McCutchen takes over as face of Pirates' franchise
BRADENTON, Fla. — If it were up to the students at Linton Middle School in Penn Hills, there would be little doubt who is the Pirates' "Face of the Franchise."
During a winter caravan stop there in January, Ross Ohlendorf got noisy applause. There were claps and whoops when Evan Meek was introduced. The cheers got even louder when Andrew McCutchen took a bow.
But the crowd of 700 fifth- and sixth-graders saved its loudest, longest screams for ... the Pirate Parrot.
"He's been here longer than me," McCutchen said, grinning. "I can't compete with that."
A green, fuzzy mascot might be popular with school kids, but it doesn't qualify as a franchise cornerstone, someone with enough sizzle to captivate fans in Pittsburgh and around the country, with enough talent to garner the respect of his peers, with enough marketability to singlehandedly sell scores of tickets and T-shirts.
Someone like ... McCutchen.
"The face of a franchise is the guy you put on the cover of the media guide," said Andrew Fernbach, a public relations executive at DeGennaro Communications in New York. "If he's a pitcher, you buy tickets when it's his turn in the rotation. If he's a position player, you make sure you're not in line at the concessions when he's at bat. And from a marketing standpoint, he's the guy you sign to an endorsement deal if money is no object."
"(McCutchen) is the No. 1 guy now," said former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen, a special instructor in spring training camp who interacts with every player on the club. "He's got talent and personality. He's a good guy. This is his team."
Ryan Doumit made his major-league debut in 2005, the summer McCutchen was drafted with the 11th overall pick. After seeing players come and go during the past few seasons, Doumit said McCutchen stands out.
"McCutchen been our best player the last couple of years," Doumit said. "He's earned the right to walk with swagger. He's a pretty special kid."
McCutchen has a .286 batting average with 28 homers, 110 RBI and 55 stolen bases in 262 games in the majors. Baseball America named him its 2009 rookie of the year. The MLB Network recently rated him the game's best active center fielder.
"He has All-Star potential," said Jim Duquette, former general manager of the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles.
Before outfielder Matt Diaz signed this past winter with the Pirates, he played five seasons for Atlanta. When the Braves game-planned for the Pirates, Diaz said, they focused on stopping McCutchen.
"Every night, he's going to do something to help the team, whether it's steal a big base, hit a big homer, bunt for a hit or take away three runs in the outfield," Diaz said. "He's capable at all aspects of the game, and that's really rare. A quality player."
When he's around McCutchen, Diaz is reminded of the Braves' Jason Heyward, one of last year's rookie phenoms.
"Very unassuming, very well-spoken," Diaz said. "And very highly regarded by his teammates."
The fans at PNC Park give him lots of love, too. But McCutchen is gaining a following beyond Western Pennsylvania.
"In this New Yorker's opinion, Andrew McCutchen is the obvious choice to be the face of the Pirates," Fernbach said. "I'm in a pretty competitive National League-only fantasy league, and I'm hard pressed to name anyone else on the (Pirates)."
With his outgoing personality and quick smile, McCutchen figures prominently in the team's marketing plan. Jerseys bearing his name and uniform number flew off the racks last year at local stores.
"He's a legitimate 30 (homer)-30 (steals) threat for the next decade," said Will Carroll of SI.com. "If you're a 12-year-old kid in Pittsburgh, whose jersey would you buy?"
Taryn Orth, assistant manager at The Pittsburgh Fan, a sports apparel store across the street from PNC Park, said Roberto Clemente is the best seller among Pirates merchandise. When it comes to current players, though, McCutchen makes the cash register ring.
"We have some (Pedro) Alvarez and Doumit shirts, but those don't sell as well," Orth said. "McCutchen is pretty much it. We don't carry a lot of different Pirates players shirts. We usually just order for the players we think will be most popular and do the best."
McCutchen gear was most popular early last season at Pirates Clubhouse Stores. But toward the end of the year, Neil Walker shirts and Alvarez jerseys sold briskly.
While acknowledging McCutchen's popularity, Pirates chief marketing officer Lou DiPaoli said the team won't market just one player.
"Baseball is such a team game that we're never going to put all our eggs in one basket," DiPaoli said. "It's not Player X. It's Players A, B, C, D and E. We market everybody equally as a group."
McCutchen, who debuted June 4, 2009, was the first of team's highly touted "next wave" of prospects to reach the majors. Last season, Walker, Alvarez and Jose Tabata were called up and claimed starting jobs.
Any one of those three could be considered a potential Face of the Franchise. But none has McCutchen's total package — not yet, at least.
"If Pedro Alvarez turns out to be the player that I think he'll be, then he could be that, too," Duquette said. "Alvarez seems to have the makings of a leader in the clubhouse — maybe not verbally, though he is a well-spoken kid, but through his actions."
Could Alvarez someday eclipse McCutchen as the Face• Perhaps. Alvarez is more of a pure power hitter than McCutchen and was more heralded as a draft pick.
Personality and talent aside, there's another factor that will determine the length of McCutchen's tenure as the face.
Not since Jason Kendall in the late 1990s have the Pirates had a young player with McCutchen's star power. Kendall had an eight-year run in Pittsburgh before his price tag became too much for the small-budget club.
How long will McCutchen last?
With just one year, 123 days in service time, McCutchen won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. The Pirates could push that back by giving McCutchen a multiyear contract.
General manager Neal Huntington hasn't ruled out offering McCutchen a big contract. But as players similar to McCutchen — such as Cincinnati's Jay Bruce (six years, $51 million) and Arizona's Justin Upton (six years, $51.25 million) — are locked up by their teams, the Pirates continue to wait.
"If the Pirates are serious about getting better, they have to sign guys like McCutchen to long-term deals," Carroll said. "The fact that they haven't done that yet with him makes me suspicious."
The longer the Pirates stall, the higher the price will climb to sign McCutchen.
So will the pressure from fans who don't want to see their favorite player, the most productive guy on the team, leave town.Additional Information:
Here are other faces associated with the Pirates:
Freddy Sanchez • Sanchez captivated baseball in 2006 by going from bench player to NL batting champ. His average never again reached .344 and injuries robbed him of playing time, but Sanchez remained a fan favorite in Pittsburgh until July 2009, when he was traded to the Giants.
Jason Kendall • A first-round pick in 1992, Kendall was the Opening Day starter in each of the nine years (1996-2004) he played for the Pirates. Kendall's gritty, all-out style compensated for his defensive shortcomings. He was traded to the Oakland A's after the 2004 season.
Barry Bonds • Bonds epitomized the swagger and electricity of the teams that won the NL East from 1990-92. His postseason swoons also matched the Pirates' three straight flops in the NLCS. He remained a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh after bolting as a free agent.
Dave Parker • A link to the glory days of the Fam-a-lee, Parker's time with the Pirates extended into the early 1980s. His legacy as a fearsome slugger was tainted by admitted cocaine use. After Parker signed with the Reds as a free agent in 1984, the Pirates went on to three straight sixth-place finishes.
Willie Stargell • 'Pops' was the game's top home-run hitter in 1971 and toward the end of his tenure became the heart and soul of the 1979 World Champs. He played his entire 21-year career in Pittsburgh and worked for the Pirates as a coach and front-office consultant.
Roberto Clemente • Superstar: Clemente got MVP votes in 12 of his final 13 seasons. Humanitarian: He was killed in a plane crash Dec. 31, 1972 while flying supplies to earthquake victims. Clemente arguably always will be the overriding face of the Pirates franchise.
Bill Mazeroski • One mighty swing of the bat in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series propelled Maz to legendary status. Before that, however, he already was revered for his sparking defense and down-to-earth personality.