For the last two seasons, when asked about the possibility of locking up Andrew McCutchen up long term, Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager Neil Huntington was purposely vague.
So the Pirates caught Pittsburgh by surprise with the announcement that the team signed McCutchen to a six-year contract worth $51.5 million with a club option for 2018 valued at $14.75 million. The deal included McCutchen’s first two free agency years.
Signing McCutchen was something the Pirates had to do—but for non-baseball reasons. The only thing that’s certain for the Pirates in 2012 is that it will endure its 20th consecutive losing season. Ticket prices have been increased. Last year’s second half fold put the team at an 81 game winning percentage lower than the 2010 John Russell-led squad that lost 105 games. By signing McCutchen, the Pirates can deflect the inevitable fan grousing about how ownership refuses to spend money. But since McCutchen was already on the squad, fans are skeptical that it will make any short term difference.
The Pirates had a rough off season making only marginal, at best, upgrades. The addition of Clint Barmes at shortstop is an improvement over the unpredictable head case, Ronnie Cedeno. Gone are catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit. Their replacement is 36-year-old Rod Barajas. Casey McGehee also joined the team which might help if Pedro Alvarez can’t improve on his .191 batting average.
Perhaps more significantly the Pirates couldn’t lure potentially productive players to Pittsburgh despite dangling millions in front them. Roy Oswalt didn’t return phone calls. Edwin Jackson turned down three years at $30 million to instead sign with the Washington Nationals for one year, $11 million.
Even though Derrek Lee hit .337 with seven home runs in 113 at bats for the Pirates, he had no interest in returning. According to Lee, he would rather retire and forego $6-8 million than play another season in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates pitching staff consists of five hurlers (Eric Bedard, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Brad Lincoln) who, in a competitive rotation, would be number three or four starters.
Let’s be honest. The ill-fated A.J. Burnett is a Yankee cast off that, coming off two terrible years, no other team wanted. He’s only around because the Pirates opted not to sign free agent Paul Maholm, five years younger than Burnett, 1.5 runs lower in 2011 ERA. Burnett is $2 million cheaper than Maholm would have been.
Luckily, the Pirates have All Star closer Joel Hanrahan to protect those hard earned and always tenuous late game leads. Somehow the Bucs must try to hold opponents to four runs or less since the team is no offensive juggernaut. The Buccos need more pop from the traditional power positions: left and right field, first and third base and catcher.
The sense around town is that there are so many Pirates’ holes to plug that McCutchen is only one tiny piece of the solution. And many long suffering fans are far from convinced about McCutchen’s worth. In the second half of the season, with his team falling off the cliff, McCutchen’s .216 batting average was awful.
Still, McCutchen is a skilled player with unlimited upside who has the gift of speed and power with tremendous outfield range. Last season, he hit 23 homers and drove in 89. McCutchen has the automatic green light and could steal 30-40 bases.
McCutchen’s guaranteed $51 million is great for him and, for the Pirates, an important symbolic gesture. Fans want this year’s team to succeed. If McCutchen leads the charge back to the top, fantastic. But we want results and not more talk about the minor league prospects, last year’s draft picks or the international signings. We’ve heard all that before—for two decades!
More will be known a mere 18 games into the season. The Pirates open with three at home against the National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies before going on the road for nine against the Dodgers, the Giants, the Diamondbacks then returning for six against the Cardinals and the Rockies. Along that path, they will likely face Roy Halliday, Cliff Lee, Cole Hammels, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ian Kennedy and Chris Carpenter.
Although the early road is tough, Bucco backers expect at a minimum 9-9. A break even record would be the first step to the elusive .500 mark.