What Should the Pirates Do with Andrew McCutchen?

While the path to the decision took something of a circuitous route over the last couple of seasons, one of the least surprising developments of the weekend was the Pirates’ announcement that they would exercise Andrew McCutchen’s $14.5 million club option for 2018.

After an inexplicable 0.6 WAR campaign in 2016 and an ice-cold start to 2017, McCutchen finally figured things out and rebounded to finish the season with a .279/.363/.486 slash line and 3.7 WAR. If the status of McCutchen’s option was ever in doubt in May, he rendered it a non-issue with a massive June and July, resembling a legitimate superstar during that and other stretches.

According to Matt Swartz’s research, the cost of a win was $9 million from 2014 to -16. Steamer projects McCutchen to post a 3.1 WAR season. The outfielder could reasonably contribute close to $30 million in production, in other words. That’s considerable surplus value at the end of what has been one of the most club-friendly deals of the 21st century.

At the end of the seven years, McCutchen will have been paid $65 million. He has, meanwhile, already produced 32 wins in the first six years of the contract. McCutchen’s deal is perhaps one reason, one data point, why a number of young superstars are on track to enter free agency next offseason after having elected not to trade in maximum earning potential for security.

It’s not that decision, however, but the next one that’s going to be so fascinating for the Pirates.

McCuthen’s time with Pittsburgh was always likely to end in one of two ways: with McCutchen being traded — and the Pirates were reportedly near a deal to send him to the Nationals during last year’s winter meetings — or with McCutchen walking away as a free agent after his 2018 club option was exercised. It’s still likely to end in either one of those two ways.

A contract extension has always seemed like the least probable of outcomes, with Pirates general manager Neal Huntington often citing the club’s need to pay players for what they are going to do, not what they have done. McCutchen turned 31 in October and isn’t exactly aging gracefully, having suffered the greatest age-29 decline, among star players, in the game’s history.

So what should the Pirates do with McCutchen this winter? Should they try and move him, as they did a year ago, with his performance having rebounded in 2017? (Complicating matters is the fact that his expected replacement, outfield prospect Austin Meadows, has had trouble staying on the field and being productive when on it.)

Or should the Pirates play it out with McCutchen one last time?

Adding further intrigue is the place Pittsburgh occupies in the very, very early projected standings. As of today — and, yes, there’s an entire offseason to be played out — FanGraphs projects the Pirates to finish 82-80, third in the NL Central (nine games behind the Cubs), four games behind the Diamondbacks, and two games behind the Cardinals, for Wild Card spots.

At the moment, only six NL teams project to finish with winning records. The Pirates are that sixth team. While there are clear-cut division favorites in the East, Central, and West, the Wild Card field could be wide open.

The Pirates should have a competent rotation, with Gerrit Cole (3.8 WAR), Jameson Taillon (3.1), Ivan Nova (2.4), Chad Kuhl (2.0), all profiling as average or better according to the Steamer projections. Tyler Glasnow (1.5) is a wild card with upside behind them.

The bullpen has voids, but Felipe Rivero emerged as a weapon in 2017 and is an anchor around which the team can build.

Much of the position-player group returns, which is good and bad. On the one hand, they finished just 27th in WAR collectively last season (11.0). On the other, part of that poor showing was due to poor performances by Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. The projections call for improvements from both players.

Still, McCutchen (122 wRC+) was the only member of the lineup to post a batting line north of 108 in 2017 and is pretty clearly the best hitter on the club. The Pirates have a plausible path toward contention, but it becomes less clear without McCutchen, who remains the foundation of the lineup. Huntington has already said the Pirates’ “best club” in 2018 would include McCutchen.

Just about everything went wrong for the Pirates a year ago, from Jung Ho Kang’s off-the-field situation to Marte’s PED suspension to Taillon’s cancer diagnosis and Francisco Cervelli’s recurring injuries.

But what if a few thing break the Pirates’ way?

McCutchen told MLB.com’s Adam Berry recently that, unlike the last two years, he’ll enter spring training feeling good about his swing.

“I feel great with where I am now,” McCutchen said in October. “I’m going to continue to stay right there and take that into the season. I haven’t been able to do that the past couple of years. It was more about, ‘I hope this is where I need to be.’ This time, it’s going to be different.”

After the early-season experiment to move his declining glove to right, McCutchen will likely be back in center field, where his glove remains a liability. Still, it allows the Pirates to arguably be better defensively by leaving Marte and Polanco alone in left and right.

Given that McCuchen would likely not provide the club with overwhelming return in a trade, given the internal paucity of replacement options, the Pirates ought to hang on to McCutchen and play it out with what remains of their top bat.

While the end is near for the McCutchen era in Pittsburgh, it deserves a farewell campaign. The Pirates ought to keep McCutchen around at least through June and see where they are. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Pirates and McCutchen have one more postseason push together. It’s worth exploring to see if it’s possible. If not? Then it’s time to say goodbye.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

If McCutchen wants to spend his entire career in Pittsburgh, and is willing to take a hometown discount to do so, the Pirates should make that happen. It’s a big part of how ‘through thick and thin’ fans become ‘through thick and thin’ fans. And they’re the ones who put in the floor for a franchise’s value.

I mean, I never hear McCutchen himself say he’s gonna go to the highest bidder come 2019. Has he ever said that, and I’ve just missed it?

The Real McNulty
4 years ago
Reply to  Richie

almost no one would say they’re going to the highest bidder.

4 years ago
Reply to  Richie

‘Through thick and thin’ DOES NOT mean you sign an over-the-hill veteran and dig further into mediocrity with a low payroll.

It means you praise Cutch for his service, and extract any value you can from him. Then trust management to turn it around in 2020+ without complaining that they traded your favorite player away.

4 years ago
Reply to  Richie

He gave them a hometown discount the first time around. And given how the team hasn’t really repaid that trust by investing in the team much, he’s under no obligation to stay.

Restore Andy Hawkins Glorymember
4 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Hasn’t he already done that with his last extension? He signed that coming off of a rookie of the year 5 win quality campaign followed up by a solidly above average year and then an actual 5+ win campaign. Even at the time it was generally accepted that he’d signed for below market price (on a bad team at that) and gave away 4 FA years. Even a favorable market deal after this year probably gets him 4 years at $72MM as a 3.5 win player (and likely more like 5 at $90-$100MM for those scrambling after losing out on Harper). Why is it always the player that’s asked to sacrifice millions for the sake of a billionaire’s pocketbook?