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McCutchen back in center field for Pirates

By The Rex Factor

Andrew McCutchen was considered the face of the Pittsburgh franchise and its future for several years as little as less than two seasons ago.

A dreadful 2016 season both at the plate and in center field has put all future plans on hold, and the 30-year old is now playing out the final year of his contract not knowing where he will end up in a few months.

McCutchen started the season in right field, as Starling Marte has blossomed into one of the better defensive outfielders in the game, wresting the coveted center away from McCutchen. This was after McCutchen spent each of his first eight seasons of his defensive career solely in center field. He'd logged more than 10,000 innings in that position, and was not happy about getting shifted to right.

But Marte was popped for an 80-game suspension earlier this week for steroid use and will miss half of the season.

The biggest benefactor seems to be McCutchen, since the Pirates are in no hurry to call up top prospect Austin Meadows from Triple-A. He'll move from right to center for the foreseeable future and seems quite happy about it, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review “Center field is where I need to play. It’s where I want to be at. If I’ve got to show a couple people that — show I can do what I need to do — that’s what I’m going to do.”

McCutchen's 2018 season includes a club option, so his performance in center will likely go a long way toward determining what the Pirates plan on doing with him. The possibility exists of a team trying to trade for McCutchen before the end of July's deadline to help bolster a playoff run, especially if the Pirates are languishing below .500 as the spring turns to summer.

The Pirates played McCutchen closer to the plate last season in hopes of the pitching staff allowing weak line drives and shorter fly balls from a groundball-heavy pitching staff. Of course, the plan blew up spectacularly as McCutchen and others struggled as pitchers failed to pick up their end of the bargain and the team won 20 fewer games than in 2015.

McCutchen lined up deeper on Tuesday night in St. Louis than he did in all games that were played outside of Denver last year and has been on the record as saying he likes to play a deeper center field, despite having a below-average arm at this point in his career.

Once Marte returns after the All-Star break, it's anyone's guess as to what the Pirates will do with McCutchen.

His future earning potential is at risk in the next couple of months. Free agency will come at the end of this year or next and McCutchen's ability (or inability) to play center field will go a long way in determining the size and length of his next contract, whether in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

But at least McCutchen should have a little bit of time to prove, for one final time, that he can still hold down the fort more than capably as the captain of the outfield.

Before you leave, check out the MLB Roundup.

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