I'm worried this trade stuff may have ruined the Pirates' relationship with Andrew McCutchen. Do you think it will be awkward next year?
-- Anthony M., Pittsburgh
Sure, because McCutchen is human. He is a class act, a good teammate and a professional -- but he's human, and he admitted it bothered him to see his name get thrown around in trade talks.
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McCutchen handled the situation well at PirateFest, openly and honestly answering questions about how he felt throughout the process. I asked specifically about this topic, and McCutchen said it wouldn't be an issue that will influence his performance.
"Nothing's going to affect me. I'm ready to go," McCutchen said. "I've got thick skin. I'll be ready. I'm looking forward to next season. That's why I'm preparing right now. Just keep working."
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So it might be a little bit awkward, as it would be for anyone, but McCutchen seems to be ready to move forward. This is also where the Pirates can lean on manager Clint Hurdle's ability to communicate with his players -- and it's not just about speaking, either. Hurdle has an open door, and he listens when players need to talk.
The best way to avoid any further awkwardness is to play well -- both individually, for McCutchen, and as a team -- out of the gate. The trade talk around Mark Melancon resurfaced and came to fruition in July as Pittsburgh hovered around .500. If the Pirates are contending and McCutchen is producing come July, it's hard to imagine they'd deal him then.
Have they said yet if Starling Marte will play center field?
-- Bobby C., Pittsburgh
At last check, the Bucs were not ready to officially announce their 2017 outfield alignment. But they talked to McCutchen before the end of the season about the idea of moving to a corner spot, so clearly they're considering it. They'll take their time with this decision, thoroughly evaluating all their options and informing each player before they go public with it.
My guess: Gregory Polanco in left, Marte in center, McCutchen in right. I don't think McCutchen's arm is as much of a hindrance there as some suggest, and my colleague Mike Petriello recently provided some interesting, Statcast-backed data to support the move.
Is Wade LeBlanc really going to be a starter in the spring? He was fine as a reliever from what I saw last year, so maybe he should stay there. I'd rather see a free-agent starter or one of the kids in the rotation.
-- Tom J., Wexford, Pa.
To be clear, LeBlanc will be stretched out to start in Spring Training, but not every pitcher who gets stretched out makes the Opening Day rotation. The Bucs will give LeBlanc a chance to start, however, as they did last year with Juan Nicasio.
"We'll make an assessment probably halfway through, whether he's more suited for the bullpen or something happens in the rotation that we need him," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "He's going to be a plus no matter where you put him. We'll see how it plays out."
They like what LeBlanc showed coming back from the year he spent in Japan. In 14 starts for Triple-A Buffalo this past season, the 32-year-old posted a 1.71 ERA with 85 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 89 2/3 innings. There's a lot to like there, especially given their history with veteran pitchers, and he looked good out of the bullpen down the stretch.
Odds are, they'll have enough starters to bump LeBlanc into the bullpen as a long reliever. But it never hurts to see what you have, and you can never have enough starting depth, as Pittsburgh learned again in 2016.
I saw your article about Juan Nicasio maybe being a setup guy next year. I think they need someone more experienced. Where do you think he fits best?
-- Andrew F., Erie, Pa.
The Pirates have touted Nicasio's versatility since they acquired him last offseason, and I think his best role is one in which they can fully capitalize on that. In other words, the way they used him late last season -- not as a traditional setup man, but as a swingman, a lower-profile Andrew Miller who enters high-leverage situations and pitches multiple innings.
Maybe that means Nicasio would pitch the seventh or eighth on certain days, but I think confining him to a one-inning role would be limiting his potential. I still expect the Pirates to look for a more traditional setup man, though the cost of the relief market may be prohibitive. Look no further for proof than the contracts given to closers Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Melancon, as well as setup man Brett Cecil.