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A Hindsight Review Of Why McCutchen’s Contract Was Not Wise

Over the last week I taught my three sons to play the game of Risk. It’s a long drawn out game and many times it seems as though the player who looks to be the eventual winner early in the game is not the winner at the end of the game.

When Neal Huntington has signed free agent contracts and extensions in the past he has often uttered the phrase that there is a “mutual risk” from both the player side and from the team side. This was definitely the case when the Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a contract in 2012 and like the game of Risk the perception of the “winner” has changed throughout the last 5 years. Rarely have I seen it in my 40 years that a player AND team are both losers in a contract; but with the case of this $51.5M contract I can make an argument that both the Pirates and Cutch would have been better off if it never happened.

Since we’ll be talking about the contract and years and WAR let’s review history. Andrew McCutchen was called up midseason in 2009 after Nate McClouth was traded, well after the Super Two cutoff. He played very well (3.4 WAR) and was paid the league minimum (approx. $500k) prorated for the fraction of the year. He received the league minimum for two more seasons and signed the contract in the offseason before the 2012 season. He received a $1.2M signing bonus and a $500k salary in 2012. The following salaries were $4.5M in 2013, $7.2M in 2014,$10M in 2015, $13M in 2016 and $14M this year. He has a $14.5M team option for next season with a $1M buyout which seemed like a no brainer up until….. after 2015.

Why Cutch’s contract was bad for the Pirates

I never thought we’d get to the time that we were talking about Cutch’s salary being an albatross, but I think we arrived there last spring. Cutch will be paid $28M between 2016, 2017 and the $1M contract buyout of his 2017 option and Huntington wished he could have spent that elsewhere.

Now what gets lost to most fans is where Cutch would have both salary and team control-wise just going year-to-year with arbitration. Here’s a chart along with Fangraphs WAR numbers:

Year Age WAR If They Went Year-to-Year With Contract
2009 22 3.4 $500k (prorated) $500k (prorated)
2010 23 3.5 $500k $500k
2011 24 5.5 $500k $500k
2012 25 6.8 $500k $500k
2013 26 8.4 $5M (estimate) $4.5M
2014 27 6.8 $10M(estimate) $7.2M
2015 28 5.8 $15M(estimate) $10M
2016 29 0.7 FREE AGENT $13M
2017 30 0.0 0 $14M
2018 31 ? 0 $14.5M (option)

Using our arbitration estimates you can see the Pirates didn’t really save that much money. If you argue that our estimates are low please remember that David Price‘s $19M was the highest arbitration salary ever awarded and he was a Super Two so that was his 4th trip through arbitration and he had a Cy Young award.

Also, the Pirates would have definitely received either a giant trade package for him in January or July of 2015 (probably not due to playoff races) or at the least a 1st round draft choice in the 2016 draft. Right now I really don’t know what you’d get for Cutch. He’s a bad outfielder that has .254/.302/.424 slash and will probably have more HRs than doubles (bad sign). There’s also that $14M contract for this year and $14.5M or $1M buyout for next season. This is honestly like Francisco Liriano 2.0 but for the fact of the $1M buyout. Yes, the Pirates would not tender him a qualification. So…

What did the Pirates lose? – $28M and a 1st round draft choice.

Why Cutch’s contract was bad for Cutch

For best explanation of this question let’s look at Carl Crawford of the Rays as what could have happened to Cutch. Carl Crawford came up through the Rays system and was promoted pretty fast. He broke into the majors at 20 and was quickly signed to a team friendly contract through his 28 year old season. But he was able to reach free agency…before he dropped off in production and AFTER he signed a 7 year/$142M contract.

Year Age Team WAR
2002 20 Devil Rays 0.7 $500k
2003 21 Devil Rays 1.9 $500k
2004 22 Devil Rays 5.1 $500k
2005 23 Devil Rays 4.8 $500k
2006 24 Devil Rays 4.7 $2.5M
2007 25 Devil Rays 3.3 $4M
2008 26 Rays 2.7 $5.2M
2009 27 Rays 5.9 $8.2M (Team Option exercised)
2010 28 Rays 7.7 $10M (Team Option exercised)
2011 29 Red Sox -0.1 $14M – START OF $142M CONTRACT
2012 30 Red Sox 0.4 $19.5M
2013 31 Dodgers 2.8 $20M
2014 32 Dodgers 2.6 $20.2M
2015 33 Dodgers 0.4 $20.5M
2016 34 Dodgers -0.8 $20.8M
2017 35 Dodgers 0.0 $21M

Crawford was fresh off a ridiculous 7.7 WAR season when he signed his monster contract with the Red Sox, then he fell apart. In the next 6 seasons he totaled 5.9 WAR while getting paid $120M+. This could have been Cutch.

Cutch was coming off a 5.8 WAR season in 2015 when he could have been a free agent. He, like Crawford, was 28 and supposedly entering his prime. Our friend at Fangraphs, Dave Cameron, in his July 2015 trade value rankings post said this:

“Cutch is still likely to remain an elite player; he ranks fifth in the five year ZIPS forecast, even ahead of most of the young guys heading into their prime. …he ?s a probable Hall of Famer in the prime of his career…” – Dave Cameron, Fangraphs 2015 Trade Value Rankings

Looking at the 2015 offseason of Free Agents we saw the offensively sketchy Justin Upton and Jason Heyward both get $23M a year deals with Chris Davis also getting $150M+. David Price and Zach Grienke got $200M+ to top all free agents. I honestly think Cutch would have topped them all.

When polling all the TPOP writers what they thought Cutch would get, the consensus was 7 or 8 years at $25M to $27M a year. So he would have guaranteed $200M.

Now the real question is, assuming his option is not picked up for 2018 how much will he sign for? I’d take a stab and say some AL team will offer him 2/$22M in hopes he finds his stroke again. He might sign a couple more contracts for the rest of the career but I don’t think he’s Carlos Beltran 2.0. I don’t think he makes more than $35M the rest of his career… to be conservative let’s say $50M. He did make that extra $28M that needs to be accounted for. So…

What did the Cutch lose? – $200 M – ($28M + $50M) = $122.0M










Why did Cutch fade?

Not the point of this article but my best guess:

Pitchers with Avg. FB velocity > 94 mph (min 60 innings) Starters Total
2009 10 38
2012 7 37
2016 21 65

Michael is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. Michael is former submarine officer and Naval Academy grad. He now runs a small consulting firm and does veteran related job fairs. He is a SABR member and regularly attends Altoona Curve games to scout the Pirate prospects.

1 Comment on A Hindsight Review Of Why McCutchen’s Contract Was Not Wise

  1. Bigbucfan // April 24, 2017 at 12:39 PM //

    This is bad. I don’t think I’ll read any more posts from this site.

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