PITTSBURGH — The move, for the most part, went unnoticed.
Hurdle also shifted Adam Frazier from left field to center field and removed center fielder Andrew McCutchen from the game. The score was just 6-4 at the time in a game the Pirates would go on to lose 8-4 to the Washington Nationals.
Even though he is off to an awful start this season, it was surprising to see a player of McCutchen’s stature double-switched out of a two-run game. Furthermore, it meant Hurdle was more comfortable with having a pair of first basemen (Osuna and John Jaso) flank a utility infielder (Frazier) in what had to be the worst outfield defensive alignment in franchise history.
The first inclination was to think that McCutchen was suffering from a nagging injury and Hurdle wanted to give him a rest. That was not the case, though, and the double switch did not sit well with some of McCutchen’s teammates.
One of them texted “do u believe that s**t?” to me about an hour after the game.
It was the latest chapter in the increasingly strained relationship between the Pirates and McCutchen — all of which have been of the team’s doing.
The problems started in early December when the Pirates’ desire to trade McCutchen during the Winter Meetings became very public. However, the Pirates were not able to pull off a deal during those four days in National Harbor, Md.
McCutchen then spent an awkward weekend answering questions about his future from the media and fans during PirateFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
More awkwardness followed on Super Bowl Sunday when the Pirates issued a press release announcing McCutchen would be moving to right field from center field as part of an outfield shuffle that included Gregory Polanco shifting to left field from right field and Gold Glove-winner Starling Marte moving from left field to center field.
Though McCutchen had spent the first eight years of his career since debuting in 2009 as exclusively as a center, there was much speculation that the Pirates would make the move. His minus-28 defensive runs saved last season was the worst mark of any player at any positon in the major leagues.
The news of the change certainly didn’t beat out the New England Patriots’ stunning come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons as the main sports news of the day. Yet it was just a strange time to announce it.
The way it was announced was also odd. In 30 years of covering the major leagues, it’s the first time I remember a team issuing a press release about a position change.
Granted, McCutchen isn’t the player he was in a four-year span from 2012-15 when he finished in the top five in the National League MVP voting each year, including winning the award in 2013. He is hitting just .206 with six home runs and a .670 OPS in 38 games.
Back in center field after Marte received an 80-game suspension last month for violating Major League Baseball’s performance enhancing drug policy, McCutchen is a defensive liability. He isn’t a factor on the bases anymore, either, with just three stolen bases this year.
Nevertheless, McCutchen’s contributions to the franchises have been immense. He helped turn the Pirates from a sad sack that set a North American major professional team sports record with 20 consecutive losing seasons form 1993-2013 into one that made three straight postseason appearances from 2013-15.
McCutchen has been an outstanding ambassador for the Pirates, on and off the field. He has never embarrassed the organization and been ejected only once in 1,228 career games.
McCutchen’s time in Pittsburgh is almost over.
The Pirates surely won’t exercise their $14.75-million contract option on him for 2018, meaning he would become a free agent after this season. Most likely, the Pirates will ship him to another team before the July 31 deadline for making trades without securing waivers on players.
As he heads toward the door, the Pirates owe McCutchen at least a modicum of respect for all that he has done for them.