The Andrew McCutchen era has begun in Pittsburgh. Since being selected as the 11th overall pick in the first round of the 2005 draft, McCutchen has been the most touted prospect in the Pirates farm system. With last week’s surprise trade of Nate McLouth to the Braves, McCutchen was promoted to fill McLouth’s centerfield spot, making his major league debut at age 22. Now with four years of professional experience, has McCutchen shown the talent to lead Pittsburgh into contention in the National League Central Division?

McCutchen graduated from Fort Meade High School in Fort Meade, Florida in 2005, where he had been named All-County in baseball, football, cross country and track. As a junior he played in the 2004 AFLAC All-American Baseball Game, and after hitting .709 with 16 home runs as a senior was named Gatorade’s High School Athlete of the Year for Florida and Baseball America’s top Florida high school player. The Pirates’ selection of McCutchen at number 11 came between two other high school outfielders, Cameron Maybin and Jay Bruce.

Professional success came quickly for the 18 year old McCutchen, as he hit .297 in 45 games the rookie Gulf Coast League and then .346 in 13 games at Williamsport of the short season New York-Penn League. Combined he stolen 17 bases in 19 attempts, drew 37 walks and struck out only 30 times. After the 2005 season Baseball America rated McCutchen as the best defensive outfielder, best hitter for average, and having best strike zone judgment of all the Pirates minor league players.

2006 drew even more accolades for McCutchen, being named the Class-A South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Major League Prospect and the Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .294 with 17 home runs and 23 stolen bases in 114 games at Class-A Hickory and another 20 games at Double-A Altoona, where at 19 he became the youngest player in franchise history. Following the season, Baseball America again rated him the best defensive outfielder and having the best strike zone discipline, as well as the fastest runner in the Pittsburgh organization. Baseball Prospectus described him as “The crown jewel in the tarnished tiara that is the Pirates farm system, McCutchen is the real thing: A five-tool player with no weaknesses. The whole workbench is already showing up in games, too, including power, speed, and a good approach at the plate.”

Despite the words of praise, McCutchen’s performance in the batter’s box did not translate to a star level, with my Oliver Projections showing a major league equivalency of 277/331/437 BA/OB/SA. He showed better than MLB average homerun percentage in 2006, but at the expense of worsened BABIP, BB% and SO% from the year before.

After hitting .321 in Spring Training, McCutchen returned to Altoona for 2007 and struggled to a 233/298/345 line through the end of June, although he was able to recover to the tune of 309/372/447 from there to the end of the season, including 17 games in Triple-A Indianapolis. Baseball Prospectus continued to rate him highly, “McCutchen has plus power potential and speed with outstanding range in center field and remains the one Pirates prospect with definite star potential.” He continued in Triple-A for all of 2008 and the first two months of 2009, hitting 283/372/398 and 303/361/493, finally getting the call to Pittsburgh in June 2009.

After normalizing for league and ballpark, McCutchen’s yearly statistics have shown a deal of consistency. The projections use a three year weighted mean, which will smooth out year to year fluctuations, but will also then be slower to respond to any true improvement or declines. His home run spike in 2006 did not carry over, settling in at about 60% of major league average, while his SO% has shown a nice decline for the past two seasons.

At 5-11, 175 lbs, he might not be expected to add much power as he ages, but Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has described McCutchen’s ‘compact, powerful swing’ as one ‘often likened to that of Ron Gant.’ However, PECOTA lists some of McCutchen’s top comparable players as Scott Fletcher, Dave Martinez, Shannon Stewart, Chuck Knoblauch and Gary Thurman – a few good players but not exactly an All Star group.

PECOTA‘s 90th percentile forecast for McCutchen is 296/369/461, but by definition he should only be expected to reach this level once every ten seasons. It’s much more likely that his batting average, on base percentage and slugging average will all be within 10 pts of major league average. He’s better on BABIP, lower on home runs, and exactly average in walks and strikeouts. PECOTA gives a 60% chance of being a regular and a 30% chance of being a star.

Year  Lev  Age   PA  wOBA    BA    OB    SA  BABIP  HR%   BB%   SO%
2005  A-    18  253  .363  .296  .381  .435  .343  .023  .113  .156
2006  AA    19  590  .336  .277  .331  .437  .320  .045  .069  .195
2007  AAA   20  567  .293  .247  .304  .369  .293  .029  .074  .200
2008  AAA   21  588  .323  .265  .344  .375  .310  .022  .100  .169
2009  AAA   22  219  .345  .286  .337  .459  .315  .024  .068  .126
MLB Average          .330  .273  .338  .439  .302  .040  .082  .164

Oliver Projections
Year  Lev  Age       wOBA    BA    OB    SA  BABIP  HR%   BB%   SO%
2005  A-   18        .329  .269  .342  .401  .314  .025  .094  .170
2006  AA   19        .331  .272  .332  .422  .315  .038  .077  .185
2007  AAA  20        .313  .258  .316  .394  .302  .034  .074  .190
2008  AAA  21        .314  .258  .324  .383  .302  .029  .084  .180
2009  AAA  22        .332  .275  .338  .414  .313  .027  .084  .157
2009 PECOTA                .263  .335  .403

While Nate McLouth had a wOBA in the .360’s each of the last three seasons, McCutchen has never had Oliver project him to higher than .332. With this batting profile, McCutchen will need to rely on his defense and base running to be a better than average major league player. Sean Smith’s Total Zone rates McCutchen’s defense at +13, +10 and +8 per 150 games for 2006 to 2008, with Smith calling +10 ‘very good’ and +15 or more ‘outstanding’. McCutchen’s speed, which has already helped him to 10 triples in 2009, has not translated well into base stealing. In 201 games at Triple-A over parts of the last three seasons, McCutchen has stolen 48 bases while being caught 23 times, a modest 68% success rate.

In each of his five professional seasons, McCutchen has had a ground ball rate between 45% and 49%, with the major league average being 44%. As a fast right handed batter McCutchen should be expected to leg out infield hits, and his career minor league batting average on ground balls is .291, compared to the major league average for right handed batters of .246. Despite his speed, McCutchen has only bunted 8 times in five seasons, going 2 for 4 with 4 sacrifices.

McCutchen has shown an ability to thump left handed pitching. His career minor league line vs lefthanders is 331/414/541, while a more pedestrian 270/342/380 against right handed hurlers. McCutchen generates power against lefties by putting more balls in the air, 43% compared to 35% vs RHP. In 547 at bats spread over five seasons, this accounts for 36 more fly balls, with 16 more doubles and triples and 7 more home runs against left handed pitching than if he hit them at the same rate he does righthanders.

Since the departure of All Star center fielder Andy Van Slyke at the end of 1994, the Pirates tried Adrian Brown, Chad Hermansen, Tike Redman, Tony Alvarez, Chris Duffy and others until Nate McLouth was finally able to bring quality production to the position in 2007. Now the job has been handed to Andrew McCutchen, who appears to have the tools and the performance to date to be a solid regular, but it is still uncertain that McCutchen will deliver the same overall quality as McLouth.