Atlanta manager Bobby Cox sat in the home dugout at Turner Field before Monday's season opener, puffed on a cigar and mixed in some general ball talk amid reminiscences about Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. At one point, the conversation turned to the dynamic, young African-American outfielder who's making such a positive impression on fans, opponents and scouts throughout the National League.
Yes, that Andrew McCutchen kid certainly can play.
"He's an All-Star. This year, probably," Cox said. "Hitting. Running. Defense. Throwing. He's got it all. He catches the ball like Andruw Jones did when he was 19. You can't hit a ball [past him] out there. He's got lightning in that bat too."
McCutchen, Pittsburgh's center fielder and No. 2 hitter, will not elicit many comparisons to hotshot Braves rookie Jason Heyward. He hits from the right side, rather than the left, and is listed at a scant 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, in contrast to Heyward's imposing 6-5, 240.
He's so damn quick, it's amazing. It looks like he's just floating through the air.
”-- Pirates outfielder Ryan Church
And unlike Heyward, McCutchen can expect to spend most of this season in a publicity-free zone. National media outlets rarely pass through the Pirates' clubhouse, if only because the storyline is so old, tiresome and painful to rehash for all involved. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992, when Andy Van Slyke played center field and Jay Bell hit second in the order, and it doesn't matter that McCutchen was 6 years old at the time.
He's a Pirate; therefore, he gets asked.
"If people want to put that on us, let them put it on us," McCutchen said. "We don't put it on ourselves. We don't dwell on what happened in the past, because the past is the past and you can't change that. We want to be a team that wins. That's the only thing going on with us right now."
In casual conversation, McCutchen conveys an air of thoughtfulness and inward calm. His father, Lorenzo, is a youth minister who taught him the importance of maintaining a positive attitude in the face of obstacles. McCutchen turned down a baseball scholarship from the University of Florida to sign with Pittsburgh as the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft -- right between fellow high school outfielders Cameron Maybin and Jay Bruce -- and newspaper personality profiles duly noted his fondness for writing poetry, drawing and singing in the church choir.
In his mini-biography in the Pirates' media guide, McCutchen reveals that his first job was as a custodian at a bank, he's a fan of Lil Wayne and the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," and the person he would most like to meet, dead or alive, is Eddie Murphy.
Judging from his rookie season, McCutchen is more inclined toward drama than comedy. After the Pirates traded center fielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta in a deal that made fans want to raze PNC Park, management summoned McCutchen from Triple-A Indianapolis in early June. All McCutchen did was single against the Mets' Mike Pelfrey in his first at-bat and go 2-for-4 with three runs scored, a walk, an RBI and a stolen base in an 11-6 Pittsburgh victory.
Before the year was through, there were plenty of highlights to savor. McCutchen led NL rookies with 47 extra-base hits and 10 outfield assists. He homered three times in a win over Washington, and became the first Pirates rookie since Richie Zisk of the 1973 club to accumulate three hitting streaks of 10 games or more.
He also avoided anything resembling a major rough patch. McCutchen hit .284 in June, .277 in July, .304 in August and .281 in September and October. He racked up 20 infield hits, and found a way to reach base even when he was fooled or his swing was out of sync.
"He wasn't awed by the big leagues," Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit said. "He was up for four months, and there was never a time where he struggled for an extended period. He didn't play like a rookie. He played like a 10-year veteran."
McCutchen spent the winter training with his friend Will Cherry, a former Florida Southern outfielder who's now a minor leaguer in the Mets' chain, with a focus on cardio work and strengthening his legs. Some things remain constant: During a recent interview, McCutchen wore a gray Pirates T-shirt with the inscription "We > Me" on the back. General manager Neal Huntington cites two examples to illustrate how McCutchen embodies that team-oriented slogan.
The first came in the fall of 2008, when the Pirates sent McCutchen to the instructional league with a mandate to improve his bunting, work on his base-stealing reads and breaks, and refine his reads, routes, angles and throwing in the outfield. It would have been easy for McCutchen to do his work, return to the hotel and call it a night, but he immersed himself in the camp dynamic.
"He kind of took over the camp, and was a great leader for our young guys," Huntington said. "We would have been fine with him partaking of his own program, but he joined the program."
The second example came Aug. 25 against the Phillies. With the score tied 4-4 and teammate Brandon Moss on second base, McCutchen stepped to the plate against Brad Lidge looking to advance the runner. After misplaying a Shane Victorino line drive into a triple in the top of the ninth inning, McCutchen half-wondered if the team might flash him a bunt sign. Instead, he drove a 93 mph fastball over the right-center-field fence for a two-run, walk-off homer to give Pittsburgh a 6-4 victory.
"It was the perfect at-bat," Huntington said. "He did the right thing mechanically and mentally, and he mis-hit the ball and won the game with a home run. That sounds silly to say, but he was trying to hit a line drive to the gap, and he was under it by a shade and it left the ballpark."
McCutchen's cachet, or "it" factor, isn't confined to his grace in center field or his ability to drive the ball. He ranks with Michael Bourn, Carl Crawford and Emilio Bonifacio among a small fraternity of big league burners, and the sense of anticipation in the stands builds as he rounds the first-base bag, legs churning and dreadlocks flying, with third base in his sights. He's a triples machine and a 20-homer, 40-stolen base threat in waiting.
"He's so damn quick, it's amazing," Pirates outfielder Ryan Church said. "It looks like he's just floating through the air."
How fast can McCutchen run with 17 years of organizational anguish on his back? The plan is to surround him with help as quickly as possible, but as usual, the Pirates are asking their fan base to be patient. Former top pick Pedro Alvarez, one of baseball's elite young hitters, should be up by June. Catcher Tony Sanchez and pitcher Brad Lincoln look like solid major leaguers, and former Yankees prospect Jose Tabata has a chance to be good amid questions about his age and lack of power for a corner outfielder.
It might be easier for the Pittsburgh faithful to embrace the team's long-range thinking if the return haul for Jason Bay, McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson and Nyjer Morgan weren't so iffy. Ross Ohlendorf and Charlie Morton are part of the Pittsburgh rotation, but Craig Hansen is hurt, Moss was just outrighted to Triple-A and Lastings Milledge, Andy LaRoche, Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Tim Alderson, Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris & Co. seem more like complementary pieces than high-upside guys.
The Pirates have spent a major league-high $18.7 million on the draft the last two years, so they're hoping to do more than just recycle mediocrity. Current and former Pirates alike think it's unfair to heap expectations on McCutchen as the savior who will lead the team out of the NL Central wilderness.
"I don't think there's any one person that can turn a situation like that around," McLouth said. "He's obviously a good player, but it's unrealistic to place it on one person's shoulders. It has to be an effort of a whole minor league system."
Will the Pirates make strides this year and escape last place for only the second time since 2005? Or are they destined for a sixth consecutive sub-70-win season, and a fresh round of Zach Duke-Paul Maholm-Ryan Doumit trade speculation in July?
"In order to be better, you should expect to be better," McCutchen said. "We have a better team than we did last year, just because we don't have to worry about who's getting traded and who's not going to be here."
At 23, the face of the Pittsburgh franchise is talented, resolute and determined to improve each day. It doesn't take an authority on outfield play -- or Bobby Cox -- to be excited about what the future has in store.