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Tim Benz: Andrew McCutchen making Pirates' decision to keep him or let him go easier

| Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, 5:57 p.m.
After hitting at a torrid pace in June and July, Andrew McCutchen has slumped in late summer.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
After hitting at a torrid pace in June and July, Andrew McCutchen has slumped in late summer.
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen looks up after taking a called strike during the first inning against the Cubs Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen looks up after taking a called strike during the first inning against the Cubs Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, at PNC Park.

Hey, Cutch. You're making this too easy on them.

If Andrew McCutchen still wants to be a “Pirate for life” — as he wrote in the “Player's Tribune” in February — he might need a significant bounceback in September.

McCutchen has a $14.5 million team option after this season. The Pirates likely want to keep McCutchen in Pittsburgh.

They also probably don't want to do so at that price.

And the center fielder might be helping his always-frugal front office.

McCutchen's ending to 2017 has been every bit as bad at the plate as his substandard beginning was.

After posting a .205/.273/.358 slashline through May 25, McCutchen got scalding hot in June and July as usual. In those months, he amassed OPS totals of 1.193 and 1.101.

Those marks are even above his lofty career June and July levels of .920 and .915.

But from Aug. 1 through Sept. 4, the 30-year-old veteran had a meager .289 OBP. In that stretch, he totaled 27 strikeouts vs. just 25 hits.

Only one of them was a home run.

If the organization needs a reason to avoid picking up the option, or trading him on the cheap, McCutchen is handing it to them.

The excuse for dealing McCutchen from a front office that always emphasizes the bottom line could be that a hot summer stretch might have been more of a false dawn than a resurgence after a subpar 2016.

Around the All-Star break, extending McCutchen's stay in Pittsburgh at least one more year seemed to be a fait accompli. Now there is reason to doubt again.

General manager Neal Huntington is trying to quell such speculation.

“There's nothing that Andrew McCutchen will or won't do in September that will impact our decision to exercise the option,” Huntington said Sunday. “Andrew McCutchen continues to be a great Major League player. And will be again.”

Note, he said “Major League player.” Not “Pittsburgh Pirate.”

That wasn't an accident.

Huntington didn't want to make a promise he may not keep. And that uncertainty was reinforced when Huntington also said: “Ninety-nine percent of teams wait until the last day that they have to make a decision on an option.”

If the decision won't be made until the last minute, and McCutchen's remaining performance this month isn't impacting the decision to pay the option, then what could impact the decision?

My guess would be if another team makes a trade offer worthy of the Pirates' attention this winter. And if no one does, maybe Huntington just pays McCutchen his $1 million buyout and saves $13.5 in process.

That's the cynical view.

The more optimistic perspective is that the Pirates have predetermined to keep Cutch. Falling attendance infers McCutchen no longer is an individual draw. But pushing him out the door for little-to-no return could result in remaining fans staying away out of anger.

McCutchen seems unfazed by the potential impact of his recent slump.

“I ain't worried about that. It's out of my control,” McCutchen said. “I ain't thinking about next year. I'm just thinking about right now. I need to focus on right now.”

His manager, Clint Hurdle, remains hopeful of a turnaround.

“I still see a man convicted in the box,” Hurdle said. “I've seen him square some balls up. There have been some balls hit hard.

“He's being pitched more carefully. And executed better than before.”

September was the best month of McCutchen's season a year ago (6 HR/22 RBI/.886 OPS). So perhaps there is still time to render this whole conversation moot.

But we're talking about an organization that just ditched its second-best relief pitcher for $600,000 because it never found a worthy trade partner. Isn't it, then, safe to assume they'll try a lot harder to find one in an effort to avoid paying a $14.5 million option for a player coming off two down years? That's if they are inclined to risk picking up the option at all.

On the one hand, fans of McCutchen should be happy to hear from Huntington that his recent swoon won't affect his decision-making process. On the other, maybe they should be concerned that a late bounceback won't help his case to stay.

For their sake, I hope McCutchen makes that decision as hard as possible for Huntington. But it gets easier with every passing strikeout.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on Steeler Nation Radio, Steeler Wire, KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM. He does play-by-play for Robert Morris hockey and WPIAL broadcasts on XFinity On Demand.

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