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How Andrew McCutchen Can Swing the NL Pennant Race

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The Cubs have been overwhelming NL Central and World Series favorites since Opening Day, but the Pirates were supposed to at least make the playoffs.

As of right now, Pittsburgh sits at 33–36, four games out of the second wild-card spot. It’s still too early to panic about the Pirates, but as we get deeper and deeper into June, “it’s still too early” becomes less comforting as an explanation.

Through 69 games, the starting pitching has been really bad. Ace Gerrit Cole is hurt. Erstwhile no. 2 starter Francisco Liriano, once unhittable for lefties, is walking more guys than a tour guide. And poor Jeff Locke, whose 5.92 ERA ought not to be anywhere near a contender’s rotation, is second on the team in innings pitched. That should take care of itself once Cole comes back, and now that Jameson Taillon is part of the rotation, with fellow top prospect Tyler Glasnow on the way.

But the Pirates’ troubles on the mound have put Andrew McCutchen in an interesting position: He can turn the National League’s pennant race on his own.

In 2016, McCutchen hasn’t quite been bad — for better or worse, .243/.322/.412 is a league-average-ish slash line nowadays, particularly for a center fielder — but that’s not what everyone expected from someone who’s coming off of four straight top-five MVP finishes.

For as apocryphal as it would’ve seemed a year ago, the idea that Pittsburgh should cut ties with its superstar has started to get some traction. The thinking goes that McCutchen, who turns 30 in October and will hit free agency after the 2018 season, is finally starting to slow down. And with former first-round pick Austin Meadows raking in the high minors (he was promoted to Triple-A this weekend), the Pirates would be best served by dealing their best player since Barry Bonds.

The Pirates should do nothing of the sort, because there’s a much easier explanation for McCutchen’s struggles than age; he’s been playing through a nagging injury to his right thumb all year. The discomfort has come and gone, but you can imagine how annoying it would be for a baseball player to have a swollen thumb on his throwing hand, aching anytime he uses it to throw or to grip a bat.

Not for nothing, but this is another one of those scenarios that makes it look ridiculous that “play through it if you can” is standard operating procedure for pro athletes. Wouldn’t the Pirates be better off in the long run if they just told McCutchen to go home for two weeks and keep his hand on ice? Never mind the long-term effects — is a compromised McCutchen that much better than a healthy Matt Joyce in the short term? Joyce’s 173 OPS+ (compared to McCutchen’s 98) says no, even if Joyce will probably regress, and even if you have to move Gregory Polanco over to center to get Joyce’s bat in the lineup.

Plus, when McCutchen isn’t compromised, he’s good enough to make up that four-game gap all on his own, even over only a partial season. Since you can’t feed your star the ball in baseball the way you can in football or basketball, position players have two ways to take over a game or a series. The first is to just be everywhere, like Ken Griffey Jr. in Little Big League, impacting the game in every phase. The second is to be dominant at the plate, essentially never making an out. At his best, McCutchen is one of very few players who can do both. McCutchen posted a .400 OBP or better every year from 2012 to 2015 — nobody else did it more than twice in that span. At the same time he’s been good for 20 or more home runs and double-digit stolen bases each year, all while bounding around center field with a Griffey-like panache.

Despite his struggles, the Pirates have been treating McCutchen like the impact hitter he can be. After he posted the second-most plate appearances in baseball with two out and nobody on base in 2015, the Pirates had been batting McCutchen second most of this season, up until this past weekend. McCutchen’s getting better opportunities this year, but since he’s not converting them as frequently as he used to, that’s only made his injury hurt the team even more.

On the other hand, if he gets healthy and turns into the McCutchen of the past four years again, all bets are off. While other contenders are looking for help externally, just healing McCutchen’s thumb would be better for the Pirates than any deadline acquisition. You simply can’t get players as good as a healthy McCutchen at the trade deadline.

As it stands, the Pirates need to not only catch and pass one of the Marlins or Dodgers, they need to jump the Cardinals and Mets along the way to do it. That’s a tall order — Baseball Prospectus gives Pittsburgh only an 8.2 percent chance of pulling it off — which means there’s not much margin of error left to play with. So, whether it requires a stint on the DL or not, the Pirates had better figure out a way to get their superstar healthy again. A return to form for McCutchen could be the difference between making up that gap and going home early.