PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates will spend the next two months trying to figure out whether centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is part of their plans in 2018. Don't expect the five-time All-Star to monitor the situation on Twitter, which is how he found out the Pirates aggressively explored trading him last winter.
McCutchen's got bigger things on his mind.
"I'll just be waiting for this baby," said McCutchen, whose wife Maria is expecting the couple's first child in early December.
Good idea considering the only franchise the 2013 NL MVP has ever known will grapple with weighty questions following a second straight losing season.
The glow from Pittsburgh's run of three consecutive playoff berths from 2013-15 has faded. The Pirates are 153-170-1 since getting shut out by Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs in the 2015 wild-card round, including a 75-87 mark this season, the club's worst since manager Clint Hurdle's first season on the job in 2011.
Asked if the club is in a better place now than it was a year ago, the player most responsible for baseball's renaissance in Pittsburgh shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know," McCutchen said. "It's a tough question to answer, considering we've had a lot of movement this year. Being in a better place? I don't know. If you look at the record, I don't know if we're in a better place."
Pittsburgh holds a $14.75 million club option for McCutchen next season, the final in a deal he signed in 2012 that became one of the biggest bargains in the major leagues. It's highly unlikely the Pirates are able to keep McCutchen once he hits the open market a year from now, meaning they must decide whether to make a one last run with him in 2018 or try to move him for a prospect and/or a proven major leaguer.
General manager Neal Huntington said the Pirates' best chance to make up ground in the NL Central is with McCutchen — who hit .279 with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs — patrolling centre. Maybe, but it might not make long-term sense for a club ever conscious of the bottom line, flipping McCutchen for a quality player (or two) under "team control" beyond next September could be the more pragmatic approach.
Don't expect McCutchen to be waiting by the phone.
"I'm probably not going to be paying any attention to that, honestly," McCutchen said "I have a little too much on my plate with the baby. I'm looking forward to that. It'll be a fun and interesting off-season, for sure."
Other things to takeaways and things to look for as the Pirates try to plot out a path back to contention.
POWER OUTAGE: Pittsburgh's slim margin for error was dealt a pair of massive blows before 2017 really got going. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang never made his way back to the U.S. following a DUI conviction in his native South Korea and outfielder Starling Marte was hit with an 80-game suspension after testing positive for steroids in April. Rather than address the losses, the Pirates opted to put together a patched together lineup that ended up finishing 13th or worse in the National League in batting average (.244), home runs (151) and runs (668). The Pirates are hopeful Kang will be cleared return in 2018 but would like to have some indication before free agency begins.
BABY ARMS: The team banked heavily on young pitchers to shore up the back end of the rotation. Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl all made at least 25 starts, with all three finishing with ERAs below 4.50. Not nearly enough to make up for an offence that dipped into prolonged slumps but an encouraging step heading into next season.
"This is the one area we absolutely maximized growth in," said manager Clint Hurdle, who along with Huntington signed a four-year extension to stay with the team through 2021. "How it's going to play out, time will tell."
MONEY MATTERS: Attendance at PNC Park has mirrored the team's slide, falling nearly 25 per cent from 2015. Huntington said it's too early to discuss a projected payroll for 2018, but it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh — which relies heavily on gate revenue — making any sort of significant increase over the $91 million it spent this season (a number that didn't include the money due to Kang, who was on the restricted list). It leaves the Pirates with a bit of a conundrum. They know fans will turn out when the product is competitive. If they don't, then the team is either unwilling or unable to pour recesses into the product.
DING DING DONG: Pittsburgh's long search for stability at first base is over. Josh Bell set an NL record for home runs by a rookie switch hitter (26) while playing a team-high 159 games. Heady territory for a player who entered the year with serious questions about his defence. He figures to be the face of the franchise whenever McCutchen moves on. Bell said he's happy with his progress but wants more in 2018.
"We had a lot of setbacks this year," Bell said. "So hopefully we unwind and find ourselves in the spring and don't have those setbacks next year and come out strong.
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