PITTSBURGH -- Andrew McCutchen is staying with the Pirates, but not in center field.
McCutchen, Pittsburgh's franchise player, will shift to right field this season, the club announced Sunday. Starling Marte, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner in left field, is set to take over in center. Gregory Polanco will move from right to left field.
General manager Neal Huntington has said since November the Pirates want to "optimize" their outfield defense, but he never committed to keeping McCutchen in center, where he's played since his debut in 2009. While Marte ranks among the Majors' elite outfielders, McCutchen's defensive value declined over the past three years.
The Pirates believe McCutchen's drop-off in 2016 was due in part to his shallower positioning, but they still saw fit to make a more dramatic change -- a position change, not a change of positioning -- before Spring Training begins.
The Bucs listened to trade offers for McCutchen earlier this offseason, but they weren't persuaded to move him. As they searched for every possible advantage in the National League Central, they decided an outfield shakeup would improve their defense and overall run prevention.
McCutchen has said he would be willing to consider such a change if the Pirates brought it up, but the switch comes only a few months after he told MLB.com that he didn't see himself "needing to move" positions. Manager Clint Hurdle said McCutchen seemed receptive to the idea when they discussed it at the end of the 2016 season.
"I'm just honored to be playing. I'm happy that I'm still here," McCutchen said in December at PirateFest. "I've got seven amazing years here in a Bucs uniform. Center field, wherever it's at -- right, left -- I'm just happy that I'm still playing."
By two advanced metrics, McCutchen was the worst outfielder in baseball last season. His Defensive Runs Saved total (minus-28) was the lowest among all qualified Major Leaguers, while his Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-18.7) was better than only shortstop Alexei Ramirez.
According to Statcast™'s catch rates, based on a combination of hang time and distance covered, McCutchen allowed 11 hits on "easy" or "routine" plays last year. On the other hand, he made 30 catches deemed "tough" or "highlight" plays by Statcast™.
Cutch, Adam Jones and Odubel Herrera played similar number innings in CF. Check the differences in # of hits allowed on "easy/routine" plays pic.twitter.com/A1mmyM56cg
MLB.com's Mike Petriello made the case in November that McCutchen may be better off in right field. McCutchen's arm could be an issue in right, but Statcast™ data illustrated he was more effective going to his right than his left this past season.
Right field at PNC Park is an easier assignment, if only due to square footage. Pittsburgh's left field is the deepest in the Majors, stretching back 410 feet to the notch in left-center field. By comparison, it's 320 feet down the right-field line and 375 feet to the power alley in right-center.
The difficulty of playing left field at PNC Park was one of many factors the Pirates had to consider. McCutchen has said his leadership in center field was also important, particularly alongside a pair of younger outfielders in Marte and Polanco. Hurdle addressed that idea at the Winter Meetings, saying McCutchen can lead no matter where he plays.
"I know when Torii Hunter moved from center field to right field, it didn't take away from any leadership that he carried," Hurdle said. "I think that's a grown man that's done a lot of significant things in the game that a lot of people in that clubhouse haven't done, and it carries a lot of weight and respect in and of itself."
Perhaps fittingly, right field was also home to Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, one of McCutchen's idols. The wall McCutchen will stand in front of in Pittsburgh this year is 21 feet high in honor of Clemente's jersey number.
McCutchen has not commented about the change, but he appeared to acknowledge the news Sunday night, posting a picture on Twitter of Clemente in the outfield. This year, No. 22 will field the same position made famous in Pittsburgh by "The Great One," No. 21.
The decision was made easier by the presence of Marte and Polanco, two natural center fielders. When Marte came off the bench at this past summer's All-Star Game, he played center field for the NL. He totaled 19 DRS in left field in 2016 after recording 24 in '15. Marte's arm is perhaps his most impressive attribute, as he's combined for 33 outfield assists the past two years.
Polanco graded out well in right field in 2015, totaling 11 DRS, but he took a step back in '16 as he battled various injuries. Polanco saw more time in left while Marte was injured down the stretch. The 25-year-old has racked up 23 outfield assists over the past two seasons.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.