ESPN posted Keith Law's Top 25 prospects earlier today and then, it appears, removed them, but one thing he apparently said was that Andrew McCutchen has been rushed, first by skipping Class A+ and then by being promoted from Altoona to Indianapolis despite a less-than-inspiring performance at the former.
I can't really argue with Law, but I'm not sure any harm has been done, and I'm not sure I would have done it differently. McCutchen was puttering along at Class A Hickory in 2006. Unfortunately, Hickory was a mediocre team and so was Class A+ Lynchburg, so neither of them would be making the playoffs. So the Pirates promoted McCutchen and Neil Walker, who had been with Lynchburg, to Class AA Altoona, which was made the playoffs. Walker was terrible there in a small sample, but McCutchen was terrific, hitting .308/.379/.474 in 78 at bats.
If you were the Pirates before the 2007 season, what would you have done? It's easy to say now, in retrospect, that McCutchen's impressive performance at Altoona came in a small sample and that his development plan should not have changed. But at the time it appeared that McCutchen may have played so well at Class AA because he was responding to a challenge (and, possibly, having an easier time because he was finally facing pitchers who threw strikes), and that appearance grew harder to avoid when McCutchen hit like crazy in 2007 Spring Training. Sending McCutchen to Lynchburg in those circumstances would have been, in my opinion, a typically cautious, boring Dave Littlefield move. There was even some rumbling--though not from me--that McCutchen should have ditched both AA and AAA and started the 2007 season in the majors. That would have been insanity, but I don't think that starting McCutchen at Altoona was a bad idea.
McCutchen didn't play brilliantly at Altoona in 2007, but he held his own, hitting .258/.327/.383. The Bucs also let McCutchen play a bit at Indianapolis that year, and again, he hit better at the higher level, going .313/.347/.418. McCutchen hadn't been overwhelmed at Altoona, showing decent control of the strike zone and a bit of power, and the fact that he hit better at Indianapolis again gave the impression that he was the sort of player who responded well to a challenge.
McCutchen didn't hit all that well at Spring Training in 2008, so it was an easy call to send him back to the minors. Should he have been sent to Altoona? To me, this would have been a very conservative and disappointing call, based on the way he played after being promoted to AAA in 2007. The Pirates sent McCutchen to Indianapolis, and he hit .283/.372/.398.
In retrospect, letting McCutchen play at Lynchburg for a while might have been a wise move, but I can't blame Littlefield and company for not seeing it that way at the time, and I don't think the fact that McCutchen was moved a bit quickly will harm him much in the long term. The Pirates would do well to send him back to Indianapolis for a couple months after this year's Spring Training, though, and force McCutchen to prove he belongs in the majors by dominating at AAA.