It's the end of an era in Pittsburgh, and while Pirates fans certainly won't be surprised about the trade that will send franchise icon Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants, it's still a bittersweet day, a reminder of where the Pittsburgh Pirates were when McCutchen arrived on the scene in 2009 and the disappointment in the inability to sustain the playoff run of 2013 to 2015, when the Pirates won three straight wild cards.
From the 1993 to 2012 -- the run began with the departure of Barry Bonds to the Giants -- the Pirates had 20 consecutive losing seasons. They lost hard, with 10 seasons of 90-plus losses, including seven in a row from 2005 to 2011. The Pirates turned things around in part by being at the forefront of the modern sabermetrics revolution, but at the heart of everything was their superstar center fielder.
The 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, McCutchen developed into the 2013 NL MVP and finished in the top five of the voting four consecutive seasons. There was nothing overly flashy about him; he simply did everything well, earning his way into the inner circle of franchise greats alongside the likes of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
Unfortunately, the timing and luck for the best of the McCutchen-led Pirates teams wasn't quite right. They won 94 games in 2013 and beat the Reds in the wild-card game before losing in five games to the Cardinals in the Division Series, including dropping the final two games with just one run in each. In 2014, they ran into Madison Bumgarner and were shut out. In 2015, they won 98 games, more than either the Mets or Dodgers, but were relegated once again to the wild-card game. This time they ran into the red-hot Jake Arrieta and once again were shut out.
Unlike the Royals, who went all-in for 2015 when they acquired Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, Pirates owner Bob Nutting was never willing to make that extra sacrifice, even though Forbes estimated the team's operating profit in 2016 at $51 million. The Pirates' window didn't necessarily have to close after 2015, even as a small-market franchise, but McCutchen slipped significantly in performance the past two seasons, Gerrit Cole didn't quite develop into an ace and Tyler Glasnow hasn't made the jump from top prospect to major league starter. A lot went wrong in 2017 as Starling Marte was suspended for PEDs, Gregory Polanco had a bad season and Jung Ho Kang never made it out of Korea after a DUI arrest. The Pirates finished 75-87 and, in trading Cole and McCutchen, decided to pull the plug on 2018.
You can debate the value of keeping a franchise icon beyond his prime years. From a strict baseball standpoint, however, it made sense to deal McCutchen. He's a free agent after the season, no longer has the range to play center field and is on the wrong side of a superb career. That probably doesn't make Pirates fans feel any better though. It could be a long time they see another face of the franchise as beloved as he was.