In less than three full seasons, speedy center fielder Andrew McCutchen has become the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Depending on what he accomplishes in the next season or two, he could either remain so, or eventually become an attractive bargaining chip for the Pirates in a trade.
After a June call-up to the Bucs in 2009, McCutchen carded a .286 batting average in 108 games, with 12 home runs, 54 RBIs and 26 doubles. Most National League observers felt that he was an unfair Major League Baseball All-Star Game snub in 2010, when he put together another .286 average with 163 hits in 154 games while providing the Pirates with highlight reel-type outfield play night in and night out.
Last summer, McCutchen was finally named to the National League All-Star team as an alternate, after a sizzling first half of the season in which he carded a .291 batting average with 14 homers and 54 RBIs, as the Pirates challenged for first place in the National League Central Division.
Playing in the All-Star Game at Arizona's Chase Field last year, along with Pirate closer Joel Hanrahan and starting pitcher Kevin Correia, was a big thrill for McCutchen, who recently visited Altoona as part of the Pirates' 2011 Winter Caravan.
"It was definitely a great experience,'' McCutchen said of his first All-Star appearance. "It was something I'll cherish for a lifetime. I enjoyed every bit of it.''
The second half of last season, however, was a different story.
McCutchen's batting average in games after the All-Star break was just .216, and although he led the 2011 Pirates in homers (23), RBIs (89), and runs scored (87), and his 148 hits were second on the team only to second baseman Neil Walker's 162, McCutchen entered this offseason doing some soul-searching.
Due to his versatility, McCutchen, 25, was moved around in the batting order by first-year manager Clint Hurdle, leading off in some games, batting third in some others, and hitting clean-up in others. Some players might claim that batting in different spots in the order would adversely affect their rhythm at the plate. McCutchen does not.
"That's no excuse,'' McCutchen said about the second-half batting dip that left him with a 2011 season average of .259. "The majority of the reason [for the struggles] is that I might have tried to do a little too much in situations instead of just staying within myself.''
The Pirates struggled on the field in the second half as well, finishing the year 72-90 and winding up fifth in the National League Central Division, 24 games out of first place, after leading the division by a half-game with a season-best 51-44 record on July 19.
"We had a great first half last year that we learned a lot from, and a second half that wasn't so great that we also learned a lot from,'' said the 5-foot-10, 175-pound McCutchen, a Florida native who was drafted by the Pirates with the 11th pick in the first round back in 2005. "We're going to take all those things into the offseason and get ready and geared up for next year.''
Next year figures to be a pivotal one for McCutchen, whose current salary of $452,000 is just over the league minimum.
McCutchen will become eligible for arbitration after next season, making the 2012 campaign a big one for the fleet outfielder.
A blockbuster season next year might hasten the Pirates' trigger finger on offering him a lucrative extended contract. Anything considerably less might give the Bucs reason to peddle McCutchen - who is under contract by the Pirates through the 2015 season - as attractive trade bait before he becomes a free agent down the road.
McCutchen's future contract isn't something that the dreadlock-wearing, free-spirited outfielder is immediately concerned about - at least openly. Instead, he is focusing on what he can control on the baseball field.
"Individually, I learned last year about what I can do, and about what I can become better at doing,'' said McCutchen, who played two Class AA seasons with the Altoona Curve in 2006 and 2007. "Anybody will tell you that, going into the offseason, they want to get better than what they were the year before. I don't put any pressure on myself. I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just about going out there and staying within yourself.''
Pirates president Frank Coonelly said that the Bucs aren't in the business of shelling out the type of extended-year, $200 million-plus contracts that prompted Albert Pujols to leave the St. Louis Cardinals for the Anaheim Angels earlier this offseason. But Connelly was adamant that the Pirates want to keep standouts like McCutchen and Walker.
"Offering players 20-plus million a year for seven, eight or nine years is a tough nut for a market like Pittsburgh,'' Coonelly said. "But what we can't allow it to do is to keep us from signing players like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, who we see as the core of our organization.''
The Pirates' outfield, with McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and last year's rookie sensation, Alex Presley, is one of the team's strengths.
Tabata and Presley spent considerable portions of last season on the disabled list with injuries, or the outfield would have been even more impressive. The re-acquisition of Nate McLouth - a former All-Star with the Bucs - from the Atlanta Braves this offseason will give the Pirates valuable and dependable depth.
"Having Presley and Tabata healthy will be very important, because they bring a lot to the table,'' McCutchen said. "McLouth will be a veteran presence coming back for us. He's going to be able to do some great things for us.''
McCutchen has already done some great things in the outfield for the Pirates in his young career. He's made seemingly impossible catches possible, and improbable catches almost routine, with his extraordinary range, speed, field sense, and ability to track down just about any fly ball that stays inside the park.
"He's one of those guys who you can almost count on to outrun the baseball,'' Pirates' pitcher Brad Lincoln said of McCutchen. "Anything hit out there that's within his capability, he's going to track down.''
McCutchen is a five-tool player who hits for average, hits for power, excels defensively, runs well and throws well. He's the type of player that a championship team can be built around, if he maintains the type of consistency he did in 2010 and through the first half of 2011.
"It's all about getting better in everything that I do, improving offensively, and improving defensively,'' McCutchen said. "That is the game of baseball.''