BRADENTON -- For all the research, scouting and scrutiny it is given, the amateur baseball draft is a crapshoot.
Some guys pan out. Others flame out.
It's a delicate balancing act the Pittsburgh Pirates know all too well.
A number of their recent first-round picks have fizzled (John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington and Daniel Moskos) while others have become fixtures in a big-league lineup (Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez).
Then there's Andrew McCutchen.
He's the guy featured on the front and back of the Pirates' 2013 media guide. He is the guy gracing this spring's souvenir program available at the McKechnie Field gift shop.
The Fort Meade native is the cover boy for the latest version of the popular video game franchise, MLB The Show, and stars in one of its commercials.
McCutchen isn't just the best baseball player in Pittsburgh -- he has become the face of a franchise that hasn't seen a star shine this bright since Barry Bonds was patrolling left field in the early 1990s.
It's a role McCutchen takes seriously.
"Ever since I put on a Pirate uniform, I knew what this franchise was all about," he said Wednesday after going 1-for-3 with an RBI during a 5-4, 10-inning win over the Toronto Blue Jays, "what they represented, and all the greats of the past who were here. It was an honor for me to be wearing a Pirate uniform. You have to first respect that before you can go out and play the game."
Donning a gray T-shirt and jeans, McCutchen sat at his locker Wednesday in the home clubhouse at McKechnie Field, not far from where he was sitting last spring when the Pirates announced his six-year, $51.5 million extension during a pregame press conference.
He responded with a masterpiece in 2013: 31 home runs, 96 RBIs, .327 batting average,.553 slugging percentage, a league-best 194 hits, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger award, a second-straight trip to the All-Star Game and a third-place
finish in the league's MVP balloting.
"There was a three-month stretch where I don't even know if he got out," backup catcher Michael McKenry said. "If he did get out, it was because he hit a line drive that landed in a glove."
A good player with potential in 2011, McCutchen became a bona fide superstar thanks to his sterling '12 campaign. He was named Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, the first Pirate to receive the honor since Jason Kendall in 2000.
And it was the fans who put McCutchen on the cover of the newest version of The Show, picking him ahead of a star-studded list of candidates that included Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, National League MVP Buster Posey and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper.
"Playing against him ... you knew he was something special, you knew the talent that he had. But to see him every day instead of just a series ... it's talent," said Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who came to Pittsburgh last summer in a trade with the Miami Marlins. "It's the little things -- being able to beat out infield hits, stealing second, making things happen on the bases. ... It's that sixth sense that he has."
According to McKenry, however, McCutchen's positives extend far beyond the diamond.
"I couldn't ask for a better teammate or better friend. He has a tremendous morals and character," McKenry said. "He's a great player for a young kid to look up to."
Now the biggest question: How good can the 26-year-old Andrew McCutchen be?
According to the player and his manager, Clint Hurdle, McCutchen believes he can be even better than he was during his banner 2012.
Hurdle said McCutchen wants to be a better base stealer, a better thrower and a better fielder, while continuing to drive the ball the other way.
And if McCutchen does indeed get better, the face of Pittsburgh's baseball franchise may soon become the face of the game itself.
"The level's he's at is elite, but to hold that level is a challenge. To get to be a great player, you're good for a long period of time," Hurdle said. "He'll be the first one to tell you when he walked out of the clubhouse last year after the last game of the season, he had a to-do list. There's things he wanted to work on."