PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' first major decision of the offseason was an easy one. For the time being, they're keeping Andrew McCutchen.
The Bucs on Friday announced they will exercise McCutchen's $14.5 million club option for 2018, his final year under team control. The alternative was to buy out McCutchen's option year for $1 million and make him a free agent.
The Pirates also declined their club options for backup catcher Chris Stewart and left-handed reliever Wade LeBlanc. Stewart, whose option was worth $1.5 million, received a $250,000 buyout and became a free agent. LeBlanc received a $50,000 buyout; he was sent outright to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Whether McCutchen, 31, remains in Pittsburgh will once again be an intriguing question this winter. The Pirates made him available in trade talks last offseason but ultimately held on to their franchise player, who bounced back following the worst season of his career.
Despite another slow start, McCutchen was the Pirates' most productive hitter in 2017. He finished the season with a .279/.363/.486 slash line, 28 home runs -- his highest total since 2012 -- and 88 RBIs. The Pirates moved McCutchen to right field to start the season and dropped him down the lineup in late May, but the former National League MVP ended the season where he's spent nearly his entire career: batting third and playing center field.
"I feel great with where I am now," McCutchen said earlier this month. "I'm going to continue to stay right there and take that into the season. I haven't been able to do that the past couple of years. It was more about, 'I hope this is where I need to be.' This time, it's going to be different."
The Pirates could entertain trade offers for McCutchen, so there is no guarantee he will even begin next season in Pittsburgh, much less finish out the final year of his contract. However, they have no obvious replacement in the outfield until top prospect Austin Meadows is healthy and ready. If McCutchen does return, general manager Neal Huntington has said he will remain in center field.
LeBlanc, 33, posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 68 innings over 50 appearances this season. The Pirates don't have many left-handed relief options in front of closer Felipe Rivero. Jack Leathersich and Dan Runzler are the only other lefty relievers on the 40-man roster, though Steven Brault could fill that multi-inning role if he does not make the Opening Day rotation.
With Francisco Cervelli set to return as their starting catcher, the Pirates only had room on the roster for one backup. That job will go to Elias Diaz, who is out of Minor League options -- which means the Bucs cannot option him to Triple-A without running the risk of losing him.
Stewart, 35, spent four years in Pittsburgh, hitting .250 with a .609 OPS while receiving rave reviews from manager Clint Hurdle and Pirates pitchers for his work behind the plate. Stewart helped Cervelli learn the Bucs' pitching staff before the 2015 season and worked closely with Diaz as he adjusted to the Majors this year.
"It was special. It's the longest tenure I've obviously had [with one team]," Stewart said. "The guys, the organization, the city welcomed me with open arms. … This city, this team and these guys are really special."