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The Andrew McCutchen Contingency Plan

Is it wise to burn a month early in the season to get McCutchen healthy? Photo via NBC Hardball Talk

Is it wise to burn a month early in the season to get McCutchen healthy?
Photo via NBC Hardball Talk

We need to talk about Andrew McCutchen.

Historically, McCutchen has reserved his Aprils as his “slow month” with a career April line of .259 AVG/.344 OBP/.416 SLG, 760 OPS, 114 wRC+. However, he just wrapped up his worst month of any in his career this season with a .194 AVG/.302 OBP/.333 SLG, 635 OPS, 84 wRC+, even worse than his September 2011 of .171 AVG/.316 OBP/.355 SLG, 671 OPS, 92 wRC+. Anytime a player bats under the Mendoza line for a whole month, that’s cause for concern. The yellow flag goes up when it is the star player on the team and a past MVP-winner. It turns a deep crimson red when that player missed two weeks prior to the start of the campaign with knee issues in Spring Training.

We don’t know exactly what the exact issue is with McCutchen’s knee, but he clearly does not look like himself. During Tuesday night’s game against the Cubs, McCutchen hit a ball into the hole at shortstop that caused Starlin Castro to dive to stop it. He barely beat the throw over from Castro, who is not to be confused with Andrelton Simmons in terms of defensive prowess. Normally, McCutchen would have been three steps past the bag and undoing his batting gloves by the time the throw got to first base. After the game, Manager Clint Hurdle tried to spin the situation by saying that McCutchen “really stung the ball to center field”, but all that says to me is that McCutchen would have been able to hit the ball out of Wrigley if his knee allowed him to properly plant and generate the requisite amount of torque.

For me, the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ McCutchen will need to hit the Disabled List to get the proper treatment he needs to rectify this knee issue. Although it is true that every game counts the same mathematically, there’s clearly a difference in leverage of games the further the season moves along. I would much rather have the key cog of the team miss the month of May rather than August or September when every game (win) is magnified.

Presuming that any surgery would be of the arthroscopic variety and cause him to miss “just” one month, how would the Pirates reconfigure their lineup and fare in the standings? Last season was the only prolonged absence in his career. After The Drilling of Andrew McCutchen by the Coward Randall Delgado in retaliation for Ernesto Frieri breaking Paul Goldschmidt’s hand, the Pirates went 5-9 while he was on the DL from August 4 to 18. Extrapolating that over a whole month yields a 10-18 record, which is obviously not good. But if the Pirates could put up a 12-16 or better record, I would take the one month hit early in the season in order to try and get a rejuvenated McCutchen closer to 100%.

What would the outfield configuration be if McCutchen were out for a month? Jaff Decker would be the obvious callup, since he’s on the 40-man roster, but he’s on the DL himself. Technically, the Pirates don’t need to bring another outfielder up, as Rodriguez/Lambo/Hart could all fake it in the OF. But would the Pirates put Jose Tabata back on the 40-man by transferring Brandon Cumpton to the 60-day DL? Tabata is definitely in exile at Indy with only 48 at-bats so far. Maybe they would bring up the white-hot Steve Lombardozzi to act as another super-utility player.

Even though Marte would be the natural choice to man CF, with Polanco shifting to LF, I can imagine that the Pirates wouldn’t want to disrupt two players, so Polanco would probably play CF and Marte would stay in LF. The Rodriguez/Lambo/Hart/AAA callup would be the bouillabaisse in RF.

In terms of batting lineup, I would consider this lineup against right-handed pitching:

  1. Polanco (L), CF
  2. Marte (R), LF
  3. Harrison (R), 3B
  4. Walker (S), 2B
  5. Alvarez (L), 1B
  6. Rodriguez (R), RF
  7. Mercer (R), SS
  8. Cervelli (R), C

And for left-handed pitching:

  1. Marte (R), LF
  2. Mercer (R), SS (excellent splits against LHP, 889 OPS, 151 wRC+)
  3. Walker (S), 2B
  4. Hart (R), 1B
  5. Rodriguez (R), RF
  6. Harrison (R), 3B
  7. Polanco (L), CF
  8. Cervelli (R), C

Nothing would make me happier than for McCutchen to wake up tomorrow in St. Louis with a completely healthy knee, but that seems like wishful thinking. I would rather see the Pirates bite the bullet and resolve the McCutchen issue sooner than later.

About Kevin Creagh (139 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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