Can the Pirates be the Pirates without ’Cutch?

Most fairweather fans and national baseball writers can agree that the Pittsburgh Pirates became legitimate contenders by playing in the 2013 Wild Card Game.

By defeating the Cincinnati Reds on Oct. 1, 2013, the Pirates proved they belonged at the top of Major League Baseball.

Personally, I felt that the Pirates “made it” earlier in that season. Say, May or June.

Then, inside the team store at PNC Park, one could find multiple T-shirt jerseys with various players’ names on the back. I was actually taken aback when I saw a Clint Barmes No. 12 shirt available for purchase. Barmes was an everyday shortstop for the team, yet hardly a true impact player.

Let alone, a fan favorite. Barmes was, however, a veteran presence and a solid clubhouse leader.

Though he wasn’t all that marketable of a player.

Still, fans who valued those skills that made him a starter could show their support of Barmes by buying his T-shirt.

Barmes is no longer with the Pirates, although he was invited to pitcher Gerrit Cole’s wedding two weeks ago in California. He actually retired from the game last season.

Other players who have come and gone from the Pirates, like Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin, Charlie Morton and Neil Walker, were on that 2013 Wild Card team. Their T-shirt jerseys were hot-sellers back then, and even through the 2015 season.

One player has withstood the test of time and his items were being sold in high volume back in 2009.

Of course, that’s No. 22, Andrew McCutchen.

Pittsburgh fans have been buying his jerseys, maybe even moreso than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, two other longtime staples in the Steel City.

But will McCutchen’s merchandise be available for the remainder of 2016 and early parts of 2017? Probably, but they could be at a heavily discounted price.

Rumors have been swirling all offseason about McCutchen’s status in Pittsburgh. Will he be traded in the next few months? Will he be shopped around at next year’s trade deadline?

Well, he was already courted to other teams at last year’s trade deadline. It looked like he could have been packaged in a deal to the Washington Nationals, along with closing pitcher Mark Melancon. Melancon, another key figure on that special 2013 team, was dealt to the Nationals, in exchange for young pitcher Felipe Rivero (who could be the Pirates’ closer this coming season) and Taylor Hearn (who could be in the starting rotation by 2018).

The trade of Melancon may have sent the wrong message to the team, because it was right around the time when the Pirates were still competing for the division title with the Cubs. At the end of July, Pittsburgh was certainly in the running for another Wild Card berth. Had McCutchen left the club, it would have deflated the current players even more, and fans would have revolted even moreso than they did during the stretch of 20-consecutive losing seasons.

McCutchen wasn’t McCutchen, though. Last season, in 153 games, McCutchen had a .256 batting average with 24 home runs and 79 RBIs. They are decent numbers; above average, actually. Yet, they weren’t quite up to McCutchen’s well-established statistics. He did strike out 143 times, which was the most in his eight MLB seasons.

That’s not enough to give up on him, though.

McCutchen recently turned 30 and he is still in the thick of his prime playing days. He will turn it around. He just may not get the opportunity to do so with the organization that drafted him in the first round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

The Pirates will be smart with their handling of McCutchen. They won’t sell low. It will take an offer that blows away general manager Neal Huntington. Reports have already stated that the Seattle Mariners have inquired about McCutchen.

Any offer was shot down immediately.

The Pirates will need major-league ready pieces in exchange for McCutchen. A starting pitcher and first baseman should be at the top of any sort of wish list.

The Pirates do have a blooming rotation with Cole as the ace and a stable of young guns, which includes Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl.

The lack of a dominant starting pitcher doomed the Pirates in 2016. They can’t go without that in 2017.

Talking about a first baseman, Josh Bell will be in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future. But at what position?

He is most comfortable in a corner outfield spot, though he played many games at first to close out the 2016 season. That hasn’t been the best fit as Bell still has trouble fielding the position. If McCutchen is traded, Gold Glove winner Starling Marte can move over to center field and Bell can go back to his natural spot in right field, as Gregory Polanco shifts to left.

Then, a newly acquired player can take over first base, with John Jaso seeing time as well.

The Pirates might just be a better all-around team without McCutchen. But just like McCutchen wasn’t McCutchen in 2016, the Pirates won’t be the Pirates without him in 2017.

McCutchen brought a new sense of legitimacy to the Pirates. He was responsible for the impeccable turnaround over the past five seasons and he brought the club an MVP honor in 2013, the team’s first since Barry Bonds in 1992.

With or without McCutchen, the Pirates will move on. The team will continue playing in the Most Beautiful Ballpark in America and other players will step in and make a name for themselves.

Maybe that will be Austin Meadows, another young, five-tool centerfielder who is rising through the minor league ranks.

A Meadows’ jersey might be the top-seller in Pittsburgh in five years.

After all, we as fans basically just cheer for a jersey. The players inside them may change, but the colors remain the same.

Just like our fandom.

(Peaslee is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @HSDTsports)

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