, the Pirates had just 12 players remaining from the Opening Day roster, and they were the second-youngest team in the big leagues at season’s end.
Face Of The Franchise
McCutchen already has replaced McLouth as the face of the franchise after playing just 108 games in the major leagues. Jerseys and T-shirts bearing his name and No. 22 were by far the biggest seller at PNC Park souvenir stands after the trading frenzy ended.
McCutchen has the personality to be both a fan favorite and a leader. He has a warm smile and a good sense of humor off the field. On the field, he plays with great joy but is also a fierce competitor who takes losing and personal failure to heart.
“The only disappointing part of this season for me is that we lost so many games,” McCutchen said. “That was tough and it kind of takes away from whatever personal things you might accomplish. It’s tough to lose, but I do know that we have good young talent on our team and good talent coming up through the farm system. I think we’re building something good here, and the lessons we learn now are going to pay off in the long run.”
Pirates fans, of course, have been waiting seemingly forever for the perpetually rebuilding franchise to win again. McCutchen certainly gives those who have stuck with the Pirates a reason to be hopeful.
“Andrew is what our future is looking like in Pittsburgh,” Russell said. “Those are the types of players we are acquiring. Those are the type of players we’re trying to succeed with.”