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McCutchen meeting Futures challenge

McCutchen meeting Futures challenge

Consistency.

It's the single word that comes up most frequently when managers, coaches and front-office executives are asked what they're looking for in a Minor League prospect who appears ready to move up to the big leagues.

Not power. Not speed. Not a blazing fastball or knee-buckling curve (though none of these things hurt, of course).

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Pittsburgh Pirates center-field prospect Andrew McCutchen has the power, speed and dazzling defensive capabilities. And this year, at just age 21 at Triple-A Indianapolis, he has been showing that essential consistency, as well.

It's been an emphatic answer to the "lesson plan" that had been drawn up back in Spring Training by Pirates farm director Kyle Stark.

"He'll flash some very impressive tools at any given point," Stark said in March, "but the thing now is for him to try to be more consistent with that, both offensively and defensively."

It certainly wasn't the first time McCutchen had been advised to focus on consistency, and it wouldn't be the last time.

"Just being consistent," said McCutchen, when asked what he's been working on to make that last step from Triple-A to the big leagues. "And I believe I've done that throughout this season so far. I don't think there's any big adjustment I've had to make."

The result has been a strong first half in which he's displayed both the tools and, more importantly, the consistency to earn not just a slot on the International League squad for the upcoming Triple-A All-Star Game, but a coveted spot on the U.S. Team that will take the field at the XM All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, July 13.

At this point, the Futures Game is also serving as a partial sampling of the "short list" for the U.S. Olympic team, a 24-man squad that is expected to be officially introduced on July 16 (the same day as the Triple-A All-Star Game in Louisville).

Right now, the list of candidates is estimated to be at 60 players, a mix of top prospects and veterans. You can probably guess which category McCutchen falls into.

A five-year varsity baseball star at Fort Meade (Fla.) High School -- yes, five years, he hit .507 to lead the league as an eighth grader -- McCutchen batted .709 with 16 homers and 42 RBIs as a senior before the Pirates made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

The next summer he earned the organization's Minor League Player of the Year honors as he batted .291 with 14 home runs and 62 RBIs at Class A Hickory before moving up two levels to hit .308 in 20 games down the stretch at Double-A Altoona.

He returned to Altoona to open the 2007 season and, not surprisingly, expectations were high. But for perhaps the first time in his baseball life, McCutchen struggled out of the gate.

He opened the season with an 0-for-15 streak, batted .189 in April and did not raise his average above .200 until May 26. Then, slowly but steadily, he pulled it together. He hit .230 in May, .266 in June, .309 in July and .304 in August.

And through it all, observed Tim Leiper, his manager at Altoona, he maintained an even-keel attitude, even more impressive given his age.

"My biggest concerns with him were that he'd feel he have to try to 'play catch-up,' try to get three hits in one at-bat. But he's remarkable in that he never let it get to him like some guys would, out of frustration," Leiper said. "Maturity-wise, for a kid his age to have gone through what he has and handled it like he has is remarkable."

Once again, the Pirates promoted McCutchen to the next level to finish the season, and he batted .313 in 17 games to finish out the 2007 campaign at Indianapolis, going hitless in just two games and winding up the year with an eight-game hitting streak.

McCutchen embraced the opportunity to keep it going a few weeks later in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where he hit .286 for league champion Phoenix, and didn't go without a hit more than two games in a row.

"I had trouble at the beginning of the season and turned it around the second half, so when I got to the fall league, it was reassuring," McCutchen said. "It was telling myself that this was where I needed to be, and this was what I needed to remember."

While playing for Phoenix, the team got to face the 2007 version of Team USA, a squad comprised of prospects and veterans who headed over to Taiwan for the International World Cup, where they upset favored Cuba in, perhaps, a preview of an upcoming Olympic rematch in Beijing next month.

McCutchen, who had played internationally in Taiwan as a high school member of the Junior Olympic team, had no hard feelings about not being on that club.

"It didn't even cross my mind," he said. "It was cool that they were going to Taiwan, and though it would have been cool to go, at the same time I think it would be even better to be on the team this year."

He has certainly been doing all he can to be considered seriously for one of those slots.

Through July 6, McCutchen was hitting a solid .282 for the Indians with eight homers, 33 RBIs and 24 steals, which already surpasses his career best coming into 2008. Though the club's youngest player by more than a year, he was also the team's Player of the Month for May, when he hit .304 with 12 steals.

His hitting coach at Indianapolis, veteran outfielder Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, has been extremely impressed with his top pupil, and remembered his first impression of McCutchen at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

"We weren't even on the same field where he was hitting, but you could hear the sound coming off his bat from the other field," recalled Meulens, who got his first "hands-on" experience with McCutchen down the stretch in 2007. "When you first get young players, our style here is to just let them play, let them figure things out on their own at first, until you have to make adjustments. But we didn't have to make any adjustments last year."

That actually didn't surprise Meulens, who had been in close contact with Altoona hitting coach Brandon Moore and Pirates roving hitting instructor Gregg Ritchie before he even started working with McCutchen.

"It was just a continuation of what he'd started doing so much better after his first couple of months at Double-A," Meulens said. "He's a very exciting player. His speed plays, he's fast on the bases. He's doing a fabulous job."

McCutchen also does his homework, maybe because he's not so far removed from high school not to remember the importance of getting an education.

"Older pitchers will get to know you. They'll study you, and they won't just come right after you like younger pitchers do," he observed, regarding the difference between the lower levels and higher levels. "They'll find the spots you can't handle. So at the same time, you have to have a plan just like they have a plan against you."

McCutchen is certainly hoping that he'll make the cut to the squad that will head to Beijing in early August.

"My goal is to get to the big leagues, but this would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said McCutchen. "It's something I really want to do, and the people in the Pirates system want me to do it, as well. And it wouldn't even be throwing away a chance of being a September callup, because we'd be back by then."

And if he does go, he'll have his hitting coach rooting for him all the way.

OK, most of the way.

Meulens, who holds the distinction of being the first Major Leaguer to hail from the Dutch island of Curacao, played in the 2000 Olympics for the Netherlands and returned to the Olympics in Athens in 2004 as that team's coach. He isn't heading to Beijing this year as they have scaled down their coaching staff, so he'll have some mixed emotions if his star pupil is playing against his own country.

"Reaching the Major Leagues is probably the biggest thrill you're ever going to have in your career, but it's a whole different dynamic to represent your country in the Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world," Meulens said. "We'd be so proud of him if he's chosen, so I would root for him individually, but I would still want my country to win."

For now, though, McCutchen isn't looking that far into the future.

He's just looking forward to the Futures.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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