Kevin Gorman: Pirates trading Andrew McCutchen is a slap in the face
Andrew McCutchen wasn't just the face of the franchise. He was the catalyst of cataclysmic change for the Pirates.
The All-Star center fielder was at the centerpiece of their transformative turnaround after two decades of losing with three consecutive playoffs.
Cutch helped make summers fun again in Pittsburgh, bringing fans back to PNC Park by leading the Pirates into contention.
And they gave him away.
The Pirates traded McCutchen, their heart and soul for nine seasons, to the San Francisco Giants for a pair of prospects and international pool money.
That they did this just two years after their owner, Bottom-Line Bob Nutting, said he wished he could make McCutchen a Pirate For Life is a betrayal.
"I don't think it was lip service at all," Nutting said. "We have great respect for Andrew. In a perfect world, we would love to have him here. As a practical matter, we have to do the right thing for the franchise at this point to bring as much talent as we possibly can to get us back into playoff contention."
Through forced smiles, the Pirates tried to put a positive spin on a deal that will go down as Pittsburgh's most unpopular since the Penguins sent Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals.
Combined with sending ace pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros on Saturday, the Pirates shed $21.5 million in salary and signaled that they were starting over.
Pirates fans knew this day was coming but still weren't ready for the slap in the face. Nor did it help that Pirates sent McCutchen to the same team that Barry Bonds left them for 25 years ago.
Worse yet, Nutting said that "in a perfect world," he would have loved to keep Cutch, but "the realities of baseball right now don't allow that to be possible."
Nor do the realities of Nutting's ownership.
That's the hard truth here, that the Pirates want to control payroll and create financial flexibility by paying only players who are outperforming their contracts.
McCutchen was set to make $14.75 million this season, and the front office figured, after 78- and 75- win seasons, that the Pirates could finish fourth again without Cutch and Cole.
"Andrew McCutchen has become the household name in Pittsburgh when it comes to baseball," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We understand that there's some angry people out there right now because Andrew was their favorite player. … This was not going to be a popular decision."
Huntington called it an "oddity" that a superstar would spend his entire career with the same team, the way that Cal Ripken did with the Baltimore Orioles.
"The nature of professional sports in this day and age," he said, "is that players come and players go."
The financial realities of Major League Baseball differ from those of the NFL and NHL, which is why Ben Roethlisberger will spend his entire career as a Steeler and Sidney Crosby will do the same as a Penguin. But the Steelers and Penguins also value a superstar in a way the Pirates don't.
The Pirates benefited from signing McCutchen to a bargain — a six-year, $51.5-million contract — but never had anything but informal conversations about extending the five-time All-Star and 2013 NL MVP.
"There's no question that hockey, football and baseball have very different landscapes," Nutting said.
"We never used the challenges that we have as an excuse but we're also realistic to face them. It would be delusional to not understand that we have limitations that we absolutely have to make this team better."
Here's the problem: Trading McCutchen — and Cole, for that matter — didn't make the Pirates better. Not this summer, anyway.
The reality is, McCutchen was still their best position player and Cole their best starting pitcher.
So, the Pirates got worse.
But they made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in paying players on the wrong side of 30, even one catcher Francisco Cervelli called "the king of Pittsburgh" in a tweet.
In a farewell, McCutchen called Pittsburgh "My Home. My Fan. My City."
Nutting called it "one of the most emotionally agonizing decisions that we have had to make in my tenure."
Finding a new face of the franchise will be even harder, as the Pirates proved that life with them has limits.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.