Many people are cynical about the Pittsburgh Pirates and rightfully so. The Pirates certainly open themselves up to a lot of cynicism with how they run their operation.
So, it is easy for the cynics to wonder if the Pirates have decided to bring outfielder Andrew McCutchen back to the organization as a publicity stunt five years after trading him to the San Francisco Giants.
To an extent, the answer is yes.
The Pirates have used up all the goodwill they built with the fans from 2013-15 when they earned three consecutive National League wild-card playoff berths. Going a combined 142-242 over the last three seasons has exhausted even the most loyal fan’s patience.
So, bringing back the wildly popular McCutchen is one way the Pirates can placate the fans they’ve upset and win back the lost ones.
It is also a business decision.
The Pirates drew just 1,257,458 fans last season. That was their lowest yearly attendance in a season not affected by the pandemic or a work stoppage since 1987. The Pirates need to sell tickets and the return of McCutchen should help.
However, the overarching question about the Pirates signing McCutchen is whether he can help make them respectable.
The 36-year-old hit .237/.316/.384 for the Milwaukee Brewers in 134 games last season with 17 home runs and eight stolen bases. Though McCutchen made 81 of his 130 starts as the designated hitter, he contributed four defensive runs saved in the outfield.
Using Baseball Reference’s calculations, McCutchen was worth 1.1 wins above replacement (WAR). His 99 OPS+ meant he was one percent below the major league average offensively.
However, numbers don’t always tell the full story about a player. It is also instructive to talk to the pros, those who are paid to evaluate players for major league teams.
We talked to three of those evaluators. They were granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about players.
Here is what the three had to say about McCutchen:
Evaluator No. 1: “The first thing I’d say is I hope the fans in Pittsburgh understand that they aren’t getting the same player who was a star when he played there before. He’s 36 now and he’s slipped since those days. I’m sure (general manager) Ben Cherington and the baseball people in Pittsburgh know that. That being said, he can still help the Pirates or any other team. He hits the ball hard. He doesn’t have as much power as he used to but he’s still a tough out and still has good bat speed. He still runs well enough and has enough range in the outfield to be an asset. He’s not going to come in and singlehandedly win them a pennant, but he can help. It’s a solid move, especially for one year and $5 million.”
Evaluator No. 2: “I understand the lure of going back to Pittsburgh and having a chance to say his goodbyes, but I question his competitiveness for wanting to walk into that mess. He can still play a little. I don’t know if he will make a big impact on that team, though. For me, he’s a good fourth outfielder on a contending team at this point. The homecoming story is nice and all that, but I wonder what it will be like if it’s the middle of July and they’re 20 games out of first place? Is he going to be happy with that?”
Evaluator No. 3: “He still has his uses but I’m not so sure PNC Park is the right fit for him. It’s not a good power park for right-handed hitters and he’s really become more of a pull guy as he’s gotten older. The outfield is also very big, and he’s had some knee surgeries. They’ll almost have to put him in right field because left-center has so much ground to cover. I think he’ll help off the field, though. Those kids on that team need some guidance. That was obvious last year. McCutchen is a pro. That might be where he ends up providing the most value to the Pirates.”