Top prospect Andrew McCutchen hit his first hurdle in 2007. Beginning the season at Double-A Altoona, he struggled badly from the start. As the season continued, his play improved and his numbers slowly increased. However, he was still only at .258/.327/.383 in early August. Despite the fact that McCutchen had not shown he could sufficiently handle Double-A pitching, he was promoted to Indianapolis with Neil Walker and Dave Davidson. This was one of Dave Littlefield’s final desperate decisions made in an effort to save his job. McCutchen actually hit fairly well in Indy, albeit with little patience or power. He posted a .313/.347/.418 line in 67 at-bats.
An interesting trend with McCutchen is his ability to hit well after any in season promotion. Late in 2005, after hitting .297/.411/.430 in Rookie Ball, he was promoted to Williamsport in the New York-Penn League. He responded with a .346/.443/.442 line in 52 at-bats to finish the year. After a solid season with Hickory in 2006 (.291/.356/.446 in 453 at-bats), he made the jump all the way to Altoona. Suddenly, this 19-year-old kid was in the middle of a Double-A pennant race. He responded by hitting .308/.379/.474 in 78 at-bats. And we have already discussed his 2007 season, in which he followed the same tendencies.
There are a few possibilities that I can think of that could cause this pattern. It is possible that McCutchen is motivated to make an impression when he arrives at a new level. Maybe he hits well when he faces a league for the first time, before scouting reports begin circulating. In his initial promotion to Altoona in 2006, he started off red-hot before slowing down and struggling in the playoffs. Those struggles continued into the 2007 season. However, he did improve as the temperature rose. It will be interesting to watch how McCutchen makes adjustments as he works his way through Triple-A, and eventually into Pittsburgh. Another possibility is that this trend means nothing, that it is simply a random occurrence.
So what does 2008 have in store for McCutchen? Most likely, he will start the season as the Indianapolis Indians’ centerfielder. If he performs well, he could find himself in Pittsburgh by summer. Realistically, I expect him to spend the season in Indy, and join the Pirates in September. In April 2009, Andrew McCutchen will take the field at PNC Park as the Pirates’ starting centerfielder.