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Young Bucs discovering post-Cutch identity

MLB.com @adamdberry

CHICAGO -- There is no No. 22 on this year's Pirates team. That's true in the literal sense. Out of respect for the former face of the franchise, the Pirates weren't in any hurry to give out Andrew McCutchen's old number -- and, well, nobody asked for it anyway.

It's also true in the abstract sense. The Pirates could not truly replace McCutchen, whom they dealt to the Giants in January, or replicate everything he meant to the team, clubhouse and city of Pittsburgh. Manager Clint Hurdle never shied away from that idea, saying on the first day of Spring Training that there would be "a lot of new opportunity for a lot of different men to play significant roles."

CHICAGO -- There is no No. 22 on this year's Pirates team. That's true in the literal sense. Out of respect for the former face of the franchise, the Pirates weren't in any hurry to give out Andrew McCutchen's old number -- and, well, nobody asked for it anyway.

It's also true in the abstract sense. The Pirates could not truly replace McCutchen, whom they dealt to the Giants in January, or replicate everything he meant to the team, clubhouse and city of Pittsburgh. Manager Clint Hurdle never shied away from that idea, saying on the first day of Spring Training that there would be "a lot of new opportunity for a lot of different men to play significant roles."

It's early, there's much left to prove and the competition is about to get much stiffer for the 7-2 Pirates as they begin a three-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. But in McCutchen's absence, an opportunity has emerged for Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson and others to step into more prominent roles.

Video: Starling Marte's impact with the Pirates

"The man that was the face of the franchise left town. He was traded. It's time for some guys to put some things in," Hurdle said last week. "I think Gregory has accepted the opportunity. I think Marte has accepted the opportunity. I think Dickerson is here to play and do something special as well.

"We've got a bunch of guys. Why not now? Why not their time?"

Marte has assumed McCutchen's third spot in the lineup and a permanent role as the center fielder, and he's off to a solid start in both areas. Acquired in late February, Dickerson has fit right in as the Pirates' everyday left fielder and No. 5 hitter.

Veterans like Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Sean Rodriguez and David Freese are taking on greater roles in the clubhouse. Without Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon -- the National League Player of the Week -- have emerged as leaders on a young pitching staff.

Video: Taillon named NL Player of the Week following shutout

Polanco appears particularly poised to break out. The former top prospect, now in his fourth full Major League season, hit .310 with a 1.206 OPS, three home runs and 13 RBIs over the season's first week and a half. But he is not trying to replace McCutchen.

"I just came here to be me this year. That's what I said," Polanco said recently. "Stay confident, do what I know how to do and just be me. Don't try to take the team on my back. Try to do my part, because I trust in every guy in here."

That attitude, Freese said, is the way to approach this kind of transition. He would know. He was there in St. Louis when Albert Pujols, a dominant force throughout his 11 years with the Cardinals, signed as a free agent with the Angels.

Nobody could replace Pujols, but those Cardinals filled the void by signing Carlos Beltran and allowing players like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter to take on bigger roles. Undeterred, St. Louis went on to win the National League Central and reach the World Series.

"Guys that are capable of doing that look in the mirror and question themselves, 'Do I need to do more?' But I think the answer is no," Freese said. "It's better just to step back and say, 'If I'm healthy and on the field and focused and I want it, the numbers and the W's will show up.' That's how we addressed it back then.

"It was really different from Day 1, just like with Cutch, when we walked in and No. 5 is not in there. We looked around and picked up some pieces. We picked up Dickerson. It's kind of the same blend when you lose somebody like that. You just have to turn the page and collectively get it done."

Freese saw the end of the McCutchen era, too, and he's watching another young group step into the spotlight in Pittsburgh.

"I think if you look at this team, a lot of these guys just need to be healthy, lean forward and go after that," Freese said. "They have the potential to be core guys and be All-Stars. Some of these guys have the potential to get MVP votes."

As Hurdle said, why not now?

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco