I mulled over a different title for this one. ‘Should and will Andrew McCutchen come back?’, eventually I decided to have a little more shame than that. I couldn’t with a straight face call this article that when the answer to that question is so painfully obvious.
He’s coming back, and it’s the right call, but there’s still some things to be discussed.
As far as his is return is concerned, the team and McCutchen got into this with an understanding that neither side would do it without seeing it through to the end, whatever the end looked like and whenever it came.
The team knew they couldn’t enter and exit negotiations without signing him or sign him and then let him walk in free agency and have him end his career with another team. It’s what McCutchen wants, it's what the organization wants.
This ends when McCutchen or his on-field performance dictates that it should, but so far so good. He hit .256/.378/.397 and had a 115 WRC+ this season. His OBP was 12th highest among all players with as many plate appearances. He’s a professional hitter and as long as the eye and bat speed still remain, there’s a floor you can live with.
He’s kept his foundation as he’s aged too. At 36 and four years removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, he still had above average speed. Does that change now with the partial tear to his left Achillies that ended his season? It won’t require surgery, yet it does give you some pause, but it’s no reason yet to reconsider his status on the team. He probably has the best chance of fully recovering from that injury at that age of any player I can think of. He’s a phenomenal athlete who takes care of his body accordingly.
There’s one thing in that area that he might have to do to keep playing beyond 2024: learning to not push himself so hard to get back on the field. When head of player development John Baker was asked about Henry Davis in Altoona earlier this season, he talked about having to “strap him to a chair” to stop him from playing 162 games a year. Well, tie Andrew down to that chair while you’re at it.
I’m fine— Andrew McCutchen (@TheCUTCH22) September 5, 2023
This was after suffering what would eventually be revealed to be a season ending partial tear to his left Achillies tendon, which he described as just feeling “tight” the day after. He even told media he would have considered playing through it had the team been closer to a playoff spot despite the risk.
It wasn’t the only time he was “fine” this year.
Going into the series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on July 3, in 305 PAs, he was hitting .278/.390/.440 and had a 127 WRC+, which was tied for the 18th highest in the league at the time. On July 5, he went down hard on his elbow, which had already been bothering him, and had to be placed on the 10-day IL.
After his return on July 16, he hit just .192/.358/.231 with just three doubles and no homeruns over the next month of play. He struggled to catch up with regularity to the high fastball that he usually crushes, and his timing was off. While I appreciate that energy, it’s not the guy Pirates need him to be at 37 years of age in 2024.
Making sure he’s right and that they aren’t rushing things to get him back on the field is how you get that best version of him and how you maintain that version for as long as you can.
One of the ways this could go wrong is the team not being able to help themselves from overusing him and that McCutchen won’t be able to say no. It’s just how he’s built. Plus, if having him be well rested helps him to get out in the field some more than he did, which absolutely was the plan this year, that's a win.
If he had been able to fill in there from time to time, you’d have seen Henry Davis there less. Instead, they were forced to put Davis in a far from ideal scenario, making their rookie catcher play a position for essentially the first time at the MLB level. Another thing on the plate for a player that, in my eyes, was working on far too much at once. You’ll take the production of course, but there’s no denying that having a full time DH restricts your roster flexibility.
Rostering McCutchen likely also means that you won’t be able to roster the fringe guys who don’t have much flexibility of their own, like Josh Palacios and especially Miguel Andujar.
There’s also how this is all going to end. It might be uncomfortable to talk about, but they need an exit plan here. He’s 37, time stops for nobody. He could lose his legs after the partial Achillies tear, lose some bat speed as he ages or hurt something else and never be the same again. Any number of things really.
Sure, he could play three more years, but he could also struggle to get through this upcoming one. You need to be prepared for that possibility. Remember how messy and publicly Gregory Polanco’s tenure with the team ended? Completely different players, situations and an extreme example, but anything remotely like that would be a complete PR disaster.
Good communication between the player and the team is important. Just so everybody is on the same page about how each side feels about his future. Having a situation where one side blindsides the other with a move or decision is how this gets ugly.
This is a person who should be at least around the organization for the rest of his life. Getting this process right is how you ensure that it happens.