'Thick skin' has McCutchen raring for rebound

'Thick skin' has McCutchen raring for rebound

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Pirates squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's your star?

PITTSBURGH -- It has been a year of challenges and change for Andrew McCutchen.

Last season brought challenges. McCutchen endured the worst overall season of his career. He wondered when he would start to feel like himself at the plate, but he never did. His defensive numbers dipped lower than ever. Without their star in typically elite form, the Pirates stumbled to a 78-win season.

This winter brought change. For the first time, McCutchen heard his name seriously discussed in trade rumors. The Pirates considered dealing him but ultimately weren't persuaded to do it. So Pittsburgh elected to keep McCutchen, moving him out of center field and into right field for the first time ever.

But McCutchen is still the Pirates' franchise player and key to their success in 2017.

30 stars ready to shine bright in 2017

Now he will enter arguably the most uncertain Spring Training of his career. How will he handle right field? Will his bat bounce back? What's his relationship like with the Pirates? But most importantly, how much longer will he be a Pirate?

Outlook: McCutchen, OF, PIT

McCutchen, 30, will earn $14 million in the final guaranteed season of his six-year, $51.5 million extension, which also includes a $14.75 million club option or $1 million buyout for 2018.

The Pirates might look to trade him this year if they're out of the running by the non-waiver Trade Deadline, collecting more young talent with an eye on contending in '18 and beyond. They could pick up his option and deal him next offseason, or they may let him play out his contract in Pittsburgh.

"We felt that our biggest return would be to have a healthy and strong bounce-back Andrew McCutchen in our lineup. No one changed our minds on that," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're looking forward to Andrew being a core part of our offense and a core part of this club going forward until he reaches free agency or someone compels us to go in a different direction."

The Pirates were encouraged by McCutchen's offensive performance down the stretch. He posted an .852 OPS with nearly as many walks as strikeouts after Aug. 1, compared to a .719 OPS and 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio from Opening Day through July 31.

"Absolutely, it was Andrew McCutchen the last two months, offensively. He's driven to be that guy again," Huntington said. "He's not the first, and he's not going to be the last, star player that has a tough stretch.

"He showed the bat speed, the impact, the command of the zone. He showed the life to the body, some things that allow us to believe he's going to go out and be a core part of our offense."

Before one of the Pirates' final games at Busch Stadium last season, McCutchen sat at his locker and expressed an unexpected sentiment in an interview with MLB.com. It wasn't frustration with himself or whatever had gone wrong. The season of challenges was good for him, he said, because he learned how to handle them.

"That's only going to make me a better player," McCutchen said then.

As for this offseason of change?

"Nothing's going to affect me," McCutchen said at PirateFest. "I'm ready to go. I've got thick skin."

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.