By our very natures, human beings are not overly fond of planning ahead. In some industries, it is easy to focus on the here and now and worry about tomorrow another day. Baseball is a profession that is prone to hyper-intensive short-term focus, mixed in with a gazeful eye to the future. But baseball players don’t age on linear progressions; there are sharp upticks and steep declines from year-to-year. You never really know what you’re going to get each season. General managers pay good money for the hope of consistency from players, as they’re hesitant to gamble on a young player breaking out or overpaying an aged veteran.
The Pirates’ front office, specifically GM Neal Huntington, have said in the past that they don’t believe in windows of contention. Their goal is to create a long-term model of success that has them in the playoff hunt each year, much like their nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals. And while I believe that they believe that to be true (and it’s admirable), it’s also a little bit of burying one’s head in the sand to a situation coming up after 2017.
Andrew McCutchen signed an incredibly team-friendly 6 year/$51.5M deal back in Spring Training of 2012. The Pirates kept their best player! We’re all going to live forever! Well, the sobering reality is that McCutchen now has just two guaranteed years left in 2016 and 2017. The Pirates hold a ridiculously cheap (for his production) option of $14.5M in 2018, but it’s hard for me to believe that McCutchen sees Opening Day 2018 in a Pirate uniform.
You may be thinking, “Hey, Negative Nancy. The Pirates may sign McCutchen to another long-term deal that keeps him with the Pirates his whole career. He loves it here!” While he may love it here, he also probably loves getting a lot of money. McCutchen will be 32 years old after the 2018 season. The Pirates seem to have an internal financial metric that makes age-32 a decision point in their contracts. Presuming he’s still putting up 5 to 6 WAR seasons, McCutchen is going to get paid a lot of money and it’s hard to see that being from the Pirates. Alex Gordon is heading into his age-32 campaign and is, most likely, going to get $20M/year. Yoenis Cespedes will be playing 2016 as a 30-year old and is crowdsourced by Fangraphs to get $22M/year. Both are good players, but neither’s career holds a candle to what McCutchen has put up to this point.
McCutchen’s career wRC+ (a metric that gauges offense produced in comparison to a league average score of 100) is 144. Cespedes has a 121 and Gordon is at 113. McCutchen’s career WAR is 40.3, Cespedes at 15.4, and Gordon at 29.7. Especially with the exponential rise in free agent prices, it’s hard to believe that McCutchen won’t command at least $30M/year on a 6 year deal after his 2018 season. And that may be underselling it. The Pirates can’t afford to pay one player that amount of money, no matter how good he currently is and how much he could help them in the future. Because if he craters out, that’s a millstone around the neck of the franchise.
So assuming 2017 is McCutchen’s final season with the Pirates, what does the roster look like after he departs? Here’s a look at the Pirates currently under both guaranteed contracts and team control in 2018 and beyond:
- Josh Harrison (thru 2018 for $10.5M, club options in 2019/2020)
- Starling Marte (thru 2019 [$7.8M in 2018, $10.3M in 2019], club options in 2020/2021)
- Jung-ho Kang (thru 2018 for $3M, club option in 2019)
- Jon Niese (thru 2018 for $10.5M, if this option picked up)
- Jared Hughes (4th and final year of arbitration in 2018, as he was a Super 2 player)
- Jordy Mercer (3rd and final year of arbitration in 2018)
- Gerrit Cole (2nd year of arbitration in 2018, 3rd final year in 2019)
- Jeff Locke (3rd and final year of arbitration in 2018, if he’s still here)
- Gregory Polanco (1st year of arbitration, team control thru 2020)
That’s a pretty solid, little core there. Marte-Polanco should be an above-average duo in the outfield. Gerrit Cole will be rounding into Cy Young form fully by then, hopefully. This list doesn’t include prospects that will have hopefully (but I have my doubts on some of them) established themselves, such as Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, and Austin Meadows. If at least two of those four turn into 4 WAR-type of players, that’s a boon.
But the key to all of this will be the return garnered from the McCutchen trade itself. Assuming the trade happens after the 2017 season, probably right around this time of the Winter Meetings, what can the Pirates reasonably expect to get back? Even though the acquiring team will only be getting one year of control, the Pirates should still be able to get a package of 2-3 good prospects (like a top 50 type, top 100 type, and an organizational top 10 type) or a package of 2 MLB-ready players, at least one of which has 3+ years of team control remaining.
That’s the way this will really work for the Pirates. They have to trade players and receive years of control back in return. The window can stay propped open in this fashion. The window will thrown wide open again if they can draft/develop another MVP-caliber player like Andrew McCutchen, of course, but that’s asking a lot. Merely having a team full of very good players, as demonstrated by the Kansas City Royals in 2015, can be sufficient to make noise in the playoffs, too.
The sound and the fury will be at a fever pitch the day the Pirates trade McCutchen. Take what happened last week with Neil Walker and multiply it by a factor of 10, considering that some fans were happy to see Walker go and that no one is hoping McCutchen leaves. But for the Pirates to thrive, they have to keep the influx of talent flowing at a consistent level, not just a trickle here and there. That’s why it’s all the more imperative that the Pirates make some noise in 2016 and 2017, preferably by hanging a World Series banner, to lessen the sting of losing one of this franchise’s 10 best all-time players.