This is the second in a 10-part series that will break down the storylines at each position in advance of spring training. At the plate today: center field.
What happened last year: In his major-league debut, Andrew McCutchen totaled two hits, one walk and one stolen base and never looked back the rest of the way.
In 108 games, all of them as the lead-off man, McCutchen had a .286 batting average, 12 home runs, 22 stolen bases and 74 runs scored. If McCutchen hadn't spent the first couple of months at Class AAA Indianapolis, he almost certainly would have finished higher than fourth place in the Rookie of the Year vote.
Even more impressive, McCutchen showed the ability to make the necessary adjustments as the season progressed. His batting averages and on-base percentages from June through September-October: .284-.333, .277-.345, .304-.387 and .281-.389.
Defensive statistics are far more difficult to quantify, and according to several independent formulas, McCutchen had a slightly below-average arm and range last season. Then again, at 23, he is hardly a finished product.
In the hunt this year: McCutchen, Gorkys Hernandez and John Raynor.
If McCutchen is comfortable with his achievements of a year ago, then he has yet to show it this winter. As the Florida native told Piratesreport.com last week, he has never felt better in his life, the result of a rigorous strength and conditioning program in his home state. Come September, McCutchen may not regret it, as he has yet to take part in a 162-game marathon.
A product of the Nate McLouth trade, Hernandez split time with a pair of Double-A teams last season. Overall, he hit .282 with three homers and 19 stolen bases in 138 games.
Raynor was selected at the second pick the Rule 5 draft last December. If the 26-year-old is not included on the 25-man roster, then he must be offered back to the Florida Marlins, the organization from which he was drafted.
In 123 games, Raynor hit .257 with six homers, 36 RBIs and 19 stolen bases for Class AAA New Orleans last season, his fourth in the Marlins system. He spent much of his career in left field but has experience at the corner positions as well.
The leader in the clubhouse: McCutchen. Not only is he on top at the moment, but the runner-up is 18 strokes behind with six holes to play.
Player to watch: Hernandez. The consensus among general manager Neal Huntington and his staff is that, as a defensive player, the Venezuela native is as good, if not better than, McCutchen.
The question is whether Hernandez will hit well enough to take advantage of his speed and athleticism at the next level. He took a step back in the way of plate discipline (130 strikeouts in 556 at-bats) one year ago, but some attributed the decline to the June trade that sent him from Jackson, Miss., to Altoona for the remainder of the season.
In all likelihood, Hernandez will spend one more season in the minor leagues. By then, the organization may know whether he can be the second center fielder that many believe is necessary at PNC Park.
The big picture: As the poster child of the master plan to build with young talent from within, McCutchen may have the position for as long as he wants it. Barring injury, he should be good for 150-plus games here.