Months before the Phillies signed Bryce Harper and traded for J.T. Realmuto, they blew away Andrew McCutchen.
“Did you see what they offered me?,” McCutchen told a group of Pittsburgh reporters who stopped to see him during his first spring training with the Phillies.
They signed McCutchen, who was then 32, for $50 million over three years. He was five years removed from winning the MVP, but he was still an above-average offensive producer with a postseason track record. The Phillies acquired five former All-Stars that winter, beginning with Jean Segura and ending with Harper.
The Phils were his highest bidder, but McCutchen also thought it was a team ready to contend. And the Phillies thought he was a player who could nudge them over the top.
“I saw this team from afar,” McCutchen said in December 2018 at his introductory news conference. “Played against them as well. I saw what they were able to do this past season. They fell a little bit short, but something that I do realize is it’s there.”
And there was McCutchen on Thursday night in Atlanta describing in the final days of his three-year contract how it felt for the Phillies to fall short for another year. McCutchen’s arrival triggered the start of an ambitious winter of spending. They tried to overcome their shallow minor-league talent pool by swimming in the deep end of free agency.
But they’re still coming up short.
“It’s in a better place than before I came here, I feel,” McCutchen said. “Just some things, some minor adjustments, changes, we’ll be there. You have to look at it from a positive standpoint, but it’s still not a good feeling to not have that chance.”
McCutchen was a strong presence in the clubhouse and the community during his time with the Phillies. His 109 OPS+ in three seasons puts him above league average. On the list of reasons to blame for another postseason miss, McCutchen is not near the top.
He was the Phillies’ best hitter in 2019 before tearing his ACL in June. He returned last summer to play in 57 of their 60 games and enjoyed a 10-week revival at the plate this season before another knee injury slowed him down.
“I felt like my performance personally wasn’t where I wanted it to be,” said McCutchen, who has hit 26 home runs this season. “The power numbers were there or whatnot, but I felt like overall I could’ve been better than I was in the last few seasons. Sometimes the game happens that way — you learn from it and grow from it and try to get better, whatever that may be. I would love to be back, but that’s not my decision.”
The Phillies will likely decline McCutchen’s $15 million option for 2022, sending him into free agency at 35 years old. He hit just .221 this season with a .774 OPS that was slightly better than league average. His sore left knee required almost daily maintenance to keep him in the lineup and seemed to slow him in the field. It also likely led to complications at the plate as McCutchen entered Friday with a .650 OPS against right-handed pitching but a 1.015 OPS against left-handed pitching.
“Whenever you have something bothering your legs, you don’t use your legs as much as a hitter,” manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s an issue.”
McCutchen no longer seems fit for an everyday role but his splits show that he could contribute as half of an outfield platoon. But he’ll have to stay healthy. He overcame a slow start to post a .912 OPS in 291 plate appearances between May 4 and July 29.
McCutchen, two years after a devastating injury, was carrying the lineup. He then tweaked his left knee and his season was never the same. He’s hitting just .190 with a .679 OPS in 168 plate appearances since returning from the injured list. The Phillies were probably more than one hitter away from missing the postseason, but eight more productive weeks from McCutchen may have made a significant difference.
“I have to look at my personal performance and where I stood,” McCutchen said. “Yes, there were some good things, but there definitely were a lot of times where the inconsistency with myself at the plate, I wish it could have been better than it had been. There’s a lot of things I can look at myself personally, but at a team standpoint, yeah, we had the opportunity and the chances were there to capitalize and to run away with it, really.
“We had moments where we did and we had moments where we didn’t. There’s a lot to think about and to wonder and go over. But just the fact that it was there and in our hands and it slipped away.”
The Phillies will likely replace McCutchen this winter with an outside acquisition unless they decide to turn left field to Matt Vierling, who has flashed promise in the season’s final month. Regardless, they’ll enter the offseason Monday with plenty of holes to fill in their lineup.
They need to figure out left field, center field, shortstop, and third base. The Phillies had an OPS from each position that ranked below league average. Perhaps they’ll bring in a player this winter who will say they, too, saw what the Phillies did this season and how they fell short.
But like McCutchen, they’ll think the team is there. McCutchen, nor the other free agents the Phillies have attracted in the last several offseasons, wasn’t able to get the Phillies to the postseason. They’ll try again this winter.
“You can look at it two ways: We fumbled the bag a little bit and didn’t get there or we had that chance and didn’t make it, but you learn from it,” McCutchen said. “You figure out what we need to do from here on out and get better. At least, we had that chance. We had the team to do it. We just fell short.”