Friday, March 6, 2009

The Other McCutchen

It took the Yankees two grabs to finally get their hands on RHP Daniel McCutchen. The Evil Empire drafted him straight out of Norman (OK) high school in 2003, but he chose to attend the University of Oklahoma instead. He was a reliever, but took off as a starter during his junior year as a Sooner.

After turning down offers from the Rays (2004) and the Cardinals (2005), the Yankees proved the third time was the charm, drafting him in the 13th round of the 2006 draft and finally getting his name inked on the dotted line.

McCutchen worked in nine games that year, two for short-season Staten Island where he started, and then at A Charleston, where he worked out of the pen. He posted a combined ERA of just over 2.00 in 30 innings, going 2-0 with a save.

McC derailed after that, testing positive for amphetamine; it was in the meds he had taken ever since college to control ADDS. The 50-game suspension continued into 2007.

After serving his time (the Pinstripe suits didn't hold the drug rap against him, believing it was a mistake of carelessness, not habit), McCutchen started at High A Tampa, where he had an 11-2 record, 2.50 ERA, and a 1.06 WHIP.

The Yankees bumped him up to AA Trenton Thunder, where he finished the season 3-2, with a 2.41 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. And he spent the season in the rotation, where he's been ever since.

He continued to steadily advance, beginning 2008 at Trenton (4-3, 2.55 ERA) and then getting the call to Scranton-Wilkes Barre in AAA. He went 4-6 for SWB, with a 3.38 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and two complete games. And he apparently caught the Buc's eye while he was there.

When they began their July housekeeping, he was part of the return package in the Nady-Marte deal. Originally it was supposed to be pitchers George Kontos and Phil Coke joining Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Tabata, but for an unknown reason - probably because the Pirates wanted guys nearly MLB ready rather than projects - he and Jeff Karstens got the tickets to Pittsburgh instead.

So it was see ya' to the coalfields and howdy to mid-America, as McCutchen joined Indy. He wasn't all that there, going 3-3 with a 4.69 ERA - the first time it had ever gone north of four as a pro - though his WHIP was still a respectable 1.17 with the Indians.

The problem at Indianapolis was the longball - he gave up a dozen in 48 innings of work. It could have been his workload catching up to him; he went from 142 innings in 2007 to 171-1/3 in 2008. But more ominously, it could be that his rep as a strike thrower got around, and guys were happily hacking away at his offerings.

McCutchen is a control pitcher, yielding just 2 walks per nine. And taking into account his minor league line - 2.97 ERA and 1.09 WHIP - it could have just been a small sample of work being skewed.

His pitching arsenal consists of a 4-seam fastball that gets to the plate at 91-93 MPH (top at 94) that he locates well; a 2-seam fastball clocked at 89-91 MPH, but without much movement; a curveball that's considered his best pitch, thrown in the low 80s with a bite, and a splitter that features a late tail and sink.

He's also working on a change that he threw some in Indy, a must for every Pirate pitcher under the new regime, and actually wanted to develop a slider, but the Bucco brass said enough was enough for the time being.

The 26-year old McCutchen has one other thing going for him - he's a fierce competitor. While that fearlessness is generally a good thing, sometimes it leads to him challenging a batter that he has in a pitcher's count, and it also rushes his delivery at times, a problem that dates back to his Yankee days. Some think that his mental bulldog attitude makes him a natural to close.

According to Baseball America's 2008 prospect handbook, McCutchen's future may be in the bullpen. They think that aggressive energy channels better during a short outing rather than over nine innings. We'll see; the Pirates have him penciled in as a starter, and that's how he'll make or break his name in the organization.

McCutchen got an invite to camp, and hasn't been terribly impressive yet. But the suits think he has an outside chance of making the roster - after all, it's good to be a righty that throws strikes in this organization.

But the more likely scenario is for him to join the rotation at Indy after camp. Though he is 26, he only has 53 starts and 340 pro innings under his belt. McC is Rule 5 eligible in 2010, and while his goal in the long term is to nail a spot on the staff, in the short term he has to make sure he knocks somebody off next year's 40-man roster.

* The Bucs lost 8-5 to the Rays today. They banged out five extra base hits, and Neil Walker had three knocks while Freddy Sanchez, Ryan Doumit, and Andy Phillips collected a pair, but they couldn't overcome Jimmy Barthmaier. He gave up six runs in 1-1/3 innings, and Virgil Vasquez gave up another deuce in the fourth.

It just reinforces the suit's mantra that you need starting pitching to win. But there was a bright side to the day's work: six Pirate relievers threw 5-2/3 frames of shutout, one hit ball, so there was some good mixed in with the bad.

The Pirates will travel to Fort Myers tomorrow to take on the Twins at 1:05 p.m. Zach Duke is scheduled to start, with McCutchen, Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen and Chris Bootcheck in the queue. Bootcheck and Hansen have made four scoreless appearances so far this spring; the bullpen guys on the whole have been sharp in the early going.

* Hey, you'd think Gift Ngoepe, a recent international Bucco signee, would be all goo-goo about Pittsburgh. You'd think wrong. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle found out during an exhibition game against Oakland that he's a big A's fan.

South Africa second baseman Npho "Gift" Ngoepe, 19, is a Sotho tribesman who grew up on a baseball field; his mother worked at the clubhouse in Randburg. He's also a longtime A's fan, and he wanted to see Giambi, Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby.

"On PlayStation, I'll be like, 'Giambi's up, he hits all the home runs, that's big!' " Ngoepe said.
What, he never heard of Pops?

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