BRADENTON, Fla. -- Nine years ago, when Pirates outfielder Matt Diaz was in the minor leagues, he helped some young kids with hitting lessons in the offseason. One day, one of his pupils brought a friend to a lesson.
"I worked with him three times and told him, 'that's all you need,''' Diaz said. "The kid was 14 years old, and his hands were already faster than my hands.''
That kid was Andrew McCutchen, who is now 24 years old. He is the Pirates' starting center fielder, and the guy who plays next to Diaz. They are part of what could be a decent lineup in Pittsburgh, more than decent 1-through-6 in the order. McCutchen, who hit leadoff most of last year, is expected to move to the No. 3 spot to give him more chances with runners on base.
"Andrew has a chance to drive in 100 runs, score 100 runs and save us 100 runs in the outfield, that's a 300-run player,'' Diaz said. "There aren't many of those in our game today. This kid is that good. And he is going to get better every year. When I worked with him years ago, he knew how to play the game. He was a very polished player at a very young age.''
Baseball has plenty of good athletes who haven't played the game very much, or don't have instincts or a feel for the game, but become good players because their athleticism carries them. Carl Crawford used to be that player, and some days, he still is. McCutchen is different. He has a great sense for the game and is a great athlete who can adjust to all situations.
"There is a lot of failure in this game,'' McCutchen said as he prepared for a spring training game against the Orioles last week. "This spring, I didn't feel very good at the plate early, and I was wondering, 'Am I going to be able to see the ball like last year?' But now I'm seeing it better.''
McCutchen batted .286 last season, his first full year in the major leagues. He scored 94 runs, drove in 56, stole 33 bases, walked 70 times and struck out 89 times, a healthy decrease in strikeout ratio from the year before. He is a player who seems to gets better on a daily basis.
"He is a very intelligent kid, and he is super confident yet humble on and off the field,'' said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. "He is an exciting, future leader of our club. He is able to make adjustments. He can let the game come to him, but other times, he can take it to the game. Sometimes, he tries to do too much, but he has the ability to slow the game down. He always wants to be the guy in the big spot. He loves that part of it.''
McCutchen might be the fastest player in the National League.
"We still need him to steal bases no matter where he is hitting in the order,'' Huntington said. "We can't put the red light on him. But there is still some refining to do, like being able to steal a base when everyone in the ballpark knows you're going. Everyone knew Marquis Grissom was going, but he always stole the base. He's not at the Marquis Grissom level yet.''
Added McCutchen: "I'm going to run, it doesn't matter where I'm hitting, it doesn't matter whether Pedro [Alvarez] or anyone else is at the plate. I've got the green light to go when I want.''
McCutchen ran a 10.3 in the 100 meters when he was in ninth grade but stopped running track after tearing the ACL in his right knee. "I think I can run faster than that now,'' he said, smiling. McCutchen was also a star football player -- running back and wide receiver -- in high school in Florida. But at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds now, he made the right choice to play baseball.
The Pirates made the right choice with him, taking him with their first-round pick (11th overall) in 2005. There was a plan in place to get him to the big leagues sooner than 2009, but the Pirates resisted, making sure he was ready when he did arrive. He is mature beyond his years, so much so that when the Pirates traded for young outfielder Lastings Milledge in 2009, they told him to follow McCutchen's lead on the proper way to play the game, and the right way for a young player to conduct himself in the major leagues.
And now in his third season, McCutchen said it is time to make some progress as a team. He said he likes the new manager, Clint Hurdle. "You can hear him wherever he goes,'' McCutchen said. "I like that.'' McCutchen also likes some of the veteran players who were brought in to help the Pirates' lineup, including first baseman Lyle Overbay and Diaz, McCutchen's old hitting coach.
Diaz says that McCutchen's hands are even faster than they were 10 years ago.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN