All Daniel McCutchen wanted was an opportunity. He never asked for anything else, though he knew in his line of work promises can’t be kept.
When he began spring training, the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander was told he was going to battle Kevin Hart for the final spot in the pitching rotation — nothing more, nothing else.
The 27-year-old never heard anything else until Monday when he was named the fifth starter and Hart was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis to find his control.
Maybe it was better this way.
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McCutchen once thought he was on his way to the big leagues with the New York Yankees and got derailed with a trade. In his rookie season (2006), he was suspended 50 games for reported steroid use, which he has steadfastly denied.
“I am not very good at making predictions,” McCutchen said Sunday after his scheduled first start of the Grapefruit League was rained out. “I came into camp with the mindset to win the job. Until they say it’s not mine, I am focused on winning.”
Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington made a point of saying McCutchen didn’t win the job by default despite the problems Hart had this spring with his control. This was a job earned on its merit, which hopefully will ring true for a team that is expected to live off pitching and defense.
It didn’t matter to McCutchen. He has had his share of disappointments and knows the fifth spot in any rotation is tenuous.
In 2008, he was pitching well for the Yankees Triple-A team in Scranton Willkes-Barre and believed he was first in line to get the call all prospects dream about. Shortly after a trade sent him to Pittsburgh, New York suffered some pitching injuries and the person who replaced him wound up in the Bronx.
“I felt like when I was traded by New York I was on the bubble and was the next guy to go up,” McCutchen said. “Who knows what would’ve happened if I wasn’t traded. I don’t like to play those games, the what if questions. The trade here was good because I felt someone wanted me and there are more opportunities.”
McCutchen says spring training numbers don’t mean much, but in his case they do. In four Grapefruit League innings, he struck out three without issuing a walk. In 12 total innings (including minor league outings), he allowed one walk. On the flip side, Hart walked 13 in 4 2/3 innings.
“I have been pounding the strike zone and throughout my career I haven’t walked many guys,” McCutchen said. “My goal in camp was to show that I am all about forcing contact and getting guys out within the zone. My philosophy here is that even if they hit it hard we have a great outfield.”
McCutchen made his major league debut last year when he started six games for the Pirates and compiled a 4.21 ERA in 36.1 innings. He says he is a much better pitcher now.
“In the last couple of weeks, I felt good with my breaking ball and my slider has gotten a lot better, which will elevate my game,” he said. “My change has always been there. It has been a big plus pitch for me. I got a lot of outs last year in the big leagues with it. I am thinking of adding another breaking ball pitch.”
In McCutchen, Pittsburgh has more than just a pitcher. He is an athlete, who played running back in high school in Oklahoma and has been cited for his outstanding control and change-up, which was voted the best in the Pirates organization by Baseball America.