PITTSBURGH — Andrew McCutchen could have chosen to return to Pittsburgh out of sentimentality. Out of convenience. Out of sheer financial good sense.
And while the outfielder can appreciate the symmetry of returning to the club he helped define during its brilliant if relatively brief return to relevance a decade ago, his decision to come back to the Pirates on Friday had little to do with history.
“I want to win, plain and simple,” McCutchen said after signing a one-year, $5 million deal to serve as the voice of wisdom on a club brimming with youth. “I want to win. Specifically, I want to win here. ”
Wearing a bright blue suit and with his wife Maria and three children sitting nearby, McCutchen said he believes the franchise where he rose to stardom in the early 2010s is far closer to contention than the group he joined as the dreadlocked blur of a rookie centerfielder in 2009.
Pittsburgh lost 99 and 105 games in his first two seasons. And while the Pirates lost 100 last year, McCutchen thinks the team he’ll join in spring training is well ahead of where the franchise was at during his career’s nascent stages.
“I feel like if this team was going to lose 100 games, if I felt that, I wouldn’t just want to come back,” he said. “I feel like this is a team that’s really special and I feel like I can be very helpful and beneficial and be impactful on the ballclub.”
McCutchen returns to a ballpark adorned with pictures of him celebrating with his teammates during happier times. The Pirates also have added pitcher Rich Hill and first baseman Carlos Santana as experienced voices to a youth-laden roster.
“Andrew used the word ‘belief’ and that’s such a good and important word in where we are,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “Because belief comes through the reps, the experience, the seeing someone else do it, and maybe hearing from someone say, “Hey, you can do this too.’ Good teams believe in themselves.”
Something McCutchen saw firsthand while leading the Pirates to three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15 after two decades of losing. He served as the fulcrum of a group that repaired the franchise’s relationship with its long-suffering fan base. His electric smile, charisma and his dynamic play gave the club a swagger and an identity it lacked since Barry Bonds bolted for San Francisco in December 1992.
Even with McCutchen serving as an All-Star fixture and winning the 2013 National League MVP, Pittsburgh never made it past the Division Series during its postseason run. The Pirates traded McCutchen to San Francisco in January 2018.
Yet even as he bounced from the Giants to the New York Yankees to Philadelphia to Milwaukee, he kept his offseason home in Pittsburgh. He always envisioned pulling on the No. 22 jersey that remains among the most popular at PNC Park.
McCutchen began communicating with Pirates owner Bob Nutting after hitting .237 with 17 home runs and 69 RBIs for Milwaukee last season.
“I don’t look forward to just playing this year and being done,” McCutchen said. “I want to continue to keep playing and to have the chance this year to come back, is special.”
McCutchen primarily was a designated hitter in Milwaukee, though Cherington still considers McCutchen a “positive” defender.
There’s a level of uncertainty on how things will shake out, particularly with starting centerfielder Bryan Reynolds requesting a trade last month.
McCutchen’s contract is filled with performance bonuses, including $250,000 for winning another MVP, $150,000 for finishing second in the voting and $100,000 for third. He would earn $50,000 for making the All-Star team or winning World Series MVP, $75,000 for a Silver Slugger and $25,000 each for League Championship Series MVP or a Gold Glove.
The odds of McCutchen reaching any of them this year are remote. Yet in a way, they’re sort of beside the point. He wants his second act with the Pirates to be as impactful as the first.
He knows how to win in Pittsburgh. And unlike his first time around, he can bring sons Steel and Armani and daughter Ave Maria to a place that means a lot to their father.
“I get to show my kids that this is part of who I was and part of who I am,” he said. “And they get to see that and get to feel it. It won’t just be a story I tell them one day.”