Standing in the on-deck circle before his first at-bat against the Pirates on Friday, Andrew McCutchen snuck a quick look into the crowd at BayCare Ballpark, intentionally sparse and socially distanced as it was that afternoon.

A big smile swept over his face.

“My wife, my two boys, they were there in the stands,” McCutchen told SN during a phone interview. “It was the first time my youngest, Armani, who is 1, that was the first time I was able to see him in the stands and have him actually see me. That was the coolest thing, to be standing there on deck and look up and see my family there.”

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Armani, who was born on Christmas Eve 2019, was there with his brother, Steel, and his mom, Maria. It had been a long time since Maria and Steel had seen McCutchen play in person. There were no fans in attendance at MLB ballparks in 2020, of course, and McCutchen’s 2019 season had ended on June 3, when he tore the ACL in his left knee after getting caught in a rundown. For a family man such as McCutchen, that was a long, long time. 

“I really appreciated that moment,” he said. “I even told my wife, I might have been a little nervous because I hadn’t seen them.”

So how’d he do? McCutchen struck out in his first at-bat, a seven-pitch plate appearance that included a liner ripped just wide of the third-base bag. And he struck out in his second at-bat, too. Maybe dad nerves are a real thing? 

“My third at-bat, though, I ended up hitting a homer, which was really cool,” McCutchen said with a laugh. “All-around, it was a great time.”

McCutchen had a great time the next day, too. He’s long been an advocate for youth baseball, helping kids get access to equipment that can get expensive, quickly. On Saturday, he was part of the Sports Matter Giving Truck, partnered with Dick’s Sporting Goods. 

McCutchen, now 34 and heading into his 13th season as a major league outfielder, is eager to get back to the postseason. He signed a three-year deal (with a club option for 2022) with the Phillies in December 2018, and a couple of months later, the club gave another outfielder (Bryce Harper) a 13-year, $330 million. 

But the past two seasons have been disappointing. The Phillies finished just .500 in 2019 and missed the playoffs, then finished outside the October chase again in 2020 despite the expanded postseason format. Expectations both seasons weren’t just to compete for a playoff spot, but to compete for a World Series title. 

McCutchen is undaunted. The biggest moves the Phillies made this offseason were bringing back catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius; both were excellent in 2020. But those weren’t the only moves. 

“We’re gonna be good. We’re going to be really good,” he said. “It’s an exciting team. I know it’s spring training, but the last couple games we’ve had some shutout innings and it’s really fun to be a part of.”

Why is he bringing up a few shutout innings in spring games? If you’re a Phillies fan, you already know the answer to that question. 

In 2020, Phillies relievers compiled a 7.06 ERA. No, that’s not a typo. And, sure, it was only a 60-game season, so keep that in mind, but the worst bullpen ERA for any team going back to 1961 before the 2020 season? Tampa Bay, back when they were the Devil Rays in 2007, at 6.16. Other than that, no team had a bullpen ERA above 6.00 from 1961 through 2019. 

“If you look at the numbers, our offense was one of the better offenses in the National League. So, say we stay there, the offense just as good as last year, and probably even better just because we’re bringing back the same guys,” McCutchen said. “And we had one of the worst bullpens last year, the numbers say that. And we made some acquisitions, getting Jose Alvarado and Archie Bradley, to name a couple. And bringing in other arms as well, we have gotten better. We are better. We’re not asking for a bullpen that’s leading in ERA, we just need an average bullpen. And I think we have a better-than-average bullpen. I think we’re going to do well in those later innings.”

So, yeah, the shutout innings in an early spring training game are encouraging. 

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Bradley was a surprise free agent this offseason. He was non-tendered by the Reds despite posting a 1.17 ERA in six appearances after they traded for him last summer. He’s been one of the more reliable and durable relievers over the past four years, posting a 2.95 ERA in 221 games (including one start, as an opener, in 2019). 

Alvarado was outstanding for the Rays in 2018 — 2.39 ERA/2.27 FIP, 80 K in 64 IP — but less effective in limited work in 2019-20, though he still missed bats (12.0 K/9). The Phillies traded for him in December, and he’s looked good to McCutchen this spring. 

“When I watched him (Friday), it wasn’t even fair for the guys he faced,” McCutchen said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun watching him come out of the bullpen.”

Bradley and Alvarado both tossed scoreless innings Friday, and so did another guy McCutchen’s excited about.

“Looking forward to seeing what Spencer Howard is going to be able to do, given the opportunity,” McCutchen said. “He has really good stuff. Looking forward to seeing what he can bring to the table.”

Howard is ranked as the No. 27 overall prospect in MLB by Baseball America. The right-hander, a second-round pick in 2017, blitzed through the minors in 2019, fashioning a 2.03 ERA in 15 starts all the way from rookie ball to Double-A. He made six starts for the Phillies last year, posting a 5.92 ERA in his first action above Double-A. 

He could still wind up in the Philadelphia rotation this year, but it makes sense to start him as an added bullpen arm — a clear area of need — and let veteran additions Matt Moore and Chase Anderson take rotation spots, at least to start the year.

Again, super small sample size — and a small spring sample size on top of that — but the Phillies’ relievers entered play Wednesday with a 3.26 ERA in 49 2/3 innings.

“I’m getting really excited about the season,” McCutchen said. 

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