Andrew McCutchen remains face of the Pirates, but for how long?

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Andrew McCutchen's general manager, Neal Huntington, says "there was more smoke than fire" pouring out of those McCutchen trade rumors this winter. And you don't have to be a fire chief in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh to think, well, he ought to know.

But that would probably come as a surprise to the Washington Nationals, who thought they were deep into talks to acquire McCutchen in December.

It might even come as a shock to McCutchen himself, considering how much time he spent on Google and Twitter over the winter, monitoring trade rumblings to figure out which coast of Florida he'd need to fly to for spring training.

But when McCutchen rolled into spring training Friday, he was still the official face of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And he pronounced himself pretty ecstatic about it. Nevertheless, the question is: for how much longer?

So why would the Pirates want to trade this man, either at the trade deadline or next winter, if they really believe that last season -- the worst of his career -- was essentially a fluke? Here are three reasons, just for starters:

  • He's 30 years old, with one guaranteed year and one team-friendly club option left on his contract.

  • Within just the last year, his team has traded two other clubhouse pillars -- Mark Melancon and Neil Walker -- as their free-agent clocks started ticking so loudly they rattled walls in the executive suite.

  • And, finally, let's face it. No matter how you do the math, the odds of McCutchen spending more years as a Pirate than, say, Willie Stargell are basically none to none.

Even if the Pirates truly believe, as manager Clint Hurdle said Friday, that McCutchen is still "The Man" on this team, his team still plays in Pittsburgh. Which is not to be confused with, oh, the Hollywood Hills.

So when McCutchen says, even after all he lived through this winter, that he'd love to be a Pirate for life, his GM has no choice but to smile -- and then point out an important distinction we all need to keep in mind.

"The rest of his career and the rest of his contract are two very different perspectives," Huntington said, pointedly. "Andrew has been very public about the fact that he'd love to be a Pirate for the rest of his life. We've said that we would love him to be a Pirate for the rest of his life. The challenge is, there's that little thing called financial common ground."

Allow us to translate that last part for you: If Andrew McCutchen bounces back and plays like a star for the next two seasons, he's going to want to step into the free-agent batter's box and get paid. And if you're wandering the free-agent wilderness in search of millions and gazillions of dollars, you might notice that all roads do not lead to Pittsburgh.

So that's just sheer economic reality. And economic reality rears its unsightly head around the Pirates every day of every year. So if this juggernaut isn't contending this July, where do you think McCutchen will finish the season? If you polled 29 other GMs, there's an excellent chance all 29 would answer: not Pittsburgh.

But Huntington says that's not as safe an assumption as know-it-alls like us make it out to be. If you take a close look at their recent history, he says, the Pirates have actually kept more prospective free agents -- Russell Martin, A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano, etc. -- than they've traded.

"Occasionally, we've traded a player like Walker or Melancon," Huntington said. "So that's become the narrative, that we're always going to trade those players before their contract expires. But that's just not the case."

So maybe McCutchen gets dealt away next July or next January. Maybe he doesn't. But either way, he has just finished living through an offseason in which he became a human trade rumor in December, then got nudged out of his favorite position on earth, center field, in January. And you know what that means?

"Andrew has been very public about the fact that he'd love to be a Pirate for the rest of his life. We've said that we would love him to be a Pirate for the rest of his life. The challenge is, there's that little thing called financial common ground." Pirates GM Neal Huntington

It means he's still trying to sort out exactly where he stands in a place where he always felt loved and respected.

So naturally, on the first day of what might be his final spring training as a Pirate, he was asked if it feels "different" now to put on the only uniform he has ever worn. He responded by rolling out a saying that has floated around his head for a long time:

"Frustration," he said, "is built by unmet expectations.

"So when you get frustrated by certain things, it's because you had an expectancy of something. But who's to say that it always goes that way? Nine times out of 10, life -- it never goes that way.

"The dream," McCutchen continued, "was to be in a Pirate uniform, playing center field until I can't play it anymore, winning countless World Series over and over, MVPs and All-Stars and all that stuff. You know, that's great. But reality hits. And it's not necessarily always going to be that way."

In the last year, however, reality hasn't just thrown him a jab here and a jab there. The rumors and the move to right field among other things, clearly have left him feeling, at times, as if he just got walloped with a series of haymakers. And he has let very little of the hurt surface publicly -- until now.

He felt "disrespected" at times last season, people familiar with his thinking say. And he hinted at just some of the reasons Friday.

When the Pirates moved him out of the No. 3 hole in their lineup and hit him second early in the year, they had sound, data-based reasons. But McCutchen wasn't a fan of that brainstorm, finally got shifted back to the three-slot after hitting .237/.317/.402 in 61 games in the two-hole and summed up his feelings Friday by announcing: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Then there was the Pirates' decision to play him much more shallow in center field than he had in the past. There were signs he was uncomfortable and skeptical from the beginning. And on Friday, he described those issues this way:

"In this game, it's all about being comfortable. And sometimes, when you're uncomfortable, you're trying to be comfortable. And a lot of times, that takes the focus away from what's most important. And that's making the play.

He took ownership of the issues that resulted, saying at one point that "I needed to make that adjustment" and saying at another point that he probably should have been more vocal in telling the coaching staff how out of sync he truly felt. But when he was asked if that could be an issue this year in right field, he said: "I'm going to play comfortable [in right]. I learned from that mistake last year."

But maybe those issues weren't as isolated or disconnected as they might appear. There have been rumblings that they were part of a much bigger picture -- a clubhouse that began to question whether the Pirates were getting so deep into their rich trove of data, that they were neglecting the human side of running a baseball team.

If that's a lingering issue -- whether for this clubhouse as a whole or for McCutchen in particular -- that's where the charisma and people skills of the manager come in.

The Pirates' front office has long depended on Hurdle to make sure the human side of baseball didn't get trampled by the sabermetric side. And the manager sounds well aware this spring that he has a star outfielder whose thoughts need to be heard. A lot.

"I need to sit and listen to the thoughts and explain the logic that's part of the mindset," Hurdle said, "because there's a set of human analytics that are real big, that you really need to embrace as well, with any player. The analytics of the game -- everybody is starting to understand those better. ... However, it's always going to be about relationships."

The bond Hurdle and McCutchen have carved out over their six years together needs to be strong enough now to heal any lingering hurt and get McCutchen back to stardom. And Hurdle sounds confident that's exactly where this is leading.

"I do believe that the six years we've put together got us to the point where we could have the conversations that we had over the winter," Hurdle said, "and get to the point, at the end of the day, where we came to an agreement. We don't always have to agree on everything. But we're not going to disagree walking out the door. We agreed to disagree on some thoughts. However, we're going to lock arms and walk forward together, for the betterment of the ballclub."

No one -- not even McCutchen -- disputes that Starling Marte is a better defensive center fielder than the former Gold Glove winner he's displacing out there. But that doesn't mean the old center fielder in town won't be standing next to him in right, thinking about all those expectancies in Pittsburgh that might never come true.

"I've played eight seasons," McCutchen said. "And I still haven't had a World Series yet. I hope, in 2017, to be able to make a push for that. And that's just one example. But I just use that as life. And life doesn't always go the way you plan it to go.

"Sometimes," said the face of the Pirates, "you have detours that you have to take. But in the end, it's always going to get you where you need to go."