Ron Cook: McCutchen’s injury is bad timing for Pirates

The question isn’t if Pirates star center fielder Andrew McCutchen is seriously injured. You saw him grab his left side in pain after his at-bat in the eighth inning Sunday in a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. You watched him need help to make it off the field and down the dugout steps. The team almost certainly will place him on the 15-day disabled list today, seriously complicating its chances of making it to baseball’s postseason for a second consecutive year.

What’s unknown is how long McCutchen will be out. I’m not a doctor, but it looked as if he has a serious oblique injury. A player can miss a month — maybe more — with such an injury. The torso is that crucial to a hitter because of the torque necessary to swing a bat.

McCutchen was hit in the back Saturday night by a fastball from Arizona pitcher Randall Delgado in retaliation for the Pirates’ Ernesto Frieri hitting Diamondbacks star Paul Goldschmidt Friday night, but there’s no reason to believe that led to McCutchen’s injury Sunday. He had three at-bats earlier in the game without a problem.

This will be McCutchen’s first time on the disabled list. He played in at least 154 games in each of his first four full seasons in the big leagues. His injury could not have happened at a worse time for the Pirates, who are 1½ games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division and a half-game out of the second wild-card slot. For sure, the team still will show up tonight to play the Miami Marlins at PNC Park. It won’t forfeit its remaining 51 games. But it’s hard to imagine a club that already was dealing with the uncertain status of presumptive staff ace Gerrit Cole and the ongoing woes of third baseman Pedro Alvarez winning the division or grabbing a wild-card spot without McCutchen for a long period of time. He isn’t just the Pirates’ most valuable player. He was well on his way to being the National League MVP for a second consecutive season. He was hitting .311 with 17 home runs, 67 RBIs and a .947 OPS.

How do you replace that production?

The Pirates are the third NL Central team to lose a major star to injury. The Cincinnati Reds have dropped back in the pack a bit since long-term injuries to first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips. The St. Louis Cardinals have gone 9-9 since their MVP candidate, catcher Yadier Molina, went out with a ligament tear in his right thumb in a game July 9 against the Pirates. He had surgery July 11 and is expected to miss at least another month, if not the rest of the season. They probably will argue the point in Cincinnati and St. Louis, but McCutchen’s loss to the Pirates is even more devastating because of its timing. Look at the schedule for the next 4½ weeks. After three games with the Marlins (54-57) and three this weekend at home with the really bad San Diego Padres (51-60), the Pirates will play 22 consecutive games against first-place teams or strong wild-card contenders. Twelve will be against the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds; the Pirates are 13-26 against those clubs this season.

Left fielder Starling Marte is the likely choice to replace McCutchen in center field. Marte is on the seven-day concussion disabled list but could be recalled from a rehabilitation assignment with Class AAA Indianapolis and activated to play tonight against the Marlins.

That leaves a hole in left field. Super utilityman Josh Harrison would be the obvious choice for the position, but he is needed to play third base for struggling Alvarez. Travis Snider also has played left in Marte’s absence.

Alvarez’s problems hurt the Pirates now more than ever. He could provide a lot of the offense that McCutchen did if he were swinging the bat better. But he has just two home runs and seven RBIs since July 1. His 15 home runs and 49 RBIs for the season are down from the 27 and 71 he had on this date a year ago. Even worse, Alvarez can’t be trusted to make a simple throw across the infield from third base. He had three more bad throws Saturday night before being benched Sunday against Arizona right-hander Trevor Cahill. His 24 errors — 21 throwing — lead all of baseball.

The Alvarez situation is so bad that the Pirates appear to be at least considering asking him to switch positions, perhaps their last option with him. The club could ask Alvarez to play first base. Or maybe left field? That can’t be, right? There’s just no way he can play left field, can he? There’s too much ground to cover out there at PNC Park.

Asking Alvarez to take on a new position in the middle of a season — in a pennant race, no less — isn’t fair to him. But the Pirates might not have a choice, especially with McCutchen looking at a lengthy stay on the disabled list. It’s not fair to Alvarez’s teammates to keep running him out at third when he can’t make a routine play.

We are talking about a Pirates team that is in serious trouble. Chances are it lost a lot more than just a game Sunday in Arizona. It just might have lost the season.

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