BRADENTON, Fl. — I was getting video of Cole Tucker this morning in the batting cages, when all of a sudden a familiar face stepped into the box in the same cage that Tucker was working in. The Pirates had a high school team working out at Pirate City today, and I was immediately surrounded by them, with all of them getting out their phones for video, watching each swing closely, and openly wondering how he does that — with “that” being the ability to crush the ball with such a short and sweet swing.
You didn’t have to tell those kids that it was Andrew McCutchen in the box. They knew immediately. And they watched in amazement in the same way that someone my age once watched Ken Griffey Jr. take swings live.
A few weeks ago, Bob Nightengale of USA Today interviewed Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting, who said he’d love to see Andrew McCutchen stay with the Pirates forever. It’s easy to say that. McCutchen is an icon, not just in Pittsburgh, but across the game. Young kids gather to see him take swings in a batting cage, even if they’re not Pirates fans. He’s the type of player you want on your team.
However, the reality is that McCutchen is one of the best in the game, and will likely get paid like the best in the game. The good news is that he’s also interested in remaining in Pittsburgh for the rest of his career.
“I’m not too focused on it, but definitely I’ve mentioned it before,” McCutchen said. “I’ve said it plenty of times. A place that I love to be, a place I’d love to spend my career and win championships. Just be here and nothing else. It doesn’t happen a whole lot in this game, but if the opportunity presents itself, that would be great… It’s great to hear that from an owner, but I’m not too focused on that.”
It’s hard to say what a McCutchen extension would cost at this point, but you’d have to think the market value would take it to one of the biggest contracts in the game. The Pirates would realistically never be able to afford McCutchen at his market rate, while also fielding a team around him. That said, McCutchen doesn’t seem to be the type of guy who is only influenced by money.
“A lot of people define us — baseball players and athletes — by our contracts. I don’t take that lightly, because I believe I’m worth more than just some numbers that you throw up on a board,” McCutchen said. “Anybody can get paid millions and millions of dollars, but it’s what you do with who you are. You can not even make that much money, but you can bring so much to a team on the field, off the field. My teammates don’t define me by how much I sign. They define me by who I am. They define me by my character. That’s worth way more than whatever the dollar sign is and how much you sign for.”
Even if it was possible to get McCutchen on a discounted deal, it would still be a lot of money. The Pirates would be able to afford the discounted price, although that brings up a debate. On one side of things, they’ve got Austin Meadows, who is one of the top 25 prospects in the game. They’ve also got Harold Ramirez breaking into the top 100 rankings. And Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are both young and under team control through the 2020 and 2021 seasons, respectively.
On the flip side of things, McCutchen is an icon, and while he might not be playing at an MVP pace during his extension years, he could still be very good. So it’s not an easy argument to make from either side. Fortunately, it’s not a decision that need to be made right now, and McCutchen repeated over and over that he’s not focused on the topic right now. But there will come a time when this decision needs to be made, and because of McCutchen’s status in the game, it’s going to be an interesting choice for the Pirates to make.
Ready to go for 2016
Last Spring, all of the talk surrounding McCutchen was whether he had a knee injury, and how much that could impact his game. He struggled in the month of April, then quickly turned things around and put up numbers that were more commonly associated with Andrew McCutchen. This time around, he’s looking to avoid the early season struggles.
“I’m ready to go, as opposed to last year. That’s why I’ve been here,” McCutchen said on his early arrival to Pirate City. “I’m going to be right, ready to go in Spring Training into the season. I’m looking forward to getting started, getting ready.”
McCutchen didn’t have a bad season last year, although his 5.8 fWAR was his lowest total since 2011, before he became an MVP. He did finish fifth in the NL MVP voting, but might have some motivation to return to his 2012-14 numbers.
“I’m motivated in the sense that, physically I wasn’t where I needed to be last year at the beginning of the season,” McCutchen said. “There’s a lot of things that I had to just get over and move forward. That’s this game. Everything isn’t going to be perfect, and things aren’t always going to go well.”
McCutchen said that his knee is great, and that it won’t be a question of whether he’s healthy this year.
“I’m looking forward to this year. I’m 29 years old, but I feel like I’m 22,” McCutchen said. “That’s what it’s all about, feeling good, feeling young. And the teammates, these guys around me, we’re going to keep each other young.”
In the Shadow of the Cubs
A lot of focus this off-season has been on the Cubs and the young team they’ve assembled. The Cardinals have also gotten a lot of hype, as they tend to be a team that contends year after year. That has left the Pirates sitting third in most NL Central projections, with seemingly no chance to contend for anything other than a second Wild Card spot. McCutchen said he doesn’t focus on outside predictions much, but did bring up a good point about those predictions in recent years.
“How many times have we been on the back burner these past few years? I think almost every year, if I’m not mistaken,” McCutchen said. “No one ever expects us to do that well. We won 98 games last year. It wasn’t enough for us, but I don’t think many people saw us doing what we did. I’m just looking forward to us going and doing what we do. Focusing on each other, having each other’s back, playing some good ball, and when it’s all said and done, we’ll be able to look back and assess what we did.”
**McCutchen was wearing a “Retire 21” shirt today, a reference to the movement to retire Roberto Clemente’s number. The Pirates will be playing a two game series in Puerto Rico this summer, playing in Clemente’s home country. McCutchen talked about the importance of that series.
“He’s meant a lot to not only this franchise, but the game of baseball. It’s great to be able to play in his homeland. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been there since I was 11 and I did a Roberto Clemente camp there. There’s some history that I’ve had there, and wearing a Pirate uniform now, being able to go back, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
**I’ve noticed that a lot of the minor league outfielders have adopted traits of McCutchen’s game, which makes sense, as it’s not just high school players looking up to him as an icon. One of the most notable cases has been Austin Meadows adding the sliding side catch on balls hit to shallow center field. I asked McCutchen today if he ever gets any questions or requests for advice from the minor leaguers in the system.
“There’s some talk here and there between me and the other guys, but it’s not a whole lot. Being a younger guy or whatever it may be, they don’t want to be stepping on your toes. That’s just the way that is. A lot of times if they have a question, they normally just keep it to themselves, because they don’t want to feel like they’re bothering me. I’ve been there. We get along really well. Everyone’s cool on the field. A lot of times we talk, we don’t talk about baseball that much. There has been some chatter here and there between us. Everyone is here to learn, and I think a lot of times you don’t just learn by asking, you learn by watching. We all learn from each other. Just because I’m older, doesn’t mean I can’t learn myself from a person younger than me. So I don’t mind asking questions from their standpoint and learning from them as well.”