Posted on: March 6, 2012 1:55 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2012 4:28 pm
BRADENTON, Fla -- Pirates owner Bob Nutting declared, "This is an exciting day for the Pittsburgh Pirates.'' And so it was. While the newly cost-conscious New York Yankees were practicing on the field behind them, the Pirates, dreadfully low in the spending and winning departments almost all of the past two decades, were announcing their $51.5-million contract for star outfielder Andrew McCutchen in a neat little area by their clubhouse beyond right field.
The Pirates are starting to show they mean business, doing things in recent months they hadn't done in a while, including spending serious money. They acquired semi-pricey veterans Derek Lee and Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline last July, imported A.J. Burnett and $13 million of his bloated contract (from said Yankees) on the eve of spring training, and now have signed off on the seceont largest contract in their history for the multitalented McCutchen. The Pirates, it is said, just could not chance losing McCutchen, who is their best player and also a very good player as well (one doesn't necessarily ensure the other).
My contract expert rates this as "a fair deal for both sides,'' though he did note that McCutchen hit .216 in the second half last season and has only one 20-homer season (also last year). It's a very similar deal to those given to two other young star outfielders, Justin Upton and Jay Bruce, and I'd rate McCutchen third in that group, with Upton first and Bruce second. But still a strong third.
As everyone in Pittsburgh knows, the Pirates haven't had a winning season since another young outfielder, Barry Bonds, left town following the 1992 season. So for all they've done the past few years in the way of draft and international signings (draftees Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie are the team's pitching future), and they spent a whopping $50 million in amateur talent since starting with No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez in 2008, everyone understands they had to seal the deal with McCutchen.
The move is rightly being applauded throughout the Pittsburgh area because it is another reminder the team is trying hard. Yet, even after all the good feeling here over the big deal, there are two questions: 1) Did the need to make a statement play a role in signing him? and 2) Was he signed because he's a great ballplayer or a great kid?
As for the first question, Nutting says no. "This signing is not done to make a statement,'' Nutting said. Pirates president Frank Coonelly said that statement signings may only be good for a day, and pointed out that spending this kind of money only for the intention of positive pub carries a great risk. Though of course, if they failed to lock up McCutchen, what would that say? This says they are committed to winning, so whether they intended it or not, a statement was made.
As for whether they signed a person or ballplayer, the main message seemed to be about what kind of young man McCutchen is. "This commitment is one we're willing to make because of the person he is,'' Nutting said in one of multiple statements made along those lines. Here's another, from GM Neal Huntington, "I'd like to thank Andrew's parents for raising such an outstanding person.''
All indications are that McCutchen is just an absolutely terrific kid (he even made a special trip over to say hello to the Pirates beat writers). But there is a danger if a team is paying for persona. There is a reason personality is sometimes cited as a consolation compliment.
Of course, for this deal to work he's going to have to do more than be pleasant to the fans and great in the community; he's going to have to perform on the field. McCutchen wound up hitting only .259 last year with 126 strikeouts, but he has posted consistent OPS marks in his career -- .836, .814 and then .820 last year. He's a very good player who's not yet great. The key is, he is only 25.
Pirates people talked about the type of player they hope he becomes. The reality is, he isn't a $51.5-million player yet. But they think he will be one day.
As we all know, previous Pirates regimes had a knack for giving big deals when they weren't warranted, including one infamous one to journeyman infielder Pat Meares. Their biggest contract ever was a $60 million six-year deal. That one went to Jason Kendall, a catcher who could hit for a high batting average at one time.
Pirates people figure this deal will pay off much better for them. On the day they signed Kendall, they also made a very big statement. And he didn't even have such a great personality.