The Pirates’ season will end Sunday with a whimper. For a second consecutive year, Pittsburgh’s major-league club will finish not only out of the playoffs, but with a losing record fueled by a morbid stretch run.
And, considering the multiple miseries that have beset the Buccos in 2017, part of the fan base – a rapidly diminishing number – can’t help but feel they are experiencing deja vu. The yearlong absence of Jung Ho Kang, for a DUI arrest, and half-season drug suspension of Starling Marte largely scuttled a season that raises the unlikely, but horrific, vision of another 20-year run of sub-.500 baseball.
Sunday’s game at Washington, against the playoff-bound Nationals, will end the Pirates’ campaign and, perhaps, be a final act for its savior. That could be Andrew McCutchen’s last game of a nine-year Pirates career.
McCutchen has been, in baseball parlance, a generational player, a superstar. Although his throwing arm has always been average for a center fielder, he has displayed the other “four tools” – natural talents – sought in a player: batting ability, hitting with power, speed, fielding. McCutchen was in the top five National League Most Valuable Player voting from 2012-15, winning the award in 2013.
Most important, he was the linchpin in the Pirates’ ascent from baseball hell. The Bucs had a losing record every year from 1993 through 2012, the longest run of ineptitude of any team in America’s four major professional sports.
McCutchen then spearheaded three straight playoff drives while becoming the face of the franchise, a face that has been prominent in the community as well. People love Cutch as a player and person.
The financial climate in Major League Baseball, however, dictates that small-market teams be careful with their bucks, which may hasten the departure of their star.
He had a monstrous game Tuesday against the Orioles – four hits, a grand slam home run, a second homer and eight runs batted in – and is still a quality performer.
But McCutchen’s overall play has declined. He had his worst season with the bat in 2016 and, while he improved this year, was still streaky. His fielding skills and speed are no longer elite.
Speculation is the Pirates may trade him during the upcoming offseason, when his value may be highest and the team could get a better return in talent.
The club does have control over McCutchen’s contract for the 2018 season, after which he would enter free agency and sign with anyone.
General manager Neil Huntington may opt to keep McCutchen for next year and hope he helps the Pirates contend for the postseason, and if they languish again, attempt to move him before the July 31 trading deadline.
That, however, could be a gamble, as a continued dropoff would lower his worth.
Cutch will turn 31 Oct. 10. Signing him to a contract extension, for multiple years and probably for mega-bucks, probably would not be a prudent move for the Pirates – or a likely one. Don’t forget, principal owner Bob Nutting refused to open the coffers over the past year to improve the on-field product.
Catch McCutchen’s act on the tube this weekend, appreciate him, and root for him regardless of his future uniform.