- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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PLAYER TO WATCH
Last season the misery continued in the Steel City as the Pirates lost more than 90 games for the fifth straight year and had their worst season since 2001. The good news? They found a new face of the franchise. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, a 2005 first-round draft pick, arrived on June 4 and quickly showcased his tools: speed (in his fifth career game he had two triples), power (three home runs against the Nationals on Aug. 1), a strong arm and exceptional range. "He was replacing an All-Star in Nate McLouth," says G.M. Neal Huntington, "but Andrew was comfortable from Day One."
With only one player who hit more than 12 homers last season in the lineup (Garrett Jones had 21), Pittsburgh will need to manufacture runs. New second baseman Akinori Iwamura provides speed atop the lineup, but no player will wreak more havoc on the bases than the 23-year-old McCutchen, one of the quickest players in the game. "Carl Crawford is probably faster, but that may be it," says Huntington.
This winter McCutchen, who says he dropped 10 pounds as he wore down late last season, strengthened his legs to withstand the pounding of a full season. He stole 22 bases in 27 attempts in '09, but the Pirates want that total to spike this year. "We want him to become a guy who steals the base even when everyone in the ballpark knows he's going," says Huntington. The Pirates, in other words, are turning McCutchen loose.
Errors made by the Pirates last year, the fewest in the NL and a marked improvement over 2008, when they committed 107 miscues. The low error count wasn't the result of a lack of opportunity. According to fangraphs.com, only five NL staffs had a higher ground ball rate (44%).
Part of the Pirates' approach to rebuilding has been collecting prospects who have lost their luster in other systems, such as Lastings Milledge, Andy LaRoche and Jeff Clement, the catcher--first baseman they acquired from the Mariners last July. Pittsburgh didn't let Clement sniff the majors last season and instead sent him to Triple A, where he played mostly first. That was a mistake. Clement's bat isn't good enough to warrant an everyday job at first base, so he only has value if he can be a part-time catcher, a position at which his power-heavy lefty bat can be above average. The Pirates should make him their No. 3 catcher, behind Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo, playing once or twice a week and serving as a useful bench piece on the other days. A below-average defensive catcher who can slug .500 is a helpful roster cog.