No matter which way Pirates management cranks its curious kaleidoscope, there is still only one element clearly evident at the center of every conceivable picture of this star-crossed franchise.
Andrew McCutchen was in center field last night, leading off in manager John Russell's so-called lineup, just as he has for every game since arriving in Pittsburgh June 4, ending nearly four years of snowballing promise if not persistently tantalizing empirical evidence.
From the moment Bob Nutting took over the chairman's seat from Kevin McClatchy in January 2007, to the moment he hired Frank Coonelly as team president that September, to the moment Coonelly brought in Neal Huntington as its general manager 12 days later, to the moment of the next inexplicable spasm of Management Vision, McCutchen is the center fielder and the leadoff hitter of the Pirates of the future.
Should that ever get here.
Russell knew what to do with McCutchen the moment he got here because of that vision, even if everything else remains pretty wildly out of focus.
"We're very excited about Andrew and have been for a number of years," Russell said in his office before last night's tedious hairpull with the staggering Cubs. "He's played great defense and defense is always going to be a big part of what we're doing in the outfield. Now you've got to fill in around Andrew with people who are a little more run-producing guys.
"But the vision is to build around Andrew."
Last night they filled in around him with Brandon Moss and Garrett Jones, meaning the Pirates' starting outfield on July 1 had exactly two home runs. Total. This is a franchise that has shed outfielders Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Craig Monroe, Eric Hinske and Nyjer Morgan in the past 11 months in deference to this vision.
But to be fair, the future isn't now.
So let's fast forward.
In April 2012, with McCutchen presumably about to become the first Pirates center fielder to appear in three consecutive opening day lineups since Andrew James Van Slyke in 1994, who will appear in his peripheral vision?
Lastings Milledge and Brandon Moss?
Brandon Moss and Jose Tabata?
Jose Tabata and Gorkys Hernandez?
Or none from Column A and none from Column B?
By this time, April 2012, Pedro Alvarez should be providing plenty of thunder from one of the corner infield spots, but with the outlook for Pirates power elsewhere, he'd better hit 40 homers in a bad year.
But what will be enjoying in the meantime?
Jeff Salazar and Delwyn Young?
Steve Pearce and Lastings Milledge?
Andre Hastings and Pierce Brosnan?
Any of these combinations lighting you up?
"We have options," Russell insisted.
Oh they've got options.
They just don't have players.
"One of the things that's been unfortunate is that we haven't had the ability to score quickly," Russell said. "But I think maybe with Jones we can at least get that threat in the lineup."
So McCutchen started his first big league July with a sizzling double inside the bag at third. He led the major leagues in triples in June, and led his team in RBIs with 18. Freddy Sanchez couldn't move McCutchen to third, which brought up Jones, making his first career start in the National League at age 28. In 11 years of professional baseball, Jones' resume includes 31 games with the Minnesota Twins at the end of 2007, when he hit .208 with two homers.
Jones bounced out in his first Pirates at-bat, and the ensuing 0 for 4 plus his inability to run down Geovany Soto's liner to left that Morgan would have put in his back pocket didn't exactly trumpet a new era in left field.
But Moss drove in McCutchen with a two-out single, and like it or not, Moss remains a viable outfield option at least until Huntington somehow adds components to refocus the club's long-term outfield vision.
"It won't take me long to adjust at all," McCutchen said after his 2 for 4 brought him back to .292. "I played with Garrett before and I've been adjusting to Moss since spring training. They're playing off the main guy anyway. When I move, they move."
Outfield defense, Russell would assure you, gets played for its own rewards, but when your outfield's offense is -- how to put it politely -- modest, the more runs it prevents the less conspicuous its deficiencies elsewhere become. I think Moss can play some balls in right more aggressively, but he collected his team-leading eighth outfield assist on this homestand, third best in the league. The Pirates' outfield has 24 assists, which just happens to lead the majors.
That's dandy, but has there ever been a Pirates outfield with more assists than homers?
I'd look that up, but frankly, I don't want to know.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283. First Published July 2, 2009 4:00 AM