McCutchen’s hot hand could leave Bucs in quandry

News, notes and observations from the Major League Baseball season as the month of June winds into its home stretch:

The Pirates are facing an interesting dilemma concerning the face of their franchise, outfielder Andrew McCutchen.

Since being moved from the third spot in the batting order down to the sixth spot on May 26, the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player has been on a hitting tear, with 21 hits in 56 plate appearances (a .375 batting average), 20 RBIs, five homers, four doubles and a triple.

He’s raised his batting average nearly 60 points during that period, from a languid .203 at the conclusion of play on May 25 to .260 entering Tuesday night’s game at Milwaukee.

While it’s been great for the Pirates to see the five-time all-star return to his elite batting form, it has also created a situation that is a double-edged sword for the Bucs.

McCutchen’s trade value is currently very high. If he continues on his current pace, there will be plenty of very good offers between now and the Aug. 1 non-waiver trading deadline.

The Pirates have a club option on the 30-year-old McCutchen in 2018, and it’s extremely unlikely that he will be extended past that point.

If the Pirates wait until this offseason to trade McCutchen, they take the risk of him going into another tailspin later this season and watching his trade value sink.

But if the Pirates are still within striking distance of the National League Central Division lead and trade McCutchen before the deadline, they’re taking the chance of alienating a large portion of their fan base and significantly disrupting team chemistry — at least for this season — by sending one of the most popular players in club history packing during a pennant stretch drive.

A tough decision needs to be made one way or another. It says here that, if the Pirates are still seriously in the running for the division come August, the Bucs should/will hold on to McCutchen until season’s end.

n Two years ago, in 2015, the Pirates were cursing the fact that they were members of the NL Central.

That’s the year the Pirates won 98 games but finished two games in back of the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, who managed to win 100.

It set the Pirates’ up for a winner-take-all fall against the Chicago Cubs — who had finished in third place in the division with 97 victories — in the National League Wild Card Playoff Game.

The Pirates’ 4-0 loss to the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in that game marked a quick, unceremonious end to that season, and left Pirates fans far and wide grumbling about the unfairness of it all.

Less than 24 months later, being in the Central Division may be the Pirates’ salvation. The Pirates’ playoff chances and divisional title hopes would already be toast if they were part of the NL East, where the Washington Nationals are running away, or part of the NL West, where three very good teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks — are battling tooth-and-nail for the division lead at the same time that they’re making a shambles of the NL wild-card race.

The upstart Milwaukee Brewers have surprised just about everybody by taking the Central Division lead, and both the defending World Champion Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals have been greatly underachieving.

That leaves the Pirates, despite a 32-38 record entering Tuesday night’s game, tied with St. Louis for third place, but just five games out of first place.

As current Pirates’ third base coach and former Curve manager Joey Cora was fond of saying during his days as an analyst on the Major League Baseball Network, that kind of deficit only takes about one good week to make up.

n Though his name has been bandied about in trade rumors all summer, Gerrit Cole is unlikely to be dealt by the Pirates, unless they would get a monumental haul in return. Cole is under club control through 2019, and a pitching staff fronted by Cole, Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon gives the Pirates a very solid foundation.

n Reliever Tony Watson, whose contract is up at season’s end, would ordinarily be a top trade candidate this July, but his stock has no doubt plummeted because of his recent struggles.

n Whether or not you buy into that great even-year/lousy odd-year theory, 2017 has turned into an unexpected debacle for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants’ pitching woes that have included a long stint on the disabled list for left-handed ace Madison Bumgarner from injuries sustained in a dirt-bike accident early in the season have left San Francisco marooned in the highly-competitive NL West.

n Eye-opening statistic: The Minnesota Twins, who just recently dropped out of first place in the American League’s Central Division, have the worst home-field record (14-24) in Major League Baseball. Minnesota, though, has been very good on the road, winning 20 of 29 games away from Target Field.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

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