BRADENTON, Fla. -- Austin Meadows doesn't know Andrew McCutchen all that well. When they played together in Spring Training two years ago, Meadows said he found McCutchen to be "humble and funny, a great guy for sure."
Their history may be brief, but their futures appear to be intertwined.
McCutchen's name was ever-present in early offseason trade rumors as the Pirates took calls and considered offers for their franchise player. There were plenty of reasons to listen, and Meadows -- viewed as McCutchen's likely successor -- was one of them. The Pirates plan to have McCutchen in their outfield to start the season, but Meadows may not be far behind.
Meadows, Pittsburgh's second-ranked prospect, arrived at Pirate City on Monday for the first day of the club's voluntary workouts. He will report to the same clubhouse for Spring Training next month, his first time in big league camp. After making the jump to Triple-A last year, Meadows could be in line for a more permanent spot in Pittsburgh as soon as the second half of this season.
"I try not to get too wrapped up in it," Meadows said. "It's definitely an honor to be up there in the conversation with some of those guys. I just try to stick to my game, work hard and try to get better each and every day at the baseball aspect of things. I've got to stay healthy, and I'm looking forward to what can happen."
The No. 9 prospect in baseball according to MLBPipeline.com, Meadows is widely regarded as one of game's most talented Minor Leaguers. He was selected ninth overall in the 2013 Draft, and he's put together a .300 average and .848 OPS in four seasons since then. But staying healthy has proven to be the issue.
He missed time in 2014 due to a hamstring injury. After an injury-free 2015 season, last year began with a freak-accident orbital bone fracture in Spring Training. Another hamstring issue sidelined him in July, then he had to cancel a planned trip to the Arizona Fall League following an oblique strain at the end of the season.
Given the hamstring and oblique injuries, Meadows has focused on flexibility this offseason. He incorporated yoga into his routine twice a week, something he picked up on during his rehab last year. With a "looser" body, Meadows hopes to avoid another run-in with the disabled list.
"Definitely looking forward to a full, healthy year," Meadows said.
Meadows' 2017 season will begin in big league Spring Training, as he was officially named a non-roster invitee Monday morning. The Pirates are set in the outfield with Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and McCutchen, so Meadows most likely will return to Triple-A to begin the regular season.
It's not just that Meadows is blocked in the big leagues, however. The 21-year-old still has room to grow before he's ready for Pittsburgh. He'll likely spend more time working in left field, as he did late last season, while learning to handle advanced, high-level pitching in Triple-A. More than anything, though, he'll work to stay healthy all season.
"Baseball has different levels for different reasons, and guys learn different lessons at different levels," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The ability to go out there and to stay healthy, he plays so hard that it's going to be a challenge for him. We don't want to take that aggressiveness and style of play away from him."
Eventually, it seems the Pirates will part ways with McCutchen, either by trading him or letting him enter free agency, and Meadows will take his place alongside Marte and Polanco in Pittsburgh's outfield. But Meadows' focus remains on this season, not whatever the future holds for him or McCutchen.
"That's just the business of it. We all understand how it works," Meadows said. "We just kind of worry about what we have to worry about, not get ahead of ourselves too much. Whatever happens with him or any of us, you've just got to keep playing."