Andrew McCutchen returns to the pirates for a chance at a fairytale ending

PITTSBURGH – At PiratesFest in December 2016, I asked Andrew McCutchen if he hoped to retire with the Pirates. His reply was ominous: “I don’t know if that can happen.”

McCutchen was 29 at the time, had a $51.5 million contract and was just three years away from winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award. A first-round pick in 2005, he had never played for any team other than the Pirates.

Still, he was realistic about baseball’s unsentimental business side. The ever-renewing Pirates eventually sold McCutchen to the Giants. After that January 2018 move, he was later dealt to the Yankees and was employed by the Phillies and Brewers.

When McCutchen became a free agent again last winter, the Pirates said no thanks to a possible reunion. It seemed his dire prediction was destined to come true.

Baseball’s economy can be cold-hearted, but it’s also a game of fun jumps and picture-perfect finishes. That’s why, in his 15th season in the majors, McCutchen returns to where it all began.

On Friday, the 36-year-old outfielder agreed to a one-year, $5 million deal with the Pirates pending a physical, a major league source confirmed. The deal is expected to close next week.

“I think it’s a good marriage,” said Neil Walker, former Pirates second baseman. “I know how important this city and organization is to him. If this is going to be his last year, I don’t know if he could have imagined anything better than returning to a place he loves.”

Walker, who hails from Pittsburgh, was the Pirates’ 2004 first-round pick. He and McCutchen played together from 2009 to 2015, a span that saw the Pirates go from losing 99 games in one season to three straight wild card finishes in the NL.

McCutchen was the driving force behind this success. In 2013, he hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers and was listed first on 28 of 30 NL MVP ballots. He was a great story – a homegrown star with the perfect combination of superior skills and an oversized, kind personality.

“We had a lot of talent on those teams, but Andrew was really special,” said Jeff Locke, who played for the Pirates from 2011-2016. “Back then, being a pirate fan was the coolest thing in the world. You couldn’t go anywhere in town without seeing (McCutchen’s) #22 on someone’s back.”

In nine seasons with the Pirates, McCutchen batted .291/.379/.489 and was a five-time All-Star. However, he had bad years in 2016 and 2017 and was stung by boos at PNC Park. A few weeks after McCutchen’s $14.75 million 2018 club option was triggered, the Pirates traded him to the Giants.

“The nature of professional sports is that players come and players go,” said then-general manager Neal Huntington after the swap. “But Andrew will have an eternal place in pirate history and in the hearts of those who know him and who cheered him on.”

A few days before his first game at PNC Park with the Giants, I caught up with McCutchen and asked him what he thinks his legacy with the Pirates will be.

“I got what I wanted,” McCutchen said. “I never wanted to be ‘that baseball player’ where one day when you’re not there, his name comes up and people are like, ‘Oh yeah. He was good.’ I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to make a lasting impression, to the point that people don’t necessarily only think of me, the baseball player, when my name is mentioned. You think of me, the person.”

McCutchen was playing on field for the Giants, and seats above Clemente Wall at PNC Park were sold out when he returned on May 11, 2018. That evening he received a thunderous ovation, and the applause never stopped.

Andrew McCutchen holds his hat in front of the PNC Park crowd on May 11, 2018. (Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Last April, when Guest Brewers played the Pirates, the modest crowd of 8,300 stood up when McCutchen was announced for his first at-bat. When he hit a first pitch homer in front of José Quintana, the Pirates fans got up and roared again.

“I always thought it would have been really great if Andrew could have spent his entire career in Pittsburgh,” Locke said. “I’m sure everyone in this town thinks so.”

The past five seasons have been an ordeal for McCutchen. He tore the ACL in his left knee three months after a three-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies. Knee surgery and his age have robbed him of some speed and first steps in the outfield. Last season with the Brewers, he was used primarily as a designated hitter, hitting .237/.316/.384 with 17 home runs.


McCutchen speaks to Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz during a game last June. (Charles LeClaire / USA today)

Nobody expects McCutchen to regain his MVP form. He’s never spoken publicly about retiring, but it sure can’t be far off. Returning to the Pirates — a franchise that will likely one day retire its unified number — and playing in his adopted home (McCutchen and his family live in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs) could be a fitting capping of his career.

The move also provides the pirates with some much-needed good karma. Since trading with McCutchen, the club has had a win ratio of .420 and has finished either fourth or fifth in the NL Central each year.

Another dark cloud for the Pirates is the uncertain status of outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who requested a swap when talks stalled over an offseason contract extension. Reynolds was one of the players the Pirates acquired from the Giants in the McCutchen trade.

Owner Bob Nutting once said it was “emotionally distressing” for him to go ahead with the McCutchen trade. The club’s reclusive owner hasn’t said much publicly in the past five years, another indication of the pirates’ decline.

Seeing the No. 22 back on the field at PNC Park will be a nice distraction from the franchise’s woes — more of a sentimental move than an effective one. That’s okay. Pittsburgh fans who haven’t seen their team win a playoff series since 1979 will take what they can get.

“The Andrew McCutchen that you’re going to see now may not be exactly the same Andrew McCutchen that he was before, but I still think it’s special for him to be donning black and gold again,” Locke said.

Then again, there’s always a chance his homecoming will rejuvenate McCutchen. Maybe he’ll find some magic.

McCutchen will be chasing two big milestones this summer. He has 52 hits under 2,000, eight doubles from 400 and 13 homers under 300. Wouldn’t it be something if Walker, now a part-time broadcaster for the Pirates, could name those moments on the air?

“I covered him several times last year, but I still felt old,” said Walker, who at 37 is 13 months older than McCutchen. “He survived me and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

(Top Photo by Andrew McCutchen 2017: Joe Sargent/Getty Images) Andrew McCutchen returns to the pirates for a chance at a fairytale ending

Russell Falcon

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