Will Andrew McCutchen's Injury Sink the Pirates' Playoff Hopes?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2014

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There is a moment when a star player winces, or staggers or crumples in pain, and an entire fanbase holds its collective breath. Sometimes it's nothing, sometimes it's everything.

Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans, the injury suffered by MVP center fielder Andrew McCutchen doesn't sound like nothing. 

McCutchen's fateful wince came while taking a swing Sunday in the eighth inning of the Pirates' 3-2 extra-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He clutched his left side as he hobbled up the first-base line (though in typical McCutchen fashion, the hack resulted in a sacrifice fly). Ultimately, he had to be helped off the field.

"I thought I was cramping," McCutchen later told Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I never really have had any problems in that area."

Looks like more than a cramp. Citing an unnamed source—the Pirates had yet to release any official word on McCutchen's status as of Monday night—the Post-Gazette's Ron Cook wrote that McCutchen is "expected" to be placed on the 15-day DL and "could be out at least three weeks or a month because of what appeared to be a serious oblique muscle injury."

Again, that's yet to be confirmed. If it is true, it'd spell big, possibly ship-sinking, trouble for the Pirates, who looked to be on course for the postseason.

McCutchen's value cannot be overstated. At the time of his injury, he owned a .311/.411/.536 slash line to go along with 17 home runs, 67 RBI and 17 stolen bases. If he wasn't the front-runner to win a second consecutive NL MVP award, he was squarely in the conversation.

Now, the Bucs are faced with the prospect of sailing on without their superstar for at least the foreseeable future. It won't be easy.

Entering play Tuesday Pittsburgh is locked in a tight three-way battle in the NL Central. Just 1.5 games separate the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and third-place Pirates, and the second-place Cardinals sit in the middle, one game off the pace.

All three teams could technically qualify for the postseason. But in this era of the one-game Wild Card play-in, it's all about winning the division and punching a guaranteed ticket to the first-round best-of-five series.

Last year Pittsburgh broke through, finishing 94-68 and making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. It won the Wild Card Game but lost, 3-2, in the division series to the Cardinals. 

This season was a chance to build on that success. To reclaim forgotten treasure.

Jul 30, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison (5) and center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) celebrate after Harrison hit a home run against the San Francisco Giants during the third inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Cred

It could still happen. Even if McCutchen does miss a month, he'd return in time for the stretch run. The trick will be for the Pirates to keep their heads above water in the meantime.

The Bucs do boast decent outfield depth. Josh Harrison (.304/.342/.497 with 10 HR) has been a revelation, and Starling Marte, who has experience in center field, is eligible to come off of the seven-day concussion DL on Tuesday, per Howard Burns of the Pittsburgh Business Times. 

Pittsburgh could also try to pull off a post-deadline desperation deal, as Tom Gatto of Sporting News speculated:

Will the Bucs try to acquire an outfield bat, such as the Phillies' Marlon Byrd, in a waiver trade? Byrd might be too expensive, both in terms of players and contract. [He] has an $8 million option for 2015 that he reportedly wants picked up if he's traded, plus an $8 million vesting option for 2016.

Let's be real, though. Without McCutchen, the Pirates simply aren't serious contenders. 

A little solace for the hand-wringing Pittsburgh faithful: McCutchen isn't injury-prone. He's played at least 154 games every season since 2010, the very definition of durable.

That can change in a hurry, but it may bode well for the MVP's chances of getting back sooner rather than later.

He'd better. Pirates fans can only hold their breath for so long.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.