The Pirates Sail Forward With Andrew McCutchen

The Pirates almost traded Andrew McCutchen. That’s all anyone could really think about when McCutchen was present at the Pirates’ annual PirateFest, the Saturday after the end of the winter meetings. Maybe the public never should’ve had any idea in the first place, but teams leak information, and the McCutchen rumors ran rampant. It made the occasion a little awkward, an occasion where fans would prefer to simply embrace the homegrown superstar, free of complicating thoughts. It’s anyone’s guess how much longer McCutchen might last where he is.

The reality of the Pirates’ situation is that the commitment to McCutchen probably isn’t forever. He’s under contract one more year, with a club option after that, and it’s hard to see the two parties together in 2019. It would’ve made plenty of sense for the Pirates to make a deal last week. It also made plenty of sense for the Pirates to hold off. It would now appear McCutchen will at least open the next season in Pittsburgh. Beyond that, it’s murky, but no one yet has to say their goodbyes.

There was an argument for the Pirates to take the best offer they could get in Washington DC. McCutchen would’ve wound up with, say, the Nationals, or the Rangers, or the Mariners, or the Dodgers. The argument hinged upon two things. For one, the Pirates are a lower-budget operation, and they always need to balance the short-term against the long-term. McCutchen has become a shorter-term asset, right when it looks like the Cubs could run away with the division anyhow.

And for two, it would’ve been possible to trade McCutchen and remain fringe wild-card contenders. Though it always sucks to deal away a star player, the Pirates without McCutchen wouldn’t have been toast. They’d probably have a brand-new good prospect, and they’d have either a major-league piece, or financial flexibility. The McCutchen money could’ve been directed elsewhere, to make the roster better right away. The Pirates would’ve looked something like a .500 team. A team like that only needs a few breaks to play an extra game.

The Pirates understand their situation, better than anyone. They weren’t afraid of the McCutchen decision. I think what happened is they essentially left the decision up to the bidders. McCutchen was made available, but for only a very high price. Had the price been met, this article would read differently. No bidder got there, so McCutchen remains. The Pirates will move forward as is, and this really isn’t so bad. It’s probably even a little bit better.

The first reason is obvious. Without McCutchen, the Pirates could still be fringe contenders. With McCutchen – well, he’s arguably their best player. The Pirates are stronger with him, so these Pirates are contenders. They’re definitely not Cubs-level contenders. No one in their right mind would pick the Pirates to win next year’s NL Central. But they have most of what’s been before a pretty strong club.

This is going to sound elementary, but five teams in each league make the playoffs. You don’t have to be as good as the best team. You can be the fifth-best team, and the door is still open for you. The Pirates don’t have to win as many games as the Cubs, Dodgers, or Nationals. They just have to keep up with the second-best team out of the Cardinals, Giants, Mets, and maybe – maybe – a few others. And, hell, even if the Pirates were to miss the playoffs, just being close has value. Fans love any kind of pennant chase. It’s sort of the whole point.

One reason not to trade McCutchen, then, is that the Pirates aren’t bad. Bad teams are supposed to be the ones trading good players. There’s more. We can talk about McCutchen’s own trade value. This wasn’t the Pirates’ last opportunity to cash him in. There could and should be more chances down the road, and, perhaps you’ve noticed where McCutchen’s numbers have gone lately.

Here’s a peek:

2012: 6.8 WAR
2013: 8.4
2014: 6.8
2015: 5.8
2016: 0.7

Even if you didn’t know much about WAR, the meaning would be apparent. The first four numbers are super good. The last number was really disappointing. McCutchen is coming off his worst season, and now he’s 30 years old. He’s not a good defensive center fielder, and he’s dealt with nagging injuries.

From the Pirates’ perspective, they believe McCutchen can and will bounce back, to some substantial degree. That’s totally reasonable; everyone should be more or less on the same page. There’s no reason why McCutchen should be finished. But if you’re some other team, thinking about making a trade, you just have to wonder. Those questions would eat at you. Even if you firmly believe McCutchen is better than he just showed, you’d want proof. You wouldn’t want to pay a premium price for a potentially non-premium return. It’s just too hard for the Pirates and another front office to align.

All McCutchen needs to do is play well. That’s what he’s done for most of his career. If McCutchen plays well, there are two possibilities. The Pirates could play well around him, and the team would be a contender. Great! Alternatively, the Pirates could sputter. Then McCutchen talks could be re-visited, with him having re-established his on-field credentials.

The fans have already been primed for this. Pirates fans know, more than ever, that the McCutchen clock is ticking. A few years ago, the Rays considered trading David Price in the offseason, when he had two years of control left. They held off and then made a move in July, netting a starter and the organization’s current top prospect.

An even stronger comparison is Jonathan Lucroy, who the Brewers thought about trading last winter, when he had two more years of control. Instead, they traded him for a big return in the middle of the summer. Like McCutchen, Lucroy was a homegrown star at his position, coming off a down year. In 2016, he found his game again, and the Rangers paid a steep price to get him. It was hard for the Brewers to move their everyday catcher, but their faith in his ability was rewarded.

The Pirates still have Andrew McCutchen, because the ballclub could be pretty good. Beyond that, McCutchen stands to rebuild his own perception and value, and so even if the team goes on to sink, there would be other chances to redeem McCutchen for youth. In the best-case scenario, where the Pirates are really great, it could still be weird a year from now, with McCutchen months away from free agency. There might not be a perfectly graceful way to handle all this. The Pirates just have to worry about 2017 first. For 2017, they know what their opening-day outfield will look like.

I think you can sense some kind of end is coming. McCutchen is getting older, and Austin Meadows is getting better, and the Pirates just don’t spend all that much money. It wouldn’t be like them to pay market price for McCutchen’s decline years, so one way or another, his days in Pittsburgh seem numbered. Realistically, there’s no escaping that.

It’s just not the end of the world. Rays fans got over Price. Brewers fans got over Lucroy. Rockies fans have gotten over Troy Tulowitzki. Players come and players go, and you hope to have positive experiences while certain ones are around. For now, for the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen is still around. And that playoff door is still cracked open.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless George Brett
5 years ago

If i was a GM i would trade for him just so i could be in the situation where i was negotiating with him and could then shout;

“No deal, McCutchen! That moon money is mine!”

And then run out of the room.

One of many reasons why I not a GM i suppose.