Aug 18, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) takes batting practice before playing the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

How Much Can Andrew McCutchen's Return Really Help The Pirates?

As he has served the first disabled-list stint in his professional career, much has been made of Andrew McCutchen‘s antsy behavior in the Pittsburgh Pirates dugout.

To hear him tell it, he won’t be a bother to teammates and coaches any longer. McCutchen has said he plans to play Tuesday against the Braves at PNC Park, just as his 15-day DL banishment reaches its expiration date.

Last year’s National League MVP took “live” batting practice against minor-leaguer Jeff Inman on Monday, after which he declared himself ready to go. Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington weren’t quite as certain, but it appears likely McCutchen will be in center field Tuesday evening.

With the Pirates (64-61) having lost six in a row to drop two games behind the NL’s final wild-card spot, the storyline of “Cutch” returning to play hero is irresistible.

Pittsburgh has gone 5-9 since McCutchen suffered a rare avulsion rib fracture Aug. 3, which occurred when a swing caused cartilage in his torso to rip a fragment of bone away from the rib cage. Initially it was feared that McCutchen would miss a month or more, but his rapid recovery has pleasantly surprised team doctors and management.

However, offense hasn’t been a major issue for the Pirates since their superstar departed the lineup. Despite the absence of McCutchen’s potent bat, the Bucs have plated 58 runs over the past 14 games, an average of 4.14 per outing. That’s just slightly down from Pittsburgh’s season average of 4.21, the fourth-best mark in the NL.

On the other hand, the Pirates have allowed 65 runs over that same span, an average of 4.64 runs per game since McCutchen went out. Run prevention, not creation, has been the major reason for this ill-timed slump.

In addition, Starling Marte has patrolled center field with aplomb over the past two weeks, so it could be argued that McCutchen’s return may not have much of an effect right away, as strange as that sounds.

This isn’t to say that the Pirates won’t welcome McCutchen back with open arms, because you can never have enough offense. He’s the type of special player that can make something out of nothing, even when the rest of the lineup is being shut down.

But the emergence of Marte and Travis Snider has helped make up for McCutchen’s sidelining, so much so that the Pirates should take every precaution to make sure their primary catalyst won’t re-aggravate the injury upon his return. No matter what McCutchen claims, team doctors and athletic trainers have to be forthcoming about what they think.

That won’t be easy if the prognosis is less optimistic than McCutchen wants it to be. He clearly wants to swing in from the rafters to get the Pirates going again.

The season can still be salvaged, but only if McCutchen is truly fit to play. He’s too important to this franchise to risk further damage, and last time I checked, he can’t pitch.

Tags: Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates

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