The Pirates’ six-year, $51.5 million extension for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, expected to be announced tomorrow, probably was not the colossal step for the franchise that most will immediately think.
But it still was big, and the reverberations will be felt for quite a while.
Let’s start with the “not as big” part: For years now, the general misconception about McCutchen’s status is that he was constantly on the edge of leaving through free agency. Emailers, tweeters, talk-show callers all fussed over signing McCutchen right away so he doesn’t leave. This, of course, was wrong. The Pirates entered this year owning McCutchen’s rights through arbitration for the next four seasons.
That’s why neither side treated these year-plus talks with any real urgency until they were completed. They often went months a time without even peripheral communication.
So, the real issue here is the two years beyond that, plus the 2018 club option worth $14.75 million.
Therein lies the prize.
Sports executives call these “years of control,” and they love them. The team knows it can have the player if it wants, and it knows way in advance how to set its budget. If you don’t think that has value, ask the Penguins’ Ray Shero. He’s been building his ultra-talented roster off that principle since taking over. It’s why he’s not sweating over Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal set to expire in two summers.
Neal Huntington’s gain here is primarily that certainty, but also much more: Here, finally, he has that player, that franchise-level commitment that he can show not only to the public but also within the business. He can sell it to free agents skeptical about the Pirates (nearly everyone), he can sell it to other players he’d like to keep (hello, Neil Walker), and he and the developmental people can even use it as motivation all through the minors. I’ve heard Jeff Banister talk about waiting for someone like that for years. That someone is here.
Best of all, of course, it wraps up a burgeoning baseball player, a pulse-pounding performer, a charismatic kid, for Pittsburgh fans to watch.
For years to come.
And when was the last time you could say that?