There are many names that invigorate Pirates fans: Stargell, Clemente, Parker. These names are in the past. There are also a few names that cause Pirates fans great pain: Bonds, Bonilla, Drabek. These names are also in the past. Given the current struggles down at PNC Park (and I use the word “current” loosely), there is one name that gives hope to the hopeless and perhaps meaning to the meaningless: McCutchen.
Cutch is back in a Pirates uniform, and as the news broke weeks ago, you would’ve thought that the Pirates had landed their biggest free agent signing in history. After the hype died down, as the talk shows moved on to the Pittsburgh Penguins and whether or not they were in free fall this year and the Pittsburgh Steelers draft board for 2023, we were left with the following question: Does the return of Andrew McCutchen to the Pittsburgh Pirates really mean anything? And if it does, is Cutch clutch?
Let’s start with McCutchen’s arrival in a Pirates uniform in 2009. He was selected 11th overall by Pirates in the 2005 MLB draft. The previous year (2008) saw the Pirates win a dismal 67 games. 2009 saw them win 62 and McCutchen finished 4th in voting to Chris Coughlin of the Marlins for NL Rookie of the Year. Yes. Chris Coughlin. They took a couple steps back the next year and finally, in 2013, the Pirates broke through with a 94 win season, making the playoffs in 2013, 2014, and 2015. McCutchen was the anchor of the lineup and the defense throughout this winning streak. His awards included a Gold Glove in 2012 and the NL MVP in 2013, as well as a Silver Slugger for 2012-2014.
More importantly, his presence at the ball park and in the community ignited the spark that brought the fans back to PNC Park. Raising the Jolly Roger was once again a proud rallying cry amongst the faithful after a Pirates victory, and with the team around him that included the likes of Neil Walker, A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin, et. al, for 3 years the swag was back in the ‘burgh. Then came the 2016 season, and the ship began to sink. A salary dump ensued, and within a year it was the same old Pirates. McCutchen continued to produce on the field and in the community for Pittsburgh. But the crowds at PNC Park slowly dwindled and the prospects for a winning franchise and a return to the glory of the 1970s and early 1990s began to fade into the distance. Finally, on January 15, 2018, the Pirates traded McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants, along with cash considerations, in exchange for Kyle Crick, Bryan Reynolds, and $500,000 of international bonus slot money (whatever the heck that means…)
We don’t need to relive the sad feelings of the days, months, or years following this trade. It was not unexpected. It was, however, the end of what seemed to be an era for the Pirates, albeit a super-short one. One positive of note is that Bryan Reynolds was part of that trade, and he remains on the roster as one of the more talented players on the team.
Falling back into a perrienial 60 win team, Pirates fans were once again forced to listen to the constant reassurances of “building a winner” in the press room while watching a loser on the field. At least PNC Park is once of the prettiest parks in baseball. At least we have that, right?
McCutchen made the rounds in major league baseball from 2018 through 2022, playing for the Giants, Phillies, Yankees and Brewers. The Pirates made the rounds around the basement of the NL Central, and ML Baseball for the same time. Attendance at Pirates games was laughable. The park was quiet. Other than Sky Blast fireworks nights, the most attended games were when the Yankees came to town during interleague play. What Pirates fans wanted – no, needed, was a reason to come to the ball park.
After another losing season (2022) and 62 victories, you could sense that the fan base had all but thrown in the towel. The aforementioned Bryan Reynolds wanted out – or at least a bigger contract. As I type this article, he is still in a Pirates uniform and it seems that he will at least start the year here in Pittsburgh. Oneil Cruz, the dynamic young rookie shortstop, hopes to continue his rise to prominence, but we’ve all watched this show before. The trade deadline always seems to be next week, at least here in Pittsburgh.
Then, something magical happened. On January 13, 2023, the Pirates shocked western PA by announcing that Cutch was back. A one-year deal to return to his baseball roots in Pittsburgh. Revisiting my original question: is Cutch clutch? That’s a complicated question to answer. He’s 36 years old. For a professional baseball player, well, let’s just say that the sun is getting lower in the sky.
So what do the Pirates hope to accomplish? Fans in the seats comes to mind. That much is obvious.
But there is something more. Cutch was the heart and soul of a winning franchise. His first few years here were the precursor to 3 winning seasons. He’s familiar with the state of this franchise, and the aspirations of its young players. His effort on and off the field helped to lift an organization mired underneath mediocrity into something more. Will his production on the field now be what it was 10 years ago? Perhaps, but probably not. Will his heart, work ethic, and example be unchanged? Yes.
For the Pirates organization, for the players on the field, and for the fans, Cutch IS Clutch.