PITTSBURGH -- Anchored by Andrew McCutchen in the middle, the Pirates' outfield will enter the season with both tremendous upside and terrific speed. And if there is a group of position players to be excited about this year, this could certainly be the bunch.
With two full Major League seasons under his belt, McCutchen is a national secret no longer. He made his first All-Star Game appearance in 2011 and is a regular on any list of potential up-and-coming superstars.
Though McCutchen's 2011 batting average (.259) dropped from his marks in his first two seasons, his strike zone discipline improved. He also finished with team-best totals in home runs (23) and RBIs (89), even though he batted leadoff in 46 games.
"He has as quick [of] hands as anyone in baseball," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He generates explosiveness off the bat. The extra-base hits are going to be where his power is. He has shown he can leave to every part of the ballpark. Now it is getting him to be a great hitter."
There are other ways McCutchen can improve, too. In addition to bolstering that batting average, McCutchen is tasked with the challenge of putting his speed into play more often. After swiping 33 bases in 43 attempts in 2010, McCutchen made only 33 attempts in 2011. He was successful 23 times.
The fluidity of his spot in the lineup likely didn't help McCutchen's propensity to run. He hit third in 82 games and batted in the cleanup spot another 27 times. Manager Clint Hurdle has not settled on a lineup for 2012, though he continues to encourage McCutchen to run no matter where the 25-year-old center fielder bats.
Flanking McCutchen will be Alex Presley and Jose Tabata, two of the more exciting young position players on the club. Last year, Tabata signed what will be a club-friendly multiyear extension -- if Tabata can stay on the field. Yes, it appears that health could continue to be the biggest hindrance to the 23-year-old outfielder.
Tabata dealt with hamstring tightness early last season before landing on the disabled list with a strained left quadriceps during the summer. He then missed most of September because of a broken bone in his left hand.
Tabata has been cleared by doctors to resume his normal offseason work, but he still has to prove that he can stay healthy for a full 162-game season. If he can, the Pirates love his upside. He is a natural to hit first or second in the order and should only continue to get more confident on the bases.
At the plate, there is potential for growth, too. Some expect that Tabata will develop more power. Even if he doesn't, he should be a table setter near the top of the lineup. He will start the season as the Pirates' everyday right fielder.
In the other corner will be Presley, who gets a chance to prove he is good enough to be a Major League starting outfielder. Presley could do little wrong in Triple-A early last season, and that production prompted a midseason promotion to Pittsburgh.
He came out hitting before a left thumb contusion sidelined Presley for a month. Presley's results dipped some when he returned, but the Pirates want to give the young outfielder another chance to prove himself.
"Is he ever going to be a 20 home run guy? I'd hit the pause button on that," Hurdle said. "But as far as the ability to get on base, the ability to create havoc on the bases, score runs ... He's going to be interesting to watch develop as he continues to develop."
Presley, too, would be a candidate to hit in the leadoff spot and should become less hesitant to use his speed on the bases as he gains more experience.
"I think I can bring a lot to the table, speed-wise, and with extra-base hits," Presley said. "With our [left field] in PNC [Park], I can cover a lot of ground. I think I've proved I can play every day."
As exciting as McCutchen, Tabata and Presley can be on the offensive end, their speed should also make them one of the quickest outfield trios in the game. Defensively, the Pirates' outfield should be stronger than it was in 2011.
Behind these three on the depth chart is Nate McLouth, who signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with the Pirates in December. He would be next in line to start, if needed, though McLouth first needs to prove that he can still produce as he did when he was first in Pittsburgh.
Traded to Atlanta in June 2009, McLouth has not found his swing since. He lost his reins on a starting job with the Braves, endured demotions to the Minors and batted just .229 in his three years with the organization. It was a substantial drop off from the All-Star season McLouth had with the Pirates in '08.
"To struggle performance-wise as much as I did and to have the injuries that I did was tough," McLouth said when he signed. "I really am looking forward to getting back to a place where I played [most of] my career, where I had a little success and really felt comfortable. The past couple of years were very, very difficult."
McLouth will make a push for more regular playing time this season if he proves that he can produce.
The Pirates' other outfield options are limited. Garrett Jones would be able to slide back into the outfield if the Pirates need him to. And if Gorkys Hernandez starts strong in Triple-A, he could put himself in position for a midseason promotion should an opening arise.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.