I have a feeling it might be a frustrating weekend for some of you.
On Friday, the Pirates will return home to PNC Park in fine form, having just won four of their last five to stay within spitting distance of the National League Central lead. They twice came back from four runs down to sweep a mini interleague series on the South Side of Chicago and have collected a series win against each of their four divisional foes.
And yet, I’d wager that the main attraction of the upcoming three-game series against the Giants for most fans in attendance will be one of the guys wearing black and orange, not black and gold.
We knew this was coming, and it has every right to occur. Andrew McCutchen was the modern-day Pirates to so many, so his inevitable return in another jersey was always going to resonate, whether it happened in 2018 or 2021 or 2024.
But darn it all, this year’s Pirates team has proven to be so downright interesting that I can’t be bothered to think much about What Cutch’s Homecoming Really Means.
It’s not that I don’t care. Far from it. I was simply a fan for most of McCutchen’s tenure in Pittsburgh, so Lord knows I’m appreciative of the work he did to help yank this franchise out of the morass, even against its will at times.
Along those lines, though, the 2018 Pirates are in their current position precisely because they moved on from the McCutchen Era. I realize the acquisition of Corey Dickerson was wholly separate from the McCutchen machinations, but even when factoring in Gregory Polanco’s free fall, the Pirates are getting more value from their outfield than they would have if they stood pat with their former franchise player.
In a familiar script to Pirates fans, McCutchen has actually started to awaken from an April slumber at the plate, now hitting .248/.378/.380 entering Wednesday’s play. However, as I’ve written multiple times in this space, if any team needed a good start to build a little confidence, it was this group of Pirates. Even if Dickerson and McCutchen end up equally valuable in the 2018 season, I’d still take the former over the latter. (Note: I’m not even counting the extra year the Pirates have Dickerson before he hits free agency, although that’s nice, too.)
Maybe that opinion makes me cold-hearted or unsentimental, but so be it. I basically get paid to do what I used to do in my spare time: Think of interesting angles on the Pirates, particularly relating to how they could optimize their resources.
That process by nature is more practical than emotional. I guarantee you that if I were in a PNC Park seat this weekend, I’d hear a lot of comments that would burn me up. But here’s the bottom line: The casual fans and the bandwagoners are always going to piss off the diehards.
And here’s what hurts: Considering the size of the Pirates’ market, the casual fans and the bandwagoners are absolutely needed to fill the ballpark. So I don’t see any other choice than to suck it up and smile through gritted teeth at the disgruntled Pirates fans wearing Giants paraphernalia.
I’ll even allow that some of the angst we’ll see and hear this weekend comes from a righteous place. The Pirates definitely could have done more in terms of building around McCutchen when he was in his peak. As you know, they opted for the conservative approach, regardless of whether that approach was spearheaded by Bob Nutting or Neal Huntington.
On the other hand, I’d offer a guess that most of the anger in the stands will come from a place of ‘How could you trade Cutch?!?!’ even though they could have given him away for nothing and it still might have made sense. (That Gerrit Cole trade, on the other hand … )
Am I being too negative about the whole situation? Maybe the prevailing emotion of the weekend will be mostly love showered down on McCutchen, not hate/indifference on the Pirates. I’d like to hope so.
The 2013 NL MVP deserves a standing ‘O’ every time he comes to the plate, but perhaps those watching in person or on television will notice that the Pirates aren’t doing so bad in Year 1 Post-Cutch.
So far in my daily life, the fine start for this year’s club has seemed more like an open secret than a story with any real resonance. But, hey, if the return of the one-time king of Pittsburgh baseball gets the general sporting public attuned to an intriguing bunch of buccaneers, all the better.
I’ve been told that everyone loves a winner, especially in this city. McCutchen was a winner here, no doubt. We’ve yet to find out how this team fares in its first full season without him in a decade, but enough of the elements are in place.
That is to say, the bandwagon is open for business. Try your best not to be resentful.