PITTSBURGH — Andrew McCutchen’s spot in center field was the fulcrum around which the Pittsburgh Pirates swung from laughingstock to contenders. Now it belongs to Starling Marte after McCutchen gracefully opted to pass the torch at his favorite position to pick up the torch at another: right field.
The five-time All-Star and 2013 NL MVP will arrive in Bradenton, Florida for spring training as the starting right fielder as part of a shuffling that saw Marte — a two-time Gold Glove winner — slide over to center and Gregory Polanco flip from right to left. That means McCutchen will patrol right for the first time in the majors, working in front of the 21-foot high Clemente Wall at PNC Park named for arguably the greatest player in franchise history.
McCutchen certainly seems at peace with the decision, sharing a picture of Clemente on his Twitter feed shortly after manager Clint Hurdle made the decision official.
It should make for a relatively drama-free six weeks in Florida, startling considering Pittsburgh spent the off-season exploring trade options for the player that’s served as the cornerstone of the team’s renaissance. It was perhaps the most significant move of all during an off-season that saw the Pirates do little on the open market to address the holes that popped up during a disappointing 2016 in which the club failed to make the postseason for the first time in four years.
Outside of re-signing free agent pitcher Ivan Nova and bringing in reliever Daniel Hudson, the Pirates will search for answers internally as they try to close the canyon that developed last season between themselves and the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. A quick look at what to keep an eye out for between now and opening day in Boston on April 3.
NEW LOOK: Nova was impressive during his two-month stint with the Pirates after arriving in a trade deadline deal with the New York Yankees. After testing free agency, Nova opted to stick around for a relatively inexpensive three-year, $26 million deal. Hudson will give the back end of the bullpen some depth. The most significant departure came when valuable utility man Sean Rodriguez signed with Atlanta. His defense (and 2016 power surge) will be missed.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: 1B Josh Bell showed signs of the power and the patience that made him one of the team’s top prospects, hitting .273 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in a 45-game audition last summer. He will be slowed early in camp while recovering from minor knee surgery but should be up to speed by the end of March barring a setback.
THEY’RE SET: As long as McCutchen remains in black and gold, the Pirates will continue to have one of baseball’s most dynamic outfields. The hope is he can bounce back from a career-worst .256 batting average. Marte was an All-Star for the first time last season and Polanco has the tools to reach the midsummer classic as he enters his third full season.
THEY’RE NOT: The back end of the rotation is as wide open as any in the majors. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova have the top three spots locked down but there’s a five-man free for all for the final two positions. Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams didn’t exactly distinguish themselves over a combined 22 starts, with Kuhl’s 4.20 ERA the best of the bunch. General manager Neal Huntington remains high on Drew Hutchison — acquired in the deal that sent starter Francisco Liriano to Toronto — but Hutchison has struggled as a starter. The most intriguing prospect may be Tyler Glasnow, who dominated at Triple-A Indianapolis but had trouble translating his stuff in seven major-league appearances.
ON DECK: The Pirates have shown a willingness to take chances with its rotation and not sticking to any preconceived notions when it comes to putting a rotation together. Last spring Juan Nicasio came out of nowhere to lock down a starting spot, though he was back in the bullpen by June. Expect Hutchison to be given every opportunity to land one of the two open spots with Kuhl perhaps the early front-runner to lock down the other, though if Glasnow looks like the guy who posted a 1.93 ERA in Indianapolis, he could be with the team when it heads north at the end of March.