Ben Cherington knew that Andrew McCutchen was a popular player.
Yet Cherington, the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager, didn’t quite understand the love affair the fans had with McCutchen until signing the veteran outfielder/designated hitter as a free agent in January.
Returning to the Pirates after a five-year absence, McCutchen was moved to tears when he stepped into the batter’s box for the first time to a lengthy standing ovation in last season’s home opener. The PNC Park crowd couldn’t have been happier to see McCutchen back with the hometown team.
However, what made McCutchen’s reunion unique is how the fans reacted throughout the season. Even until McCutchen partially tore his left Achilles tendon on Sept. 4 to end his season, there was a buzz in the ballpark every time he walked into the batter’s box.
Cherington arrived in Pittsburgh following the 2019 season a little more than 1.5 years after former GM Neal Huntington traded McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Bryan Reynolds and reliever Kyle Crick.
Thus, Cherington wasn’t around when McCutchen was winning the National League MVP award in 2013 during a run of five straight All-Star Game appearances. Cherington didn’t get to see up close how McCutchen helped transform the Pirates from an MLB-record 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012 to three consecutive postseason appearances from 2013-15.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Cherington said about how the fans received McCutchen’s return. “I anticipated it would be a good reaction. I wasn’t here before. I probably didn’t fully understand the relationship between Andrew and the city and the team. The reaction probably exceeded my expectations, really. It never really felt like it cooled off.
“A large part of that is because of who Andrew is, but a large part of that is he kept playing well. Kept actually helping the team, helping the team win games. It’s easy for that reaction to stay positive when that’s happening.
McCutchen did indeed have a productive season, hitting .256/.378/.397 in 112 games with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases. It certainly wasn’t the type of performance that made McCutchen the MVP 10 years earlier but solid for a player who turned 37 a little more than a week after the season ended.
McCutchen also helped the Pirates at the gate as their season attendance rose more than 373,000 over 2022.
However, Cherington was quick to point out on Wednesday that the Pirates aren’t bringing McCutchen back on another one-year, $5-million contract just to sell some extra tickets. They believe he can again be a productive player in 2024.
“I think it’s important to emphasize that the conversation last offseason with Andrew is the same conversation this offseason,” Cherington said. “He doesn’t want to be a Pirate to be a hood ornament. He wants to be a Pirate because he wants to be a part of the team win more games and help us get to that more competitive stage as quickly as he can. That’s his sole focus at this point in his career.”
McCutchen emphasized the Pirates’ need to contend next season during his teleconference with reporters.
He quickly shot down the idea that he might retire after the 2024 season and said he thought he could play for at least two more years. So, don’t make plans for a farewell tour next summer.
“For me I’m not going around declaring this is my final year, it’s my last year,” McCutchen said. “A lot of times guys may say that who are in the end of a contract like Miguel Cabrera making his last $20 million or however much he’s making, being 40 years old and nobody’s going to pick him up and you kind of segue into retirement.
“For me, I feel there is more in there, there’s more that I can do. I can still go out and perform at a high level. I feel like I can help my team, help my club any way that I can. It’s not like I’m just sitting at the backend (of his career). I just feel like there’s more. I also am the type of person who doesn’t like to put pressure on myself. I think it you say this is it, this is the end, you’re putting pressure on yourself to go out there and try to do more, try to perform, instead of just enjoying it as much as I can.”
The Pirates went 76-86 last season – a 14-win improvement over 2022 — and McCutchen received a huge amount of adulation. It’s fun to imagine what would happen if he could lift the franchise back into contention.