Andrew McCutchen heads to the clubhouse after a game in February. (Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH – Considering the way the last six months have gone for the Pittsburgh Pirates, simply playing meaningful games should provide a measure of relief.
Let longtime franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen field balls in right field instead of talking – and talking and talking – about the way the team very publicly put him on the trading block in the offseason, then told him the 2013 NL MVP he needed to slide over to right from center to make way for Gold Glover Starling Marte.
“This was more like, ‘This is something you have to do.’ It wasn’t an ask,” McCutchen said. “It wasn’t something I was ready for or something I wanted to do. But, as I’m saying that, I’m talking about myself. I had to not be as selfish and just accept that’s what I have to do and move over to right.”
The latest wrinkle for a franchise in flux, as the players who helped restore some the team’s luster make way for the next wave. Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, A.J. Burnett and Neil Walker have moved on. At some point this season, McCutchen may follow them out the door. Just not yet. The star is eager for a bounce back performance after hitting a career-low .256 and he overcame a slow start during the World Baseball Classic to help lead the United States to the title, doubling home two runs in an 8-0 romp over Puerto Rico in the championship.
McCutchen called the experience “amazing.” If the good vibes spill over into the regular season, then maybe the drama will subside and Pittsburgh’s modest downturn in 2016 after three straight playoff appearances will be more of a blip than a flashing red light.
Some other things to look for as the Pirates try to rein in the World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the rival St. Louis Cardinals in one of baseball’s most top-heavy divisions.
Taking the fifth: The Pirates knew they needed help in the rotation after the staff ERA rose from 3.21 in 2015 to 4.21 last year. While they re-signed Ivan Nova to a modest three-year deal, the team is relying on internal solutions to figure out the rest of the rotation behind Nova, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Chad Kuhl has the fourth spot locked up while the fifth spot remained unclear as opening day approached as no one from the foursome of Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams put together a lights out spring training designed to make things easy on manager Clint Hurdle.
Freese frame: Third baseman Jung Ho Kang remained in South Korea waiting for his visa issues to be worked out following a DUI conviction in February that threatened his status. David Freese will handle most of the duties at third base, perhaps on a permanent basis if Kang doesn’t return. Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP for the Cardinals, hit a steady .270 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs last season. If those numbers tick up a bit, Kang’s absence could be largely mitigated.
The kids are alright: First baseman Josh Bell showed a judicious eye for the strike zone and a bit of pop in 45 games last season, hitting three home runs and driving in 19 runs. He’s still in the process of making the transition from outfield to first and will platoon with John Jaso early in the season but will be given plenty of opportunities to wrest the full-time starting gig from Jaso with a quick start. Adam Frazier also showed the kind of versatility and pluck (.301 average in 66 games) to help take some of the sting out of the departure of utilityman Sean Rodriguez.
Outlook: Pittsburgh’s erratic 2016 was the first substantial setback since manager Clint Hurdle took over. The relentlessly optimistic Hurdle remains bullish, but his team’s margin for error is small if it exists at all. Chasing down the Cubs could be impossible, but if the pitching looks more like 2015 than 2016 and McCutchen returns to his All-Star form, Pittsburgh could stay in the hunt for a wild card spot come September.