Andrew McCutchen will start another year in Pirates uniform, it turns out—but it won’t be in center field.
The Pirates spent the first part of the offseason publicly dragging their homegrown hero from trading block to trading block, to no avail. At the Winter Meetings in December, Pirates brass seemed effectively desperate to unload McCutchen to anyone willing to give them a middling starter in return. But it was a buyer’s market for hitters and after the Nationals acquired Adam Eaton, the stove went cold on the five-time All Star, leaving him to return to the team that had rewarded eight years of fan-favorite service with a botched single-player fire sale.
The 30-year-old McCutchen’s value was so low—both to the Pirates and as a trading chip—in part because, frankly, he’s been godawful in the field. The Gold Glove he won in 2012 belies that fact that his defense (never great) has been on a steady decline until it finally bottomed out last year. By almost any advanced metric he was among the worst, if not the worst, fielder in all of baseball and beyond that he just looked so slow. The Pirates tried playing him shallower to account for all the balls he wasn’t getting to—but that just meant more hits were going over his head.
Even before they started pushing him out the door, Pirates GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle were openly considering relocating McCutchen within the outfield. Making McCutchen a corner outfielder would clear center for back-to-back Gold Glove winner Starling Marté, who was good enough to play center in the All-Star Game but somehow lost out on a daily basis to a guy who cost his team 28 runs compared to an average CF. Weighing the options in October, Hurdle told MLB.com, “There are probably going to be plays that Marté can make in center field that maybe Andrew doesn’t make, [but] there are plays Marté makes in left field that nobody can make.” Which is a nice way of saying, “On the one hand Marté is much better, but on the other hand, McCutchen is much worse.”
At the time, the resistance to rejiggering Pittsburgh’s outfield seemed to lie with McCutchen himself, which likely hurt the Pirates’ chances of unloading him. (If that was his plan all along, then well played, Cutch.) But now that the Pirates are stuck with him, McCutchen is making the move, and, publicly at least, taking it well.
Rather than move McCutchen into PNC’s sprawling left, the Pirates announced Sunday that he’ll replace Gregory Polanco in the shorter right field—where McCutchen has never started a game in eight years—and Polanco will move to left so that Marté can take over in center.
“I know when Torii Hunter moved from center field to right field, it didn’t take away from any leadership that he carried,” Clint Hurdle told MLB.com as an obvious consolation to McCutchen, who has taken an ego beating from the only team he’s ever played for.
For his part, McCutchen seems committed to staying on the fans’ good side. Rather than engage with management over his relative value, he tweeted a caption-less photo of Pirate great and famous right fielder Roberto Clemente.
McCutchen has one guaranteed year left on his contract and then a $14.5 million club option for 2018 with a $1 million buyout. It all depends on how their first half goes, but I bet the Pirates are more concerned about how the repositioning affects McCutchen’s trade value than his free agency.