Andrew McCutchen’s Pittsburgh homecoming was the feel-good story of the year for Pirates fans, and while it ended on a sour note — McCutchen suffered a partial Achilles tear last week, ending his season — there’s mutual interest in a 2024 reunion. General manager Ben Cherington told Pirates beat writers yesterday that the team and McCutchen will meet in the offseason to discuss further extending the relationship (link via Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
“We believe that the injury he’s recovering from right now should not get in the way of him being a good baseball player next year and being someone who can help us, and we’ve agreed that we’ll pick that conversation up when the season is over,” Cherington said before adding that he’s hopeful the Pirates can enjoy “a lot more good moments out there with him.”
Now 36 years old, McCutchen returned to his original organization on a one-year, $5MM deal over the winter. The former NL MVP was the 11th overall draft pick by the Pirates back in 2005 and starred with Pittsburgh from 2009-17, leading the charge as the Bucs reached the postseason each year from 2013-15.
McCutchen was given a hero’s welcome upon returning to Pittsburgh and said both at the time of his signing and a couple months into the season that he had no desire to play anywhere other than Pittsburgh. “I don’t want to continue my career on another team,” McCutchen told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back on May 26. The Bucs honored those wishes, holding McCutchen at the trade deadline even amid interest from other clubs and even as they shipped out players such as Rich Hill, Carlos Santana, Ji Man Choi and Rodolfo Castro.
It’s been a productive return to the scene of his big league debut for McCutchen. In 473 trips to the plate, the five-time All-Star batted .256/.378/.397 with a dozen home runs, 19 doubles and 11 stolen bases. He also tallied the 2000th hit of his excellent career this season, and had it not been for his injury, he’d likely have swatted his 300th homer. As it stands, he’s sitting on 299 big flies in his career. If he indeed returns next year for a 16th Major League season, he’ll quite likely become just the 159th member of that 300-homer club.
As far as the roster fit goes, there probably won’t be much outfield time to go around — although that was also the case in 2023, when he logged just 64 innings in the field. Bryan Reynolds is entrenched in left field, and Jack Suwinski figures to have center field locked down after hitting (as of this writing) 25 home runs. McCutchen hasn’t been a viable option in center field for years anyhow.
Right field is a bit more up in the air, but top catching prospect Henry Davis has logged considerable time there, and the Bucs also have some depth names like Canaan Smith-Njigba and Joshua Palacios on the 40-man roster at present. McCutchen could reprise his role as the team’s primary designated hitter, and he’d certainly be an option in the outfield on occasion, perhaps lining up in right field against left-handed opponents.
From a payroll vantage point, McCutchen shouldn’t be a problem even for the light-spending Bucs. A salary comparable to this year’s $5MM rate wouldn’t be a surprise, and the Pirates only have $17MM on the books in 2024 anyhow: Reynolds’ $10MM salary and the $7MM owed to third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes. Arbitration raises will boost that number a bit, but the Bucs only have four eligible players: Mitch Keller, Miguel Andujar, JT Brubaker and David Bednar. Andujar is a non-tender candidate. Brubaker will likely earn the same $2.275MM he did in 2023 after missing the year due to Tommy John surgery. Bednar is eligible for only the first time. Keller stands to receive a healthy raise on this year’s $2.4375MM salary.
Even after accounting for those raises, the Pirates will probably only have around $30MM in total on the books — about $43MM less than the mark at which they opened the current season. That’d certainly leave ample room for spending, and if the improvements over the team’s 2022 record embolden owner Bob Nutting to increase payroll a bit, there could be a bit more in terms of available resources. A McCutchen reunion wouldn’t significantly cut into that payroll space, and it’s at least feasible that the Bucs could even be in on some mid-tier free agents (or perhaps acquire some controllable players who are entering or have entered their arbitration years).
For now, the focus will be on his recovery. It’s understandable if both team and player want to wait until there’s a better sense for how McCutchen will heal and recover before beginning to talk contract. But McCutchen’s message since day one back in Pittsburgh has been that he hopes to play out his career in black and gold, and Cherington’s latest comments only serve to reinforce the likelihood of that happening.