For seven months, Andrew McCutchen hasn’t seen the sense in thinking beyond his next workout. He knows it might sound trite, but experience tells him that it’s the best way to make it back to a baseball field after having a ligament in his knee reconstructed with a tendon grafted from his quadriceps.
Now, though, spring training is a few days away, and the 33-year-old left fielder is faced with the one question on Phillies fans’ minds: Will you be ready to play when the season begins?
“That’s the plan,” McCutchen said by phone this week from Clearwater, Fla. “I can’t tell you 100% I’ll be ready. I don’t know. If I had a silver ball, whatever they call it, I’d be able to say. I’m just going to keep working to be ready for opening day.”
Give McCutchen points for honesty, but also know this: He’s confident he will be in the Phillies’ lineup — likely leading off for new manager Joe Girardi — on March 26 in Miami, and his optimism is rooted in more than just the hope-springs-eternal mood of pitchers and catchers reporting by Tuesday.
A rehab process that McCutchen described as “slow and steady” has progressed to “pretty much full-throttle.” He had surgery last June 14 and was running on a treadmill by October and hitting in a batting cage near his home outside of Pittsburgh by November. The 2013 National League MVP arrived in Florida in mid-January, 3 1/2 weeks after his wife gave birth to their second son, Armani, and has been working out for three hours each day, often at the Phillies’ facility.
“Not necessarily 100%, but I have the clearance at this point to go out and do what I want, honestly,” McCutchen said. “If it’s cutting, running, jumping, whatever, that’s what I’m doing. Now it’s to where it’s about being able to do everything at the highest peak. Of course, I’m not there yet.”
McCutchen will therefore begin spring training on a specialized program. Don’t plan on seeing him in the Grapefruit League opener on Feb. 22 against the Detroit Tigers. There’s a chance he won’t get into a game for a few weeks, in fact, until after he puts his knee through baserunning, sliding, jumping, diving, and other physical tests in a controlled practice environment.
“We need to see how his body reacts,” Girardi said recently. “You want him to clear hurdles — maybe a two-day hurdle or a three-day hurdle — and see how his body is responding.”
It doesn’t pay to be impatient, either, even for a player who had gone on the injured list once in 10 seasons before last June 3 in San Diego, where he twisted awkwardly to avoid being tagged in a rundown, grabbed his left knee, and crumpled to the dirt.
McCutchen went through this before. As a sophomore at Fort Meade High School in central Florida in 2002, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a football game. He missed the subsequent baseball season and never went back to football, but made a complete recovery and got selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft.
Seventeen years after overcoming that injury, McCutchen drew on the experience to survive this one. Even though the body doesn’t bounce back as easily from trauma at age 33 compared to 16, when McCutchen was healing and growing simultaneously, the mind tends to race at the same speed throughout a deliberate rehabilitation.
This time, though, McCutchen wasn’t under any delusions that there were shortcuts to return to the field more quickly.
“The hardest part is realizing that you’ve got to focus on the small gains,” McCutchen said. "What I mean by that is, say when I first started trying to walk again and not use any type of assistance, the first day was very challenging. The following week, it was still challenging, which in turn made it frustrating. But then I had to look back and be like, ‘Wow, remember a week ago when I could barely even put any weight on it. Now I can put weight on it.’ You realize that I’m improving but the improvements are just very small.
"I don't know if I'm on schedule or whatever. I don't even necessarily know what that means. I'm not trying to get ready for spring training. I'm trying to get ready for baseball season."
The Phillies missed McCutchen more than even team officials expected. He had signed a three-year, $50 million contract before last season and batted .256 with a .378 on-base percentage, 12 doubles, 10 homers and an .834 OPS in 219 at-bats. In his absence, the Phillies tried seven players in the leadoff spot. But Cesar Hernandez, Jean Segura, Bryce Harper, Scott Kingery, Corey Dickerson, Roman Quinn and Rhys Hoskins combined for a .689 OPS.
It’s fair to wonder how McCutchen will bounce back from the injury. Will he need more frequent rest? And after playing in an average of 155 games — and more total games (1,393) than any player in the majors — from 2010-18, how will he react if Girardi wants to spell him once or twice a week with reserve outfielders Jay Bruce and Roman Quinn?
Oops. There we go, looking too far ahead again.
"All I know is it's going to feel a lot different than any other time just for the simple fact of I haven't played in this amount of time," McCutchen said. "I don't know since I picked up a baseball when I was 5 if I've ever taken this much time off as far as playing the game. I'm just looking forward to being out there on the field again and playing when I get the OK to get out on the field.
"It's going to feel good. It's going to feel euphoric. Even in spring training, to feel that again, be out on the field again playing a game that I love playing, it's definitely going to carry a little more weight than it has in the past. I can't wait, to say the least."