The equipment manager didn’t even have all the uniforms laundered after the last game in St. Louis before the first report came out that the Pirates were going to explore trading Andrew McCutchen this offseason. Although this was eminently predictable, due to the Pirates’ terrible year record-wise and McCutchen’s worst year in the Majors, it is just not going to happen.
Oddly, there is a subset of Pirate fans that are openly agitating for a McCutchen trade. Not only did his poor year fuel their fire, they are using specious body language clues and his words in the press to say that he doesn’t want to be here and that he’s bad for the team. This is a prototypical look into human nature where we build a person up and up, only to enjoy tearing them down off the pedestal when they reach their apex. But for this group of fans (and there’s more than you think), this move to trade him would be solely to satiate their bloodlust after a losing season. I imagine Neal Huntington addressing these fans directly in his post-trade press conference like this:
BACKGROUND OF McCUTCHEN’S EXISTING CONTRACT
Andrew McCutchen has one guaranteed year left on his contract in 2017 for $14.2M. Then there is a team option for $14.5M in 2018. This means that Pirates can (and should) keep McCutchen for 2017 and then trade him next offseason so that they can recoup a still-decent package of players and/or prospects for him, while the receiving team gets one year out of McCutchen and can then extend a Qualifying Offer to him prior to his free agency after the 2018 season. He’ll turn down the Q.O. and the receiving team gets a 1st-round pick in the 2019 draft.
THE AUSTIN MEADOWS EFFECT
Many people who want or believe that the Pirates will trade McCutchen say that an outfield replacement is waiting in the wings, in the form of Austin Meadows. The 2013 1st-round pick will be age-22 in 2017, but let me put a pin in that balloon by stating that he is absolutely not ready to be the Opening Day RF (with either Marte or Polanco taking over McCutchen’s vacated CF) in Pittsburgh.
I don’t want to brand him with the scarlet letter of sports, but Meadows is getting dangerously close to the ‘injury prone’ label for me. He missed over three months of his debut season in 2014 with hamstring issues and saw them resurface this year in AAA, as well. His season got started late this year after he fractured his orbital bone in his face while playing catch in Spring Training. I’m not saying he’s Ryan Doumit 2.0, but he’s not exactly a paragon of health to this point, either.
And more simply, he needs more time in AAA. He didn’t exactly set it on fire in his short 37-game stint there this year. His triple slash line of .214/.297/.460 is sub-par, even if he did slug six dingerz while there. He needs a minimum of half a season still in AAA and that doesn’t even factor in the Super Two shenanigans (should they still exist in their current form with the new CBA this December) that will factor into Pirate front office decision-making.
Meadows has moved into being the Pirates’ #1 prospect for me, but I just want to manage expectations on him. His arm, on the 20-80 scouting scale where 50 is average, is rated as a 40 by many scouts. He should be a 20/20 threat, but he may grow out of that mold quicker than expected and settle in as a slugging corner outfielder.
SELLING LOW ON AN ASSET
In 2015, in what was considered a down year for McCutchen as compared to his MVP years where he was putting up 7 to 8 WAR years, McCutchen hit .292/.401/.488 with 21 homers and 11 steals. This was good for a 146 wRC+ (46% more offense than league average) and 5.8 WAR. It’s crazy that line is considered a ‘down year’, but when you were regularly batting in the .310/.320 range with wRC’s in the 158-168 area, to say nothing of the fact that he was a consistent 20 HR/20 SB threat, that’s what happens.
So now in 2016, after McCutchen craters out to a line of .256/.336/.430 for a wRC+ of 106 with 24 homers and just 6 steals, that’s a sharp drop to a 0.9 WAR. A good 1 to 1.5 WAR drop is due to the fact that by defensive metrics, McCutchen was the worst-rated outfielder in baseball this year. Some, or most, of that may be attributed to the change in defensive positioning that was espoused by the analytics department at the outset of the season. The thinking was that by playing shallow, McCutchen could get more outs on baseball that dropped in front of him in the past, plus help offset his weak arm. Clearly, it did not work.
If Huntington were to attempt to sell on McCutchen now, the cognitive dissonance in McCutchen’s value between the Pirates and the rest of the league may be too much to overcome.
NH — We’re looking to explore the market for Andrew. Are you interested and what’s your opening offer?
OTHER GM — Well…he just turned 30…he was barely above league-average with the bat and his defense was awful….
NH — He was the MVP in 2014 and finished in the top five for four straight years.
OTHER GM — Yeah, but that was way back in 2012 to 2015. This past year he was terrible. Is he even worth his $14M? You may have to kick in a prospect or….
(phone clicks off)
If there’s one underlying truth to all business done by Neal Huntington, it’s that he tries to extract value from every deal he does, no matter how big or small. He’s not going to sell McCutchen at his lowest point. At worst, he’ll give him the opportunity to build up value in the first half of 2017 and then re-assess things at the trade deadline. If the Pirates are in the mix for a playoff spot (defined by being above .500 and within 5 games), he’ll hang on to him. But if the Pirates have a woeful record and their postseason outlook looks bleak in July, then he may move him along and promote Meadows at that time if his performance warrants it.
But to think, or in some cases hope, that the Pirates are going to realistically sell McCutchen at this juncture is just foolish.