Analyzing Andrew McCutchen’s return to the Pirates

I sure didn’t see this coming. Nobody else did, either. Despite reported interest from a few teams, Andrew McCutchen is returning to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that drafted him in 2005 and where he started his major-league career in 2009, on a one-year deal reported to be worth $5 million.

“Too stupid”

In nine years as a Pirate, he batted .291/.379/.487, 203 HR and 725 RBIs. During this time, he also stole 171 bases, was worth 40.4 WAR, played in five All-Star Games and won four Silver Slugger Awards, a Gold Glove and the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player Award. Despite this resume, in January 2018, the Pirates dealt him to the San Francisco Giants. In return they got Bryan Reynolds, Kyle Crick and international bonus pool money.

It was a smart trade from a baseball standpoint. Since the deal, Reynolds has been a better player than McCutchen, albeit never the caliber of “Cutch” in his prime. However, from a business and public relations standpoint, it was, as my older son used to say when he was a small child, “too stupid.” After the deal, local interest in the Pirates plunged like Enron stock in 2001. Now McCutchen, 36, will be playing in the outfield alongside Reynolds. (Reynolds has requested a trade but the Pirates say that’s not happening.)

McCutchen has played for four teams since the Pirates traded him. Although he’s still reasonably productive, he hasn’t been the same player either. Last year for the Milwaukee Brewers, his stat line read .237/.316/.384, 17 HR and 69 RBIs. It was the lowest OPS of his career. Even so, that’s not terrible, and among the 2022 Pirates, only Reynolds had a higher OBP in 2022.

Homeward bound

Despite the subpar 2022 season, Pirates fans almost unanimously love this move, and why not? McCutchen was not only a great player who was a key member of the 2013-15 wild card teams but a good citizen as well. McCutchen’s wife is from the Pittsburgh area and he still makes his home in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Whether he wants to play one more year and retire as a Pirate or keep going remains to be seen. My guess is this will be his final year. Given his age and residency, I would think he has a no-trade clause that would spare him from the usual July exodus, should such occur.

So besides his obvious value as a mentor, where does McCutchen fit? Early speculation says he won’t block any prospects and will serve as a fourth outfielder and right-handed designated hitter option. I wouldn’t be so sure. On the Pirates, $5 million is the salary of a regular. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started, say, 120 games either in a corner outfield spot or as the designated hitter — as long he’s producing, of course.

Lineup predictions

Although general manager Ben Cherington was on record of wanting to add one more hitter after acquiring Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Santana and Connor Joe, I questioned whether there was room on the roster. I felt the remaining roster spot would have to be occupied by somebody who could play all over the infield. I suppose with this latest move, Ji Hwan Bae , who played mostly second base in the minors but got a long look in the outfield late last season with the big club, will now be thought of as more of an infielder.

Bae, signed with the bonus pool money picked up in the McCutchen trade, and Joe both have minor league options. Either or both could be bumped off the team if guys like Calvin Mitchell or Canaan Smith-Njigba have good springs. However, I have Bae and Joe ticketed for a good deal of playing time in the major-league outfield. The Pirates value their on-base skills. Predicting a team’s starting lineup in January is an exercise in futility. It also happens to be a fun exercise in futility, so I’m going to give it a shot. Try these on for size. Against right-handed pitching: Bae (2B), Reynolds (CF), McCutchen (LF), Santana (DH/1B), Choi (1B/DH), Oneil Cruz (SS), Jack Suwinski (RF), Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B), Austin Hedges (C). Against left-handed pitching: Joe (RF), Reynolds (CF), McCutchen (LF/DH), Santana (1B), Miguel Andujar (DH/LF), Cruz (SS), Hayes (3b), Rodolfo Castro (2B), Hedges (C).

Past reunions

Over the years the Pirates have had a penchant for bringing back players from their more successful teams. Players from their runs of success — the years 1960, 1970-75, 1979, 1990-92 and 2013-15 — who were later reacquired include Kurt Bevacqua, A.J. Burnett, John Candelaria, Dock Ellis, Tim Foli, Joe Gibbon, Fernando Gonzalez, Richie Hebner, Travis Ishikawa, Grant Jackson, Francisco Liriano, Milt May, John Milner, Jerry Reuss, Sean Rodriguez, Manny Sanguillen, Zane Smith, Travis Snider, Gary Varsho, John Wehner and now McCutchen.

Of this group, Burnett would play the most prominent role for the Pirates, pitching well in 2015 after a year with the Philadelphia Phillies. At the other extreme is Foli, traded away after the 1981 season so Dale Berra could play shortstop, then reacquired for the 1985 season in a trade for Berra, only to have difficulty staying on the field most of that year. Others had their bright spots. Sanguillen would deliver the game-winning pinch hit in the ninth inning of game two of the 1979 World Series. Wehner, a Pittsburgh native who had only four career home runs, would hit the final homer in Three Rivers Stadium. Most of the players on this long list didn’t have long or meaningful second acts with the Pirates.

Yes, comebacks are rarely what they’re cracked up to be. But there’s a different vibe about this one. No, McCutchen won’t lead the Pirates to the postseason in 2023. They’re at least a year away from being contenders. He won’t be the Cutch of 2013 either. A stat line similar to what he delivered for the Brewers in 2022 would be acceptable. However, rejuvenated by this homecoming, I don’t think a .260 batting average with 75-80 RBIs and a .750 OPS is out of the question.

Get back to where you once belonged

Sound crazy? I think of Burnett, seemingly born to be a Pirate. He was pretty much a .500 pitcher until 2008 when, in the last year of his contract, he went 18-10 for the Toronto Blue Jays and parlayed that into a lucrative contract with the New York Yankees. Despite pitching on good teams, he went 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA in three seasons in New York. The Yankees were all too happy to deal him to the Pirates in 2012 for two long-forgotten non-prospects, even taking on most of his salary.

In Pittsburgh, Burnett related to the city and embraced the mentorship role thrust upon him. In turn, the city loved him back. After two good seasons in Pittsburgh, in 2014 he signed with the Phillies and led the majors with 18 losses. He opted out of that contract to return to Pittsburgh for the 2015 season, when he had a career-best 3.18 ERA and made the All-Star team. As a Pirate, he was 35-28 with a 3.34 ERA. Compared to his overall stats for the other four teams for which he pitched, he had his lowest ERA and his second-best winning percentage as a Pirate.

McCutchen seems born a Pirate even more so than Burnett. He never looked right in those other uniforms. Not as a Giant, where he never struck me as a west-coast kind of guy. Certainly not with the staid Yankees, where he was forced to shave his goatee and get a haircut. Certainly not as a Phillie or Brewer, teams that have been bitter division rivals at different times in Pirates history. Time will tell whether his swan song will more resemble Foli’s or Burnett’s. I’ll bet on the latter. Meanwhile, until the season starts, it’s a much-needed feel-good story for Pirates fans.

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