By Richard Cuicchi | December 04, 2016 at 10:54 PM EST | No Comments
It’s been rumored since last season that the Pittsburgh Pirates were putting its premier outfielder, Andrew McCutchen, on the trading block. Now, during the Hot Stove season, the rumors about a pending trade are hotter than ever. Many observers think it’s a foregone conclusion that McCutchen will be dealt by the Pirates in order to shore up their pitching and get some young prospects in return. Plus, the Pirates have historically been a modest-payroll team and aren’t likely to shell out the big bucks McCutchen could command in order to retain him.
Of course, Pirates fans are rightfully bummed out by the potential of a deal. After all, McCutchen is the face of the team. He’s been the backbone of the club since he broke into the big leagues in 2009. He was MVP of the National League in 2013, while finishing in the top five in three other seasons. He’s a five-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner. He turned 30 years old in October and has yet to spend any time on the disabled list during his eight major league seasons.
McCutchen is currently signed with the Pirates through the 2017 season, with the Pirates having a club option for an additional year. The Pirates’ primary motive for dealing him now is they figure his value is greater than it would be one or two years later. They apparently aren’t interested in giving McCutchen a four or five year contract renewal, probably at a premium price, when he is 32 years old.
However, at some point, one has to ask whether it would be a wise decision for the Pirates to let McCutchen go. Will they, in fact, be better off without him in their attempt to win a Central Division title
Playing in a strong division with the perennially tough St. Louis Cardinals, McCutchen got the Pirates into a wild card spot for three consecutive seasons during 2013 and 2015. Only once in those three seasons did they advance to the Division Championship Series. With the World Series champion Chicago Cubs franchise now on the rise, it will get even harder for the Pirates to claim a playoff spot unless the Cardinals or the Cubs experience a down year.
Players like McCutchen don’t come along that often. He is to the Pirates what Derek Jeter was to the New York Yankees. Of course, the Yankees were in a much different financial situation to retain Jeter over his career than the Pirates are with McCutchen. But you’ve got to believe the Yankees realized early on the value Jeter brought, both on the field and in the clubhouse. He was the glue that allowed the Yankees to mix and match other players around him. McCutchen brings the same effect to the Pirates. Without “Cutch,” who’s going to do that for the Pirates going forward? Not anyone on the current roster.
Besides the intangibles McCutchen brings to the table, he’s still an offensive force on the field. While he won’t probably won’t lead the league in home runs or RBI (he’s typically good for 25 home runs and 85 RBI), he’s a high on-base percentage (OBP) guy and he does offer enough of a threat to protect other sluggers in the lineup.
He had a below-average season (for him) last year. The Pirates put him second in the batting order for much of the season, with the thinking that his high OBP would create increased run-scoring opportunities. But that strategy didn’t work out like expected, since both his OBP and power numbers declined when batting second. His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) went negative last year, compared to being in the range of 5.0 to 8.0 during his all-star seasons.
It’s not expected that McCutchen’s performance will continue to drop off, although the Pirates seem to be taking no chances by shopping him around now. The Pirates have highly touted outfield prospect Austin Meadows coming up through their farm system as a potential replacement for McCutchen, although that seems to be at least a year away based on Meadows’ progression through the minors.
Many major league clubs are shying away from offering players contract extensions costing in excess of $120 million for 4-5 years, once the players get into their 30s. Perhaps the biggest example of this was when Cardinals let Albert Pujols get away after the 2011 season at age 31, after he essentially posted a Hall of Fame career in only his first eleven seasons. Practically everyone thought the Cardinals were crazy at the time. However, it turned out to be the right decision for the Cardinals, as Pujols’ performance suffered a dramatic decline with his new team (Los Angeles Angels), although admittedly he became beset by injuries.
The Pirates are fearing a similar situation like Pujols or are thinking about other recent players, like Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, where the acquiring clubs overpaid for the production they ultimately received.
But I believe the Pirates’ situation is different. Without McCutchen, the Pirates will likely become just another also-ran team, possibly returning to their losing ways that plagued the franchise from 1993 to 2012. With him, as well as with much-needed pitching upgrades, they can stay relevant and put up a good fight against the Cubs and Cardinals in the division.
The Pirates’ ownership should ignore the Pujols, Crawford and Ellsbury cases. They should buck the trend of other teams and just show McCutchen the money when his current contract ends.