Andrew McCutchen is staying where he belongs.
There is a lot to reasonably criticize the Pittsburgh Pirates and their front office for. Since Ben Cherington over as GM the end of 2019, one of the only notable MLB level results has been the team losing 100 games back-to-back for the first time since the 1950s. It very likely would have been three times in a row if not for the 2020 season being just 60 games long. They’ve played a ton of awful baseball with unremarkable players who put up performances that those watching wish they could forget.
Much of the fanbase’s angst is rightly deserved, but the Pirates should get credit for how they’ve handled the reunion with McCutchen. Last offseason, the team had already signed Carlos Santana and traded for both Ji-Man Choi and Connor Joe when McCutchen reached out and expressed interest in returning. The fit for a right-handed hitting corner OF/DH wasn’t readily apparent.
It wasn’t clear how much playing time he would receive or even how much he had left in the tank. He was coming off a 2022 campaign with the division rival Milwaukee Brewers where he hit just .237 with a wRC+ of 98. The first time in his career he had posted a wRC+ less than 100.
They forged ahead anyways, injuries to 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi paved the way for regular playing time at DH and McCutchen, adamant that it wasn’t a farewell tour, proved that it wasn’t. Through the end of June he was hitting .287/.399/.455 with 10 bombs and a wRC+ of 128.
He aggravated an existing elbow issue in early July against the Los Angeles Dodgers that was already keeping him from playing the field and rushing back from it slowed his output dramatically. Hitting just two homers the rest of the way before another injury, a small tear in his Achillies tendon ended his season in early September.
An injury which the Pirates understandably wanted to wait for absolute certainty of recovery before sitting down and talking about 2024. Once they did, it didn’t take long to hammer out an agreement, signing a new one-year contract for $5 million.
It wouldn’t feel right any other way.
McCutchen still feels he has plenty to give and currently wants to continue playing beyond this upcoming year, saying in a zoom conference with media Wednesday,
“I may not be 2012 or ’13 Andrew McCutchen. But I can be a hybrid of what I was last year and be consistent and better than I was. That’s what I’m working on now.”
And the team is excited to have him, from general manager Ben Cherington who spoke before Andrew’s availability,
“We’re thrilled that he’s back. Obviously, this was the outcome we wanted.”
Principal owner Bob Nutting also released a statement via team social media.
Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting on Andrew McCutchen: pic.twitter.com/G4En8MS3fj— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) December 20, 2023
For the cynics, yes, the Pirates profited off McCutchen’s presence financially substantially. From gate sales to merchandise, but reinforcing the lesson that keeping popular and productive players leads to your business being more successful, well, that can only be a good thing. Especially as the organization shifts it’s focus towards the MLB product.
McCutchen also spoke about those goals,
“The Pirates have been [about] development and rebuilding... We’re in a place now where that’s out the window. We need to be in a place to where we can win.”
Have the Pirates done enough this offseason to meet those goals? No, not yet, and it’s definitely fair to at least question them on that, but McCutchen can be part of getting them there.
McCutchen is the kind of player and person that the team should be keeping around the organization for the rest of his life once he’s done playing. Be it a special front office position, yearly trips to spring training like Bill Mazeroski and other Pirates alumni have done, a more regular coaching role, or a little bit of everything, should McCutchen be interested.
The Pirates younger players pick his brain and look to his wealth of experience in advanced meetings. Several lean on his advice regularly, including starting pitcher Johan Oviedo who frequently consulted McCutchen about hitters’ thought processes.
Getting this relationship right now ensures that those kinds of roles can continue to happen well into the future.
Happy endings like this where everyone gets what they want are rare. Pirate fans get to watch the team’s most popular player since Willie Stargell. McCutchen gets to play half the year in the city he calls his home with the team that he wants to play for. The Pirates get a productive hitter and an educational presence for a young team looking to take the next step.
You only need to look towards how Joey Votto’s tenure with the Cincinnati Reds has ended for proof of that rarity. What is very likely to be his last moments in a Reds uniform saw him get ejected from the very last game of the season in the first inning before his club option for 2024 was declined by the team this offseason.
The Pirates have made a near uncountable number of errors over the last several decades, mostly failing to field competent rosters, let alone truly competitive ones. They have just four seasons above .500 since the end of 1992, and six seasons with a sub .400 winning percentage.
Yet, despite all their disfunction, they made the right call here. No matter how obvious it was, they deserve their flowers for that, and it’s OK to give it to them.