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Analysis bolsters Bucs' plan to play Cutch in CF

Stats show veteran made marked improvement defensively from 2016-17
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- Two months into the Pirates' offseason, general manager Neal Huntington has developed a go-to answer for all questions regarding the future of Andrew McCutchen.

"We believe our best club in 2018 has Andrew in center field," Huntington said before Pittsburgh's final game of the season.

PITTSBURGH -- Two months into the Pirates' offseason, general manager Neal Huntington has developed a go-to answer for all questions regarding the future of Andrew McCutchen.

"We believe our best club in 2018 has Andrew in center field," Huntington said before Pittsburgh's final game of the season.

"There's no question our best club in 2018 has Andrew McCutchen in center field," he told MLB.com at the GM Meetings in November.

If the Bucs might benefit greatly in 2019 and beyond from a trade offered this offseason, Huntington could choose to prioritize the future over the present and deal McCutchen. But set aside the trade rumors, if only for a moment, and focus on the last two words of each answer: center field.

The Pirates moved McCutchen to right field last spring in favor of Starling Marte, whose 80-game suspension in mid April ultimately brought McCutchen back to center. If their best club heading into 2017 didn't have McCutchen in center field, then why would their best club in '18 have him there?

Maybe it's a sign of respect for McCutchen or, from a more cynical perspective, a way to boost his trade value. Maybe it's related to Marte's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Marte returned to left field after he was reinstated in July.

Video: CIN@PIT: Statcast™ analyzes McCutchen's sliding catch

Maybe it's just a case of leaving well enough alone since PNC Park essentially requires two center-field-caliber defenders anyway. Or maybe it has something to do with McCutchen's improved play in center last season.

In 2016, McCutchen graded out as one of baseball's worst defensive players. He posted a minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved total and a minus-18.7 Ultimate Zone Rating. He was worth 11 outs below average, according to Statcast™, ranking 203rd out of 208 qualified outfielders.

McCutchen did not suddenly transform into an elite defensive center fielder this year, but he looked more like his old self -- and the numbers back up the eye test. He finished with minus-16 DRS in center field and a minus-4.6 UZR, the latter figure better than his 2014 mark and about the same as his total in '15.

"I proved to myself I could still go out there and play good defense," McCutchen said at the end of the season. "That's what I wanted. I wanted to show that if I'm able to play where I play, if I'm able to be comfortable out there, I can do a lot of good things out there."

Video: SD@PIT: Cutch makes a fantastic catch at the wall

That was a reference to McCutchen's positioning, which he cited as a factor in his 2016 decline. Pittsburgh moved him closer that season, and he lined up an average of 307 feet away from home plate, according to Statcast™. He moved back this year, starting an average of 319 feet from the plate, and his performance improved.

McCutchen was worth zero Outs Above Average in 2017, 79th out of 210 qualified outfielders, with his expected catch percentage and actual catch percentage aligning perfectly at 82 percent. McCutchen's top Sprint Speed this year was 28.5 feet per second, according to Statcast™, clocking in 0.1 feet per second faster than his top speed in 2015-16.

In other words, McCutchen hasn't lost a step. Nor does he feel he's lost the ability to effectively play center field -- and the Bucs seem to agree.

Video: PIT@SF: McCutchen cuts down Belt with perfect throw

"It's crazy how things work. You have an opportunity, then you don't have that opportunity, then somehow you get that opportunity again, then you show that you're able to do it," McCutchen said. "I can't say that I opened a lot of eyes, but I think I proved to people that I wasn't just blowing smoke when I was talking. I meant it, and yeah, I played some exceptional defense out there this year."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen