McCutchen gives Pirates respectability

BY foxsports • March 6, 2012

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds was their left fielder. Any discussion of their 2012 season must begin there.

Pittsburgh sports fans have watched their teams win the Stanley Cup and Lombardi Trophy (twice) since the Pirates last finished above .500 in 1992. That was five presidential elections ago. The Pirates went 0-for-8 during the Clinton administration, 0-for-8 during the Bush administration and are 0-for-3 with President Obama in office.

An 82-win season might prompt the Pittsburgh city fathers to arrange a modest boat parade down the Monongahela. But team officials and players insist that a .506 winning percentage isn’t the purpose of their labors at quaint McKechnie Field this spring.

Besides, “Let’s Win More Than We Lose” would be a lousy T-shirt slogan.

“I’ve never thought about 82 wins,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting told me Tuesday afternoon. And considering the team’s announcement a few moments before, he could be taken at his word.

For too long, the Pirates had searched for ways to squeeze out a few more wins from 75-, 78- or 79-win teams. They spent desperately rather than discerningly, and wasted millions were the result.

Now, at last, Pirates fans can click “purchase” on a ticket to PNC Park and meditate on four of the most important words in baseball: My team gets it.

The Pirates signed center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension.

Raise the Jolly Roger.

“We’re ready to take this step — that’s the most satisfying piece,” Nutting said. “So much has gone into developing the foundation that has put us into the position to make a $51 million commitment to a player we love and respect — and who, frankly, believes in the team. He wants to be here.”

For that, the Pirates ought to be grateful. McCutchen, only 25, is one of the best young players in baseball — a Gold Glove-caliber defender coming off a 23-homer, 89-RBI, 23-steal season. Ryan Doumit, who left Pittsburgh as a free agent after last year, considers McCutchen second only to Matt Kemp among National League center fielders.

“There’s nothing Cutch can’t do on a baseball field,” said Doumit, now with the Twins. “I’ve never seen anybody accelerate as quickly as he does.”

The guaranteed portion of the deal runs through 2017, and the Pirates hold an option for 2018. So, the club has three years of control beyond when McCutchen would have otherwise entered free agency.

In every sense, McCutchen is the right player, at the right time, at the right price.

The Pirates selected McCutchen in the first round of the 2005 amateur draft, and he’s professed strong loyalty to them ever since. I remember interviewing him during the 2010 season — en route to 105 losses, the Pirates’ worst showing since 1952 — and he refused to criticize the organization or anyone in it.

For McCutchen, who turned pro as he graduated from Fort Meade (Fla.) High School, the Pirates are his alma mater and employer rolled into one.

“We’re doing things the right way,” McCutchen said. “We don’t need to say, ‘We used to be.’ We’re different now. It’s changing. It’s for the better.

“I don’t care what a player says, the team that drafts you is where you want to be. I was drafted by the Pirates. This is where I want to be. I know nothing more. If I was to go to another team, I’d have to start all over again. This is where I wanted to be from the beginning. They believed in me when I was out of high school. I’m glad I’m here.”

Now for a quick reality check: Nutting has no plans to make George Steinbrenner’s gaudiest payrolls seem austere. Last year, the Pirates’ Opening Day payroll of $45 million was the smallest in the division by a substantial margin and the third-lowest in the majors, according to the USA Today salary database. (The Pirates added to that figure with the trade-deadline acquisitions of Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee.) This year’s number will be around $50 million.

In relative terms, the Pirates have been much more aggressive in acquiring amateur talent — which is precisely the way it should be for a rebuilding, small-market club.

“Over the last four years, we’ve invested more in the draft than anybody in baseball,” general manager Neal Huntington said Tuesday.

Of the franchise’s four largest amateur signing bonuses, as ranked by Baseball America, three came from the last two drafts: right-handers Gerrit Cole ($8 million) and Jameson Taillon ($6.5 million) and outfielder Josh Bell ($5 million).

Huntington estimated that the Pirates spent close to $20 million on amateur players in 2011. That number will come down this year because of restrictions in the new collective bargaining agreement, but Nutting said he intends to spend up to the limit for amateur signings.

Tuesday, though, was about McCutchen. He accepted congratulations from Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter as he advanced around the bases while going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s 7-4 win over the Yankees. (McCutchen never reached third, so he missed chatting with Alex Rodriguez.)

The Pirates will never be the Yankees. McCutchen won’t rival Jeter as a pop-culture icon if he spends the remainder of his career in Pittsburgh. That’s OK. Far more important than Q Scores, the Pirates are showing the self-awareness they once lacked. With McCutchen, the Pirates drafted the correct player, developed him properly in the minors and then showed the wherewithal to retain him as a franchise cornerstone.

To the contemporary observer, that’s Baseball 101. But for a franchise that struggled to make the routine play for two decades, Tuesday’s press release was one worth framing.