After Tuesday ?s game, a small scrum of media members gathered around Andrew McCutchen ?s locker. He’s finally back in the three hole after 28 games batting sixth. He ?s finally back in general: both in performance and position.
It ?s big news, so I asked him about it: after being bounced around in the lineup and the field, how good does it feel to be batting third, playing center field again?
I got a typical McCutchen answer: ?I don ?t know. I don ?t think too much into it, man. I ?m just out there playing, trying to win. We weren ?t able to do that tonight, but show up tomorrow, get ready to go. But as far as where I ?m batting and all that, I don ?t think too much about it. ?
As Michael Bluth once said: “I don’t know what I expected.” Oh well. I figured it was a fair enough question to ask.
McCutchen has done a lot of bouncing around over the last two years. He ?s gone from being the three hitter, to the two hitter, to the three hitter, to the six hitter, and now back to three. Defensively, he ?s gone from center to right to center. That doesn’t even count a pair of benchings in between.
It may have been an odyssey, but he ?s finally back to where he was before all the changes started: the center fielder and three hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In July of last year, it looked like his bat would never heat up again. In December, it looked like he would never be a Pirate again. In February, it looked like he would never play center again. In May, it looked like he would never bat third again. Those predictions went oh-for-freaking-four.
So he ?s back to where he started. Now what? Let ?s take a look at what could make him change his job description again.
The first is if he doesn ?t produce in the three spot. He wouldn ?t be the first Pirate to falter there. The three hole has been a black hole for the Bucs. Pirate hitters batting third have a .203/.263/.329 line this year. They are dead last in all three categories by a significant margin. For reference, the average hitter in the nine spot across baseball this year has a .207/.261/.319 line. Yes, that includes pitchers hitting.
Hurdle said one of the benefits of swapping McCutchen and Gregory Polanco is Polanco gets the same opportunity to regroup that McCutchen had. Expect him to bat around there for the next couple of weeks. At least until July 18th –the day Starling Marte is reinstated.
Marte ?s return is sneaking up on us. He can start his minor league rehab assignment within the week. Hurdle said there isn ?t a plan in place for what will happen when he returns. It ?s all ?in pencil. ? That doesn ?t mean we still can ?t speculate.
The first question for Marte is where he will play. McCutchen ?s defense up the middle is actually on a worse pace than last year, posting -12 DRS in 524.1 innings so far. He was +2 as a right fielder, but Polanco has retaken his old position after struggling in left. Again, everything is in pencil, but it does not look like Polanco is going to go back to left anytime soon.
Marte was just as bad, if not worse, in center (-3 DRS in 117.1 innings of work). A long layoff is not going to help. McCutchen to left is risky, uncharted territory, too. Marte provides Gold Glove work there. If center field is going to be a liability regardless, make the corners as strong as possible. So at least for now, Cutch should stay in center.
Marte will also impact the lineup construction. Adam Frazier is either going to go back to the bench or take David Freese ?s job away. If Frazier starts to sit, Marte could bat first or second. If Freese rides pine, he could also fit somewhere in the middle of the lineup. He ?s flexible.
McCutchen ?s spot in the order is going to be based on his results. If he hits, he ?ll bat third. If he doesn ?t, either Marte, Bell or even Polanco (assuming he rebounds) could. So again, at least for now, he should stay at third. He earned it.
The other date on the horizon is a far more dubious one: July 31, the non-waiver trade deadline. McCutchen only has one year of trade control remaining, and even though the Pirates are still somehow just a handful of games back in the division, they do not look like contenders. He would be an in-demand player in a normal market, but this is not shaping up to be a normal market.
Every contender is going to be looking for one thing: pitching, both starters and relievers. The teams that seem to be buyers– the Nationals, Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks, etc.– are all set in the outfield. Granted a starter for one of those teams could struggle or get injured in the next month, but there are going to be cheaper rentals available, such as J.D Martinez and Jay Bruce.
If Tony Watson puts together a strong couple of weeks in July, he legitimately may draw more interest than a former MVP. Neal Huntington won ?t undersell his most prized player. He may not get the offer he ?s looking for, whatever that may be.
The market may change this offseason, and with Austin Meadows sidelined for the time being, there doesn ?t appear to be anyone knocking down the door to steal the job away from him. Unless a reasonable offer comes along, he will stay a Pirate through the 2017 season.
So there. At least for the rest of 2017, the odds look good for Andrew McCutchen finishing the year with his original team, in his original position and his original spot in the order. If he can ?t retire a Pirate, than at least he can go out the way he came in, and not some Mendoza-line hitting corner outfielder.
But he probably isn ?t thinking about it as much as I am.