Inbox: Will Pirates pick up McCutchen's option?

Beat reporter Adam Berry answers questions from Pirates fans

October 13th, 2017

Will the Pirates pick up 's option for 2018? -- Logan A., Slippery Rock, Pa.

General manager Neal Huntington wouldn't tip his hand, saying the Pirates will make a decision "the day that we have to," which is typically five days after the World Series ends. But it seems likely they will pick up McCutchen's $14.5 million option for next season.

Exercising McCutchen's option is not the same as committing to keep him next year, however. The Pirates could elect to trade him if they receive the right offer. His salary is reasonable, but it still accounts for a large chunk of Pittsburgh's projected payroll. Perhaps they will look to acquire value for McCutchen while they have the chance.

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At this point, I expect McCutchen to be back in center field and batting third for the Pirates next season. Huntington may have offered a window into the front office's thought process on the final day of the season, when he said the Bucs believe their best team in 2018 will have McCutchen in center field.

According to Fangraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement, McCutchen was the Pirates' most valuable player this year. If they intend to contend next season -- and they believe they can -- it's hard to imagine it happening without him. Given Austin Meadows' injuries and their lack of a true fourth outfielder, the Pirates don't exactly have a ready-made replacement for their franchise player.

Parting ways with McCutchen would create more questions for a club that already has plenty to answer.

What should the plan be to get better offensive production from third base, catcher and right field more consistently? And that's not a dig on or , who I believe performed admirably all season. -- Jeff M., Erie, Pa.

It starts with improved health and fewer days on the disabled list. 's last two years were disrupted by injuries (left wrist, hand, left quadriceps), and he was often playing through pain when he was on the field. seemingly turned a corner in the first half of 2016, but lower-body injuries derailed that season and a series of ailments kept him from ever getting on track this year.

As for third base, so much depends on the status of . If he is cleared to enter the United States and play for the Pirates, they will have a potential 30-homer bat with a solid backup in . If Kang's unavailable, they'll have to figure out something else.

Maybe the Pirates would consider a free agent such as , but will they have the budget to do so? Creating that kind of space might require them to move another significant salary, which would create a hole elsewhere. I think it's more likely they would just mix and match with the infielders they have.

The Pirates learned last year that they can't get the most out of Freese by playing him every day; he needs regular rest to be productive. Can they patch together an upgrade by using Freese, Josh Harrison, , Frazier or / Chris Bostick at second and third? They would need a full, healthy season from Harrison and a bounce back to 2016 form by Rodriguez.

The Pirates seemed to have a lot of trouble with breaking pitches this year. Is more focus needed on that? -- Steve W., Circleville

Your eyes did not deceive you. According to Statcast™, the Pirates hit .205 with a .330 slugging percentage against off-speed pitches this season. Those figures ranked 28th and 29th in the Major Leagues, respectively.

By comparison, they hit .265 (25th) with a .416 slugging percentage (29th) against fastballs. That actually might be more concerning because the Pirates feasted on fastballs in years past. Their .288 average against fastballs in 2016 ranked tied for fourth in the Majors, for instance, and their .444 slugging percentage fell in the middle of the pack.

So, it's not just about doing better against offspeed stuff. They must improve across the board offensively to better support their young pitching staff next season.