McCutchen remains calm as ever entering '14 season
Pirates clubhouse leader feels no added pressure after taking home NL MVP Award
BRADENTON, Fla. -- One of the offseason's long-running storylines made people around Western Pennsylvania smile with amusement.
To max-out free agent Robinson Cano's next contract, his representative, show biz mogul Jay-Z, was marketing him not just as a second baseman but as "an entertaining icon."
Meaning no disrespect to Cano, who eventually did bank a huge deal with the Seattle Mariners, followers of the Pirates were asking themselves, "Oh, really? Well, then what does that make Andrew McCutchen?"
While Jay-Z was packaging Cano, McCutchen was the one standing alongside Jaimie Alexander to present Luke Bryan as Favorite Country Male Artist at the American Music Awards. McCutchen was the one dancing on his chair the instant he was announced as National League MVP Award winner -- and dancing onto the stage of "Ellen," where he proposed to his fiancee, Maria. And McCutchen is the one who can often be spotted using some of those dance moves to get back to a base on pickoff tries.
Entertaining? Yeah, pull up a chair.
But when it's time for the day job, McCutchen becomes a one-trick pony again. It's all baseball -- one trick, five tools.
"I will always do what I need to physically, for myself," McCutchen stressed minutes after checking in for his eighth Spring Training with the Pirates. "When I get to camp, I'm ready to go. I know what I need to do to prepare and be ready to go when it's time for the season."
Any concerns about McCutchen possibly spreading himself too thin were quickly allayed when he asked out of the project in which he was to pair with Boston's David Ortiz to co-executive produce a season-long weekly MTV series taking a pop cultural look at baseball. Simply, McCutchen did not feel comfortable committing the time it would have required.
It was a move that underlined McCutchen's sincerity, because only days earlier he had offered his definition of team leadership: "It's somebody who shows up and does things the right way -- and respects what others do and listens to what they have to say."
McCutchen has shown up daily since joining the Pirates, after gradually scaling their Minor League ladder. Since making his big league debut on June 4, 2009, he has sat out 22 of the team's 756 games. That overall commitment had as much to do with his being crowned the NL MVP Award winner as the inset of his 2013 performance.
One would think that achieving his sport's highest honor would weigh him down with greater responsibility for the Bucs' fortunes, but McCutchen actually thinks the load has lessened. He may still be the lead, but the cast around him has steeled. In fact, getting away from the feeling he had to carry the team let him relax through the outstanding final two months of the season (.353) that engraved his MVP Award trophy.
"In the beginning, I felt like I had to be the guy," McCutchen admitted. "Now I don't feel like I have to be that guy, just need to be who I am, and that's it. Everyone else is here for the same thing, to do their job. As long as I do my job, and not try to do more, we're fine with that."
Manager Clint Hurdle is more than fine with it, because he knows his center fielder as a driven perfectionist.
"When your best player is your hardest worker, as well ..." Hurdle said, leaving the thought both unfinished and obvious: It is as good as it gets.
"He's never going to sit still," Hurdle went on, "will never not try to get better, not look for areas of his game he can improve. He sets the bar very high for himself, and gives everyone else a target to keep up with."
"I don't care if I'm 40 years old, if I'm still playing the game, I'll be going into the next year saying, 'I can get better,'" McCutchen said. "That's always going to be my mindset. I don't feel like I've reached my pinnacle. Honestly, I don't."
Hurdle had looked forward to McCutchen's arrival in Pirate City, pointing out, "He usually comes in with a couple of focus points."
Not this time. No specific things. Just everything.
"Just trying to keep doing the same things I have been and keep improving every aspect of the game," McCutchen said. "I'll even focus on baserunning (his big key a year ago, which paid off in being successful on 27 of 37 steal attempts), 'cause I know I can get even better at it. When I'm on base [in exhibition games] everyone will know I'll be going for second, because the only way to learn is to keep going. Being more consistent at the plate, with throws, on defense -- all of it."
At least that's the general personal checklist. Team-wise, the MVP does have a specific mission.
"Getting to know everybody," he said, waving a hand around the clubhouse. "That's a big thing this spring. We'll have a great Spring Training because we all know and get each other -- and the new guys will quickly pick up on that."
New guys? There are exactly four of them (Edinson Volquez, Chris Stewart, Chris McGuiness, Jaff Decker) on the 40-man roster. While some restless fans regard that as a liability, McCutchen considers stability one of the Bucs' hidden assets.
"It will be a different Spring Training for us," he said, "because we're beginning to understand each other. Nobody here is trying to be the guy."
To many outsiders, the biggest difference might be the absence of a perceived leader of the team's turnaround the last two seasons. In McCutchen's view, A.J. Burnett will be replaced by a committee of leaders.
"Everyone always looks for that one person to lead," he said, "but there are others who can lead in different ways. By example, by words, by offering some good words of advice. I think we all lead to a certain extent, and that isn't something we've had in the past."
Here's McCutchen's clubhouse democracy, in action: He may be the team's well-decorated senior member -- only 27, but he beat Charlie Morton through the doors by six days -- but you'll get no reminders of that from him.
"If [Starling] Marte wants to say something to me, I'm not going to say, 'Hey, dude, I've been in the big leagues longer than you have. I'm not going to listen to you.' If we want to win," McCutchen said, "we have to be open to hearing other players. We're not putting ourselves on a pedestal. When you have that understanding, it creates a really good vibe in the clubhouse."
Communication, in other words, is big in the clubhouse. It figures to be even bigger in the Pirates outfield when it includes Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco. The center fielder is as enthusiastic about those prospects as is any fan.
"Oh, yeah, it's going to be awesome," McCutchen said. "Those guys are very talented, young, exciting. We all three feel we have the type of game that can spark a team. They can do a lot, add a lot to a game, bring a lot to the table.
"It'll be different," McCutchen added, breaking into a wry grin, "to be the older guy of the bunch."
Age has its benefits.
Coming off his superb 2012 season, McCutchen chilled well into 2013. He hit .240 in Spring Training, when everybody seems to hit .350. He was hitting a similar .238 into May. And it never concerned him, as he swore allegiance to "the process."
"The older you get, the easier it is on you because you know you can reach your goals," McCutchen said. "If you 'hope' you can, that's like telling yourself there's a chance you can't.
"So even if I struggle early, I know I will be OK, because I've experienced a lot in my career."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.