Spring Training Preview Part 4—Andrew McCutchen & The World Baseball Classic

This is the North Shore Nine’s four-part Spring Training preview for 2017. We will break down the four biggest stories as the Pirates report to Bradenton this week to mark the beginning of a new season.

It has been an offseason to forget for the 2013 MVP winner, Andrew McCutchen. Not only has he had to deal with the rumors of being washed up after coming off his worst season, but he headlined the Winter Meetings in a potential mega trade with the Nationals and then had to face the fans and media days later at Pirates Fest when the trade didn’t happen. Combine all of that with the fact that he was told he will no longer be playing the only position he’s known in the MLB, and it’s a real reason to keep a close on him this spring.

I am not going to go into great lengths to inform you of Cutch’s 2016 numbers. His struggles have been well documented by us and every person who can fill up 140 characters on a certain blue colored app. It was a season I am sure he wishes he could have back. Many people looked at it was the beginning of a hard fall from grace. Others felt he was pressing too much. Regardless of the opinion you carry, there aren’t many people in Major League Baseball more determined and dedicated to their craft than Andrew McCutchen.

Andrew has handled all of the scrutiny the past year the only way he knows how – with class. After the trade rumors in D.C., he showed up to Pirates Fest and answered questions. After the change of position, he tweeted a pic of Roberto Clemente as to say no sweat, I will now get the opportunity to play a position held by one of the greatest players in Pirates history. He even today released a great letter to Pittsburgh you can read here at The Players Tribune. Now as we head into spring training, you can expect even more questions from the media about his mindset and thoughts on the past winter and his future with the Buccos.

Just like yourself reading this, Andrew McCutchen is human. Even though he has said and done all of the right things, it would be safe to assume he has a massive chip on his shoulder right now. In comes the World Baseball Classic.

On December 5, McCutchen confirmed that he would be playing for Team USA in the WBC. This excites me for a number of reasons. The first reason is the fact that he has something to help focus his attention off of the negativity. Of course spring training is approaching and showing up out of shape is a thing of the past, but the WBC games begin March 10 for Team USA and gives a reason to be in baseball shape about a month earlier than normal. It also gives Cutch about two weeks away from everything ‘Pittsburgh’ and get back to playing baseball among many of the best players in the world. This could help him take his attention away and get back to doing what he has done extremely well for so long.

The second reason I really like the idea of Cutch playing in the WBC is the fact that it could really help him with that chip on his shoulder. With many people doubting his skills for possibly the first time in his career, he gets the opportunity to show the world that Andrew McCutchen was once THE MAN on the cover of MLB The Show and his MVP skills are far from being diminished. It could really give him the extra boost of confidence and help him get that swag back (though it might be hard to say he lost his swag). Playing for Jim Leyland, while also playing alongside of Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Jones will surely keep it loose and interesting. It’s a perfect recipe to get back to the basics and back to playing the game with a free mind.

The third and last reason I am excited for this decision is a much more selfish reason. Andrew McCutchen has been a notorious slow starter when it comes to the MLB season. He is a career .285/.374/.479/.853 hitter in the majors. His April numbers, though, are far from his average. As a matter of fact, he has a lifetime slash of .255/.344/.423/.766 for April, which is 99 points less than his second lowest OPS of any other month. Why is my third and final reason selfish? Well, because it could potentially give Cutch an earlier opportunity to start seeing the ball well. Maybe, just maybe, it could help him get into his groove quicker and not start as sluggish to the 2017 season as he typically has done in the past. Sure, this is a bit of a stretch, but unlike many Spring Training games, there is much more meaning to the games being played in the WBC which leads to many more meaningful at-bats.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Andrew McCutchen will have a bounce back year. One that you can quantify is the fact that he ended last year displaying much of the offensive skills he’s shown for his career. His slash after the Atlanta benching was .284/.381/.471/.852, which you can compare to his career averages in the previous paragraph and see how remarkably spot on those last two months were. What will be interesting to see out of Cutch this spring is his move to right field.

It is the first time Cutch is playing another position other than center in his MLB career. While in the minors, he only played just 5 innings in right field while in Altoona back in 2006. Even with the athleticism Andrew possesses, you can assume there is going to be a learning curve to this change for him and also the other two outfielders. You can also say that this curve will come in multiple phases. This spring will give them the opportunity to adjust to the new angles and track the way the ball comes off of the bat in their perspective position. However, they’re not going to learn it within the dimensions of PNC Park until they head north in April. The other phase is them gelling as a cohesive group together in that outfield.

The WBC is something the excites me for McCutchen personally, but it is something that puts me at ease with the entire outfield. All three of the players will be involved in the classic. While Andrew will be playing for Team USA, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco will be playing for the Dominican Republic. Because of this, all three outfielders won’t spend a full spring adjusting to the new positions. As all three are moving to a new spot, it would be ideal to have them getting as much time together in the outfield this spring to prepare for the 2017 season. Unfortunately this will not be happening.

It is unknown which position these three players will be playing on their WBC teams either. It is quite possible that neither of them will be playing their new role while playing for the WBC and that is just more reason why this is our fourth part to the Spring Training preview.

List of Pirates playing in the World Baseball Classic this year:

*Andrew McCutchen

Dominican Republic
*Starling Marte
*Gregory Polanco
*Ivan Nova

*Eric Wood

*Luis Escobar

*Samuel Street

*Jared Lakind

*Francisco Cervelli

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