CLEARWATER, Fla. — As Andrew McCutchen began the grueling rehab process this winter from last season’s knee injury, he allowed himself to envision standing in the outfield in Miami on March 26 as the Phillies’ opening-day left fielder.
That scene — which would be just nine months after he had surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — seemed like a pipe dream, but McCutchen needed something to push him.
“That’s the mindset I have to have when I come to this field,” McCutchen said Saturday morning. “The monotony of coming here every single day and doing the same thing, you have to have a motivation. And, for me, my motivation was telling myself that I will be ready by opening day.”
So, it might have been a bit disheartening when the team’s medical staff told McCutchen this week that he will not be ready on March 26. McCutchen, who turned 33 in October, has yet to play a Grapefruit League game or test his knee in a rundown, which is how he injured it in June.
The Phillies told him he would be ready sometime in April, not March.
“I see myself on March 27,” McCutchen said, pushing his timeline back a day. “The trainers and them, they can tell you what they see. But me, I see myself in Miami on March 27 leading off. I have to do that. That’s me, and that’s what I’m doing to keep going.”
McCutchen would like to play a Grapefruit League game before camp breaks on March 23. But if not, he could rehab against minor leaguers on the back fields of the Carpenter Complex. The Phillies will need to prepare for his absence, which could extend into the first few weeks of the season.
Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley, projected to be on the opening-day roster, could play left and center field. Jay Bruce, who is close to being cleared to play the field, could start in left field against right-handed pitchers.
“If Andrew’s not ready, I plan on playing left field on March 26,” Bruce said.
The Phillies will look this spring at Kyle Garlick, a power-hitting corner outfielder they acquired early in camp from the Dodgers. Nick Williams remains on the 40-man roster and started in left field on Saturday in Dunedin, and Josh Harrison, one of eight veterans on minor league deals vying for a bench job, played left on Thursday.
The Phillies might not be able to replace McCutchen’s production, but they do have options to play left field on opening day.
“Could you go out there and play a game? I think I could. But could I play to the best of my ability? Probably not,” McCutchen said. “I need to be me, I need to be Andrew McCutchen when I’m out there on the field. So, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, progressing the way that we’re progressing, keep putting the work in that we’re putting in so I can be that. But just because they said it’s unlikely I’ll be ready for opening day, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m coming in here going, ‘I’m going to be ready for opening day.’ I have to tell myself I’ll still be ready for that so I can go out there, get the work in, and not just go through the motions and prolong this process.”
McCutchen’s left knee is dotted with keloids, which are bubbly scars left over from the surgery. It was the second time an ACL of his needed repair. He tore the ligament in his right knee during a high school football game. This time, McCutchen asked whether he could stay awake for the operation.
“I was like, ‘I’ve done it before. I just don’t want to go under,'" McCutchen said.
The doctor advised against it, so McCutchen went under anesthesia. McCutchen said this surgery was the same as the first one, but the rehab process moves much quicker 16 years later. And that’s why he allowed himself to dream about standing in left field on opening day.
“The mindset still hasn’t changed,” McCutchen said. “I’m going to be ready for opening day. Even if that doesn’t happen, my mindset is going to be that throughout the rest of spring training. If I’m not ready, then I’ll be like,' I’ll be ready tomorrow.' So, for me, it’s not like saying something held me back or I’m not doing as well or progressing as well. I’m progressing the way that I need to progress. But my mindset is still going to be the same.”