Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen doubles against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park. Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Jason Kendall used to be as exciting as any young player in the league, but the second the Pirates locked him up, things went awry. The exact opposite scenario has unfolded with Andrew McCutchen.
Jason Kendall is something of a punchline to the younger sabermetric set. From 2005 through 2010, he had a slugging percentage of .318. He hit eight home runs over 3419 plate appearances during that stretch. The Royals pursued and acquired him. Kendall was the personification of the pitcher-whisperer stereotype -- the kind of catcher whose contributions didn't show up in the box score, which was kind of the problem.
Except that's way, way too harsh. Kendall used to be a brilliant player.
He wasn't Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate, but he certainly wasn't Mike Piazza, either. He was a young, able catcher with everything going for him. He was even stealing 20+ bases every season. It would be hard to come up with a more covetable player in a laboratory setting.
The Pirates did the only thing they could do: They locked Kendall up. After the 2000 season, they made a bold statement. The organization said this is our guy. They signed him for six years, $60 million, which was a huge commitment for the Pirates at the time. It still would be today. But Kendall was worth it.
Like a new BMW driven off the lot and into a utility pole, Kendall's value went down immediately after signing the contract. He went from one of the brightest young stars in the league to the player you remember from his later years. His power utterly disappeared. The high averages went away. He could still work a walk and make contact, but those were his only two above-average skills at the plate. That happened in 2001, just months after the extension.
And the Pirates, of course, were awful. They were counting on a superstar. They got Brad Ausmus with one of those Mission Impossible latex masks, and he wasn't shy about hitting the ol' ground ball to short. The team suffered.
That was the last time the Pirates attempted to lock up a fan favorite All-Star. After Kendall came Brian Giles, who begat Jason Bay, who begat Freddy Sanchez. All of them were traded before reaching free agency. None of the three turned out to be worthy of a multi-year mega-deal, but there was still something symbolic about the Pirates trading them to get prospects they'd trade for prospects they'd one day trade for prospects.
There was nothing that indicated signing Jason Kendall was a bad move. But signing Jason Kendall turned out to be an especially bad move for a Pirates franchise on a budget. The Pirates kept losing. The Kendall extension was, perhaps, the Piratesiest move of the last 20 years -- even when you thought they did the right thing, it turned out miserably.
It took over a decade for the Pirates to commit that kind of money to another homegrown player instead of trading him. In the offseason, they signed Andrew McCutchen to a six-year deal worth $51.5 million, with an option for 2018.
In just five months, that contract looks like the best move of the offseason. It would have been a good deal if McCutchen's production declined by 20 percent. Instead, it increased by ... hold on ... carry the three ... eleventy quint-six percent. He's in line for the NL MVP. Don't count him out for the Cy Young if he keeps hitting like this. He's been one of the best stories of the baseball season.
If the Pirates are really entering a new era -- an era in which they'll mix the good seasons in with the bad seasons like a normal team -- it will be hard not to attribute it almost entirely to locking up McCutchen. He was a player entering his prime, the envy of the league, and it looks like he'll keep getting better and better.
Exactly like Kendall. Except for the better and better part.
In 2000, the Pirates thought they were doing the right thing locking up a young star. They were wrong. In 2012, the Pirates tried again. They've been righter than they ever could have hoped, at least so far. There's still a lot of season left, and the Pirates could still miss the playoffs. But even if they do, there's a different feeling around the franchise. McCutchen isn't just a good young player who hints at the promise of a brighter future, he's a great young player actively making the brighter future happen. And he's the Pirates' player -- hands off until the first flying car rolls off the assembly line, everybody.
It might not mean anything, but the Kendall and McCutchen contracts feel like bookends. The former felt like a good idea sucked into the vortex of a cursed franchise. The latter feels like a revolution, at least through the first five months. If the Pirates end up on a different path than they were on for the last two decades, it's hard not to appreciate the symmetry.