What to Make of Andrew McCutchen’s Return to Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates icon Andrew McCutchen is headed back to the Steel City, as the former NL MVP has reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. It’s an interesting move for McCutchen, a former superstar who was one of the league’s best outfielders for the better part of a decade, but has yet to win it all. On the other hand, it does make some sense for a Pirates team in a rebuild.

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A Look at McCutchen

The agreement brings Andrew McCutchen back to where it all started for the 36-year-old. McCutchen debuted at 22 years of age in 2009 with the Pirates, and established himself as a cornerstone piece. In 108 games, McCutchen hit .286 with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases, the first of five seasons in which McCutchen stole 20 or more in a season.

From 2009-2017, McCutchen hit .291 with Pittsburgh, and hit 203 of his 287 home runs with the Pirates. McCutchen won four Silver Sluggers, made five All-Star Games, and won the NL MVP in 2013. After the 2017 season, Pittsburgh traded its franchise icon to the San Francisco Giants.

Since the trade, McCutchen has not been as impactful on the field as he was with the Pirates. The 36-year-old recorded two 20+ home run seasons from 2018-22, including in 2021 when “Cutch” cracked 27 homers with in-state rival Philadelphia. Last season with the Brewers, McCutchen hit .237/.316/.384 with 17 home runs over 134 games. McCutchen recorded career lows in 2022 in OBP (.316), OPS (.700), and ISO (.148). However, the five-time All-Star recorded a .252 xBA (per Statcast) solid 40.0% Hard Hit% rate, indications that McCutchen may have been a bit unlucky last season.

What it Means

There were reports earlier in the week that the New York Mets had interest in McCutchen. While it would have made sense for the Mets to bring in a right-handed bat to split DH duties with Daniel Vogelbach, the former NL MVP heads back to the Pirates on a one-year deal.

Should McCutchen have signed with the Mets, it would have made him more of a fourth outfielder/platoon option. If McCutchen wanted more of a regular role, it makes sense for the 36-year-old to join a rebuilding Pirates group that was among the worst offensive teams in baseball last season. However, it’s fair to wonder how much time McCutchen will get come 2023.

Aside from star outfielder and potential trade chip Bryan Reynolds — who oddly enough was acquired by Pittsburgh when the Pirates deal McCutchen to San Francisco — the Pirates have a number of young outfielders slated to get long looks again in 2023. Jack Suwinski hit 19 home runs in his rookie season, and drew 41 walks over 106 games. Despite a sluggish .202 average, expect Suwinski to get plenty of time alongside Cal Mitchell and former Pirate first-round pick Connor Joe. Travis Swaggerty and Canaan Smith-Njigba — both of whom had strong OBP figures in AAA last season — also could be in line for time in the outfield. Many of these names, however, have limited experience. A veteran like McCutchen should be of help for this upcoming season, not just as a mentor but also as a steady hand who can provide some punch for the Pirates should any of the squad’s young players struggle.

McCutchen spent most of last season in the DH slot, but did play 50 games in the outfield for Milwaukee. It’s wise to expect a similar deployment in Pittsburgh this season, especially given the state of the Pirates. And should McCutchen round into form this season with Pittsburgh, it’s possible that the five-time All-Star could garner trade interest in the summer.