baseball

Tim Benz: Where Andrew McCutchen’s presence may best benefit the Pirates — if he’s willing to go there

When Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen made the comment, I figured it was simply the right thing to say.

“I want to win,” McCutchen said during a press conference to announce his return to Pittsburgh after a five-year absence. “Specifically, I want to win here. I know what it feels like to win here. … I’m not here as a spokesperson or as a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’m not here on a farewell tour. I’m here to play. I’m here to help this ballclub win. That’s first and foremost. That’s what I want people to know.”

Well, there’s a difference between just wanting to win and wanting to win in a specific location.

Especially at PNC Park.

If just wanting to play baseball games in Pittsburgh — the city that gave him his MLB start and where he is still adored today — is more important than chasing a title in any fill-in-the-blank city, I get it. But if “just winning” is McCutchen’s goal, 26 teams had more wins than the Pirates (62-100) a year ago.

My bet is approximately that many will have more than them again in 2023.

In a way, McCutchen — while complimenting this current Pirates team — may have verbally illustrated how long it still might be before the Pirates start winning again.

“When I first came up (in 2009), we were pretty bad. We lost (99) games. We didn’t win many games. This club, I felt, was better than we were when we lost (99) games. I see it. I play(ed) against it (with the Milwaukee Brewers). … They are better than we were when I came up.”


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Making comps of 100-loss teams may seem like splitting hairs. Although, I suppose I see McCutchen’s point. If he doesn’t feel that the rebuild here is going to be quite as long as it was when he first got called up to the big leagues by the Pirates, great. Still, McCutchen and his Pirates teammates had seasons of 105 losses in 2010, 90 in 2011 and 83 in 2012 before they finally finished above .500 for the first time since 1992 and made the playoffs as a wild card in 2013 with 94 victories.

So even if this core of Pirates is just, say, two years away from getting back to the playoffs as opposed to the four it took McCutchen in his first go around with the Bucs, is that going to be fast enough for him? Is he going to want to sign two more one-year contracts in Pittsburgh in hopes of getting back to the wild-card round in 2025? By that point, will the Pirates still want him in the lineup at age 38?

But McCutchen’s true motives for coming back, or how he presents them publicly, aren’t really the issue. Whatever reason why McCutchen wants to return is up to him. However he wants to spin the potential for success in terms of wins and losses are incidental.

What matters to me, and what should matter to the fans, is how McCutchen uses his status to motivate the front office to meet that goal of winning and not just make this a victory lap for him.

In other words, if McCutchen truly came back with eyes toward winning, he should use his considerable voice and presence to encourage the front office to share that goal. Whether that’s through the media or behind closed doors, if Pirates management continues the never-ending cycle of trading any veteran talent the moment before that player is about to make significant money, McCutchen needs to speak out and say that’s no longer OK.

Because if it’s winning he wants in Pittsburgh, constantly subtracting talent isn’t part of that formula. In fact, those wild-card teams added players when it looked like they were getting close, whether that was before 2012 when the team traded for AJ Burnett or when it signed Francisco Liriano prior to the 2013 season or getting the likes of Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and JA Happ during the trade deadlines in 2013 and 2015.

Perhaps McCutchen can “subtly” remind Pirates general manager Ben Cherington of that era of Pirates history.

“My job is to play and perform on the field,” McCutchen said. All of those other things aren’t necessarily what I do. But if an opportunity like that exists where someone may come to me or ask me a question, yeah, of course, I’ll be vocal and lend my honest opinion.”

Here’s to hoping McCutchen is more proactive than that. And here’s to hoping that the Pirates don’t just spin around and trade McCutchen for prospects (again) in the middle of the season after building up all this goodwill by bringing him home.

“I think between now and July, our focus is going to be on winning and competing and getting better. That’s our focus,” Cherington said when confronted with that question. We’ll cross that bridge. Right now, we are just focusing on getting to spring training, and let’s get ready for the season and playing great baseball.”

That answer wasn’t exactly, No, we’d never trade Cut again. Of course not,” was it?

Should we be surprised? No. We shouldn’t. But I will be surprised if the Pirates get as far down the path of competitiveness this year as McCutchen’s inferring could happen.

If he’s right, though, let’s hope he reminds Cherington of his January prediction, and maybe that’ll make the Pirates more of a threat like they were when McCutchen first came to town.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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