Continuing Major League Baseball’s trend of breaking news in the middle of the night (thanks guys!), Michael Senserino reported about an hour ago that the Pirates had agreed to a six year, $51 million contract with star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. No need to bury the lede here – this is nothing short of a fantastic signing for the Pirates.
Just 25 years old, McCutchen had just over two years of accumulated service time, so this deal buys out his final pre-arbitration season, all three of his arb years, and his first two years of free agency, while also giving the Pirates a team option (for $14.75 million) on what would be his third free agent eligible season. Barring an injury or a total collapse of his skills, that option looks very likely to be exercised, so the working assumption should be that the Pirates have locked up McCutchen’s age 25-31 seasons for $65 million.
You don’t need to do any kinds of calculations to know that McCutchen’s likely going to be worth way, way more than that as long as he keeps going at the pace he’s established so far. Despite the fact that UZR hasn’t been a huge fan of his defense to date, he’s still managed to put up +12.9 WAR during his first three years in the big leagues – only Matt Kemp (+14.3), Josh Hamilton (+14.1, not really a CF going forward), Michael Bourn (+13.8), Curtis Granderson (+13.5), and Shane Victorino (+13.3) have outproduced him among center fielders since the start of the 2009 season. Toss in aging curves and regress the defensive metrics a bit more than the offensive numbers, and McCutchen’s right there with Kemp and Granderson for the title of best center fielder in the game.
Guys who can post a wRC+ of 126 in 1500 plate appearances through age 24 – while playing a good enough center field – are ridiculously rare. If you were starting a franchise from scratch tomorrow, McCutchen would be on the short list of guys you’d look at to build a team around. He’s already an All-Star and his broad base of skills and physical talents suggest that he could get even better. It’s not at all out of the question that McCutchen could peak as the best outfielder in the game. And now, with this deal, the Pirates have guaranteed that his best days will be spent in Pittsburgh.
In terms of the contract values, you don’t have to look very hard to figure out where the terms of this deal came from. Two years ago from Thursday, the Diamondbacks locked up Justin Upton to a six year, $51.25 million contract – that deal bought out his final pre-arbitration year, all of his arb years, and his first two years of free agency. Sound familiar?
Nine months later, the Reds signed Jay Bruce to a contract with nearly the exact same terms – six years, $51 million, with a club option for a seventh year at $13 million. Bruce had all of two days more service time when he signed his extension than McCutchen does now.
Put simply, this is the accepted going rate for young outfielders with 2+ years of service who have flashed a good amount of potential. However, the Pirates should be thrilled that they were able to negotiate the same deal with McCutchen as the D’Backs and Reds did with their young stars.
For one, salaries have gone up since both of those deals were signed. The new money being pushed into the league through increased revenues (especially television contracts) have caused the price of talent to go up, and we’ve seen a lot of money thrown around this winter for both free agents and guys getting extensions in lieu of going to arbitration. That the Pirates were able to negotiate a deal that essentially ignored the fact that inflation has occurred in the last 18-24 months is a win for them.
There’s also the fact that McCutchen simply has a better Major League track record at this point than either Bruce or Upton did when they were extended. In essentially three full seasons in the big leagues, he’s posted extremely consistent wRC+’s, going 125/125/129 since breaking into the big leagues. Bruce’s first three seasons went 93/96/122, while Upton went 55/103/132. Both players were coming off one season that were on par with what McCutchen has done, but he’s done it three years in a row, and he’s done it while playing center field. Both Bruce and Upton were younger than McCutchen when they broke into the big leagues, so you have to adjust their performances for their age as well, but the fact is that McCutchen’s stronger early career track record makes him a bit less of a risk in projecting future performance than either Bruce or Upton were.
Upton’s a fair comp for McCutchen, given their overall career performances and skills, but the Pirates simply got a better deal than Arizona did on the extension – they got the team option that Arizona didn’t and signed the deal in a market where player prices were going up. And, if you compare the McCutchen deal with the Bruce contract, you simply can’t get around the fact that the Pirates got a far superior player for the same price. I would have thought that McCutchen could have landed a deal more similar to the seven year, $80 million extension that Carlos Gonzalez got a year ago – it not only covered the same years of service time, but the same years in terms of age. Gonzalez might have been coming off a more impressive offensive season, but he also had a spottier track record and and a less refined game overall. That’s probably the deal that McCutchen should have aimed for, rather than settling for a carbon copy of the Bruce/Upton deals.
Pittsburgh fans, dance in the streets. Not only do you have one of the best players in the game locked up through his prime, you got him at a price that is a bit below what should have been expected based on his skills and the rising cost of locking up premium young talent. The Pirates have a true franchise player under wraps at prices that are going to make him one of the game’s best bargains for the foreseeable future.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.