It always seemed inevitable, but Tuesday’s news was enough to excite even the most jaded Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
Andrew McCutchen is coming back for another season. McCutchen is getting a one-year, $5-million contract – the same terms as this year – and the deal became official Wednesday once the 37-year-old outfielder/designated hitter passes a physical examination.
The return of McCutchen after a five-year absence was the biggest feel-good story of the Pirates’ 2023 season. Both sides wanted to continue the marriage into next year, so it was just a matter of the Pirates being sure he had recovered from the partially torn Achilles tendon he sustained on Sept. 4.
“We have a desire for him to play for the Pirates next year,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said two weeks ago during baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville. “I believe he shares that desire. So, there is a very good spirit to the conversations.”
The signing of McCutchen brought some spirit back to a beleaguered group of fans last season after the Pirates had finished last in the National League Central for four straight years. Season attendance rose by more than 373,000 as the 2013 NL MVP returned to the organization that selected him in the 2005 amateur draft.
“Being back, people wanted to come and see Cutch play, and it was an exciting opportunity,” Pirates club president Travis Williams said in Nashville.
The Pirates finally climbed out of the division cellar as their 76-86 record was good for fourth place. It was a 14-game improvement over 2022 when the Pirates finished 62-100.
McCutchen was no longer the same player the Pirates traded to the San Francisco Giants in 2018. Yet, he was still a useful player, contributing 1.5 bWAR, which ranked sixth among Pirates’ hitters.
McCutchen finished with a .256/.378/.397 slash line while hitting 12 home runs and stealing 11 bases in 112 games.
An ankle injury limited McCutchen mainly to designated hitter duties. He made 97 starts at DH and just seven in right field. McCutchen’s last made an appearance in the field was on May 30.
However, during the Winter Meetings, Cherington indicated that McCutchen would not necessarily be solely a DH if he returned for 2024.
“Our expectation is we want to give it a shot and he wants the same thing,” Cherington said of McCutchen playing the outfield. “We’d go into spring training with an open mind to doing that and prepare for it. It’s not a prerequisite I would say or it’s not like a full-stop criteria or anything like that but it’s our desire because it would help the team and he would probably prefer that. We’ll have to go by how he’s feeling and put his best interests in mind.”
Even if McCutchen doesn’t play in the outfield anymore, he still provides value with his bat and on-base skills.
McCutchen is undoubtedly the Pirates’ most popular player in the PNC Park era – the stadium opened in 2001 – and there was a buzz in the ballpark every time he stepped to the plate last year. The Fort Meade, Fla., native is also beloved for establishing his permanent residence in Pittsburgh.
It seems that McCutchen taught Pirates owner Bob Nutting a lesson last season.
Fans like fireworks and bobbleheads. But heroes sell tickets.