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McCutchen still a good bet for Triple-A

TAMPA — GM Neal Huntington today poured more cold water on speculation that outfielder Andrew McCutchen will be with the team on Opening Day.

“Andrew came in with the motivation to try to open some eyes and make it very tough to send him out, and he’s done that,” Huntington said. “There’s still development that remains (to be done).”

Huntington said McCutchen is the Pirates’ “best defensive outfielder” but still must improve his offensive skills. McCutchen went 5 for 5 Saturday, including a solo homer, boosting his batting average to .308. His on-base plus slugging percentage is a healthy .969 and he leads the team with 12 walks.

• Huntington stressed Nyjer Morgan has not yet played his way out of the starting job in left field.

“Nyjer’s done what we’ve asked of him; he just hasn’t gotten hits,” Huntington said. “Has he expanded the zone too much? Yes, but that’s his personality. He’s aggressive. He’s high-energy. What he did in August and September showed he can perform in the big league level. To take that away from him would be tough.”

• Lefty reliever Donnie Veal also has struggled at times this spring, yet still seems a lock to make the team.

“Donnie’s had an awful lot of good outings,” Huntington said. “He’s had two very, very tough outings. If he’s in a big league environment, he doesn’t have those outings. He walks two hitters and he’s out of the game. In spring training, you’re trying to get him to work through some things.”

Huntington pointed to a game against the Red Sox, when Veal went 3-0 against Jason Varitek with the bases loaded.

“The three best fastballs he threw that day, if not in spring training, were the 3-0 pitch, the 3-1 pitch and the 3-2 pitch,” Huntington said. “He ended up walking him, but he didn’t back off.”

Veal’s breaking ball is “a work in progress,” according to Huntington and the changeup is so-so.

“We’ve taken a man out of Double-A, changed his delivery and arm action, and tried to get him to throw a lot of strikes,” Huntington said. “We’ve seen a left-hander who throws up to 95 mph, we’ve seen a power breaking ball, we’ve seen an interesting changeup. We’ve also seen him walk four guys in an inning.

“He’s still in the hunt, for sure. We still like the upside. We do feel Donnie Veal is better equipped to handle a major league situation right now than Evan (Meek) was a year ago. It would be a tough decision to not put him on the club.”

• Infielder Andy Phillips’ sore back, which has kept him out of action since March 7, has all but killed his chances of making the Opening Day roster.

“It’s going to be awfully tough,” Huntington said.

“Everybody focuses on April 6, and what is the Opening Day lineup. Who’s with us on April 6 might be different on May 6 or June 6 — it will be different. There’s a ton on emphasis, probably too much, placed on who’s going to be on our club April 6. As we look at our catcher, our infield, our starting rotation, our bullpen, our outfield, we might have a different structure as we go forward.”

In other words, expect Phillips to be offered a spot at Triple-A Indianapolis, with a promise that he’ll be in the mix for a callup as soon as it’s needed.

That means either Brian Bixler, who started today at shortstop in Jack Wilson’s absence, or Luis Cruz will make the team.

• The Pirates have pulled their contract offer to free-agent lefty reliever Will Ohman.

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