Friday, McCutchen finalized a one-year, $5 million contract for a second tour of duty with the team that drafted him, turned him into a star and then traded him. His homecoming is a rare feel-good moment for a franchise that has absorbed one gut punch after another over the past four decades.
To celebrate the announcement, the Pirates packed the press conference room at PNC Park with dozens of team employees and live-streamed the event on their website. (Media-shy owner Bob Nutting was at the ballpark, but he did not attend the press conference.) President Travis Williams and relief pitcher Chase De Jong joined in the applause when McCutchen strolled to the dais wearing a brilliant blue suit and a dazzling smile.
“I’m overly excited,” McCutchen said. “There’s not a word that really describes how I feel in this moment. This place is a part of me. There’s nothing like being back, seeing familiar faces.”
McCutchen gazed toward the middle of the room, where his wife, Maria, and their three children were seated. Daughter Ave Maria, 15 months old, cooed and gurgled while her father took questions.
“One of the coolest things I get to do is show my kids this is part of who I was and part of who I am,” McCutchen said. “They’ll get to see that and get to really feel it. It won’t just be a story that I tell ’em one day. They’ll get to be a part of it. I’m super grateful.”
After five years away, was McCutchen homesick? Is that why he was keen to return?
McCutchen took his usual dead-eye aim at the question and knocked it out of the ballpark.
“I’m not here as a spokesman for the Pirates. I’m not here on a farewell tour,” he said. “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.”
Live Press Conference: Andrew McCutchen’s Return to Pittsburgh https://t.co/tbzwCCaCGt
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) January 20, 2023
Last year, the Pirates went 62-100. In 2009, McCutchen’s rookie season, the team lost 99 games. Four years later, McCutchen was named the National League MVP and the Pirates went to the playoffs.
“This ballclub, I think, is better now than we were when we lost (in 2009),” McCutchen said. “The talent is there. It’s just a matter of it clicking and a matter of belief.”
McCutchen spent last season with the Brewers, who came up one win short of getting into the postseason tournament. Milwaukee went 11-8 against the Pirates. “They’re part of the reason we didn’t make it to the playoffs,” McCutchen said. “There’s something special about this club.”
General manager Ben Cherington said he always hoped to bring McCutchen back to Pittsburgh, but he did not go hard after the free-agent outfielder until a couple of weeks ago.
“I really didn’t want to open that door until we were certain we had a role (for McCutchen) and we were certain that we were ready to pursue it and weren’t just messing around,” Cherington said. “And it was important that we knew he had interest, too.”
In early January, McCutchen texted Nutting to say he wanted to rejoin the Pirates. Things came together quickly after that.
Cherington said the Pirates did not offer McCutchen, 36, anything more than a one-year deal. McCutchen scoffed at the possibility he’ll retire after the 2023 season.
“This isn’t like a one-and-done thing for me,” McCutchen said. “I want to keep playing.”
Yet it’s fair to wonder if McCutchen will even spend this entire season with the Pirates. Cherington has had success flipping veterans for prospects at the trade deadline. Will McCutchen be next or do the circumstances make him off-limits? Cherington was evasive.
“Between now and July, we’re going to focus on winning and competing and getting better,” Cherington said. “When we get to the middle of the season, we can have conversations with players. Everyone is always different. It’s always going to be case by case. We’ll cross that bridge (later). Our aim is to play great baseball. I hope we’re in a position where we’re doing that in the middle of the season.”
With the Brewers last season, McCutchen was used mostly as the designated hitter. He’ll fill the same role with the Pirates, although Cherington said management feels “very comfortable and confident putting him in the outfield” on occasions.
McCutchen was a center fielder when the Pirates drafted him with the 11th pick in 2005. He played that position in his big-league debut and won a Gold Glove Award there.
By 2017, however, his skills in the field had begun to erode. Eager to make defensive whiz Starling Marie the everyday center fielder, former manager Clint Hurdle moved McCutchen to right field — a change that McCutchen grudgingly accepted. “It was more like, ‘This is something you have to do.’ It wasn’t an ask,” McCutchen said on the first day of spring training in 2017.
When Marte was suspended two weeks into the season after failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs, McCutchen went back to center field. After being traded to the Giants, McCutchen again became a right fielder. He was used mostly in left field with the Phillies until he tore his UCL in 2019.
This time around with the Pirates, McCutchen seems open to being only a part-time outfielder.
“I’ll definitely have some chances to play defense (in the outfield) here and there, and primarily (be the) DH,” he said. That’s kind of the thought process as of right now. Of course, a lot of things can happen in a game or whatever.”
To open a spot on the 40-man roster, outfielder Miguel Andújar was designated for assignment. Andújar, who was claimed off waivers last September, hit .250/.275/.389 with nine RBIs in nine games with the Pirates.
(Photo: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)