Pirates star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen raising expectations for 2015



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BRADENTON, Florida — The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 95 games in 2005, the year they drafted outfielder Andrew McCutchen in the first round. Four years later, when McCutchen made his major league debut, they lost 99 games.

McCutchen has seen the franchise at its worst. As he has matured into one of the top players in the National League, the Pirates also have been on the upswing.

The Pirates got an NL wild-card berth in each of the past two seasons. This year, McCutchen wants more.

"We're not here to try to win a wild-card game," McCutchen said. "We're here to win the division and keep going from there to win a championship."

Such a statement would have drawn laughter not too long ago. McCutchen said perceptions about the Pirates have changed.

"People look at us a lot differently because they know we're for real," McCutchen said. "It would've been easy to say 2013 was a fluke and we just got lucky. But we showed up in '14 and were able to do the same thing. We know we're for real. And other teams know they just can't come in (thinking), 'All right, we're going to beat the Pirates.' We're not that team anymore."

The Pirates have a solid bullpen and a starting rotation topped by left-hander Francisco Liriano and right-hander Gerrit Cole. The infield includes veteran second baseman Neil Walker, who hit a career-best 23 homers, and third baseman Josh Harrison, who had a breakout season in 2014.

"We have a really good team," McCutchen said. "And I believe the outfield will be our anchor."

McCutchen is a three-time MVP finalist in center field. He's flanked by Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. All three of them can hit for power and a high average, have above-average speed and are very good defenders.

"Right now, we are the best outfield (in the majors)," Marte said. "I think we have a chance to catch every ball that's hit."

Marte, 23, was a Gold Glove finalist last year and has batted .282 over his first three seasons. Polanco, 22, was the Pirates' top prospect last year and played in 89 games after being called up in mid-June.

"It's all about getting to know each other," McCutchen said. "When Marte first got here, I'd yell, 'I'll get it,' (on a fly ball) then look and he'd already be there. Now, when the ball's hit, I know he can get it. Now, I just have to figure out Polanco."

McCutchen, 28, should have plenty of time ahead to work with Marte and Polanco. McCutchen is in the middle of a six-year, $51.5 million contract, which includes a club option for 2018.

"Andrew's been a critical part of the team," Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said. "I love having him in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform and I hope he (wears it) for a long, long time."

Nutting and his front office group have begun to consider whether they should offer McCutchen a contract extension. McCutchen will make $10 million this season, and management must decide if they Pirates can afford to double his salary in a longer-term deal.

"It's a challenge we're looking forward to," Nutting said.

As he works out during spring training, McCutchen is not focused on getting a longer contract.

"Right now, I'm not too worried about it," McCutchen said. "It's nothing that I'm thinking about. If it happens, that would be great."

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