When thinking of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first name that should come to any casual MLB fan’s mind is Andrew McCutchen. He is the face of the Pirates, and arguably one of the most recognizable players in the entire MLB. However, following his run of MVP-caliber seasons, he had his worst season to date in 2016, hitting just .256 with an OBP of .336 and an OPS of .766. These numbers were all career lows, and his WAR (wins above replacement) for 2016 was -0.7, also a career low. Due to these numbers and his contract coming to an end in 2017 with a team option for 2018, he has been the talk of many trade rumors around the MLB winter meetings. The Pirates missed out on the playoffs last year and their prospects for this season are looking similar, with a team that will need a few breaks to go their way to make the playoffs. Many fans and pundits have advocated trading McCutchen while he still has value in his age-30 season to accelerate a mini-reboot of the franchise and to infuse some new young players into the farm system. However, trading McCutchen would be the absolute worst move for the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise.
In the 2005 MLB draft, McCutchen was drafted 11th overall by the Pirates as a high schooler out of Fort Meade, Florida. He had a commitment to the college baseball powerhouse University of Florida, but chose to sign with the Pirates instead. On that day, the entire course of the Pirates franchise changed, and McCutchen is the main reason why.
Over a 4 year stint in the minors where McCutchen tore it up, he was ranked in the top 50 prospects in baseball each year by Baseball America, a leading baseball scouting company. He was the Pirates Minor League player of the year in 2006, following a season where he made the South Atlantic League’s All Star game in his first full year of professional minor league baseball. Over his five year career in the minors, he hit .286/.362/.785 (BA/OBP/OPS), adding in 105 stolen bases and 43 home runs. He was clearly a budding star, and the Pirates called him up to the major league team in the middle of the 2009 season.
Prior to the 2009 season, the Pirates had endured a 16 year playoff drought, averaging 69 wins and 93 losses. It was an abysmal stretch, and they needed a ray of hope for their starved fan base. McCutchen immediately provided that spark. In his 2009 rookie campaign, he hit .286/.365/.836 with 22 steals and 12 homers in just 108 games. He was the rare top prospect that immediately showed results at the Major League level, and Pirates fans hoped they had found their savior.
Over the next 4 years, McCutchen established himself as a top major league center fielder, making it to his first All-Star game in 2011 and repeating that feat in 2012 and 2013. In 2013, he won the NL MVP award, hitting .317/.404/.911 with 27 steals and 21 homers, and an outstanding 8.1 WAR. The 2013 season brought the Pirates their first playoff birth in 20 years, and while they lost in the NLDS to the Dodgers, McCutchen was established as the heart and soul of the team and a reason for optimism. The average attendance for Pirates games in 2008 was 1,609,076, and by 2013, it was 2,256,862, a 40% increase over the years that McCutchen played with the Major League team. While not all of this is directly attributable to McCutchen, he was clearly the face of the franchise, and when attending a game, the most likely jersey in the stands was “Cutch” by a landslide. McCutchen had the 6th highest selling jersey in the MLB in the 2013 season, and was clearly a rising superstar following his MVP campaign.
The 2014 and 2015 seasons followed his upward trajectory, with McCutchen finishing 3rd in MVP voting in 2014 and 5th in 2015, reaching the All-Star game both seasons. The Pirates made the playoffs both years, only to lose in the wild card play in game on both occasions. Entering his age-29 season, it seemed that McCutchen would continue his stellar level of play.
This, however, was not the case. As mentioned earlier, McCutchen had an injury riddled and extremely disappointing 2016 season, in which he had lingering knee issues throughout the season that only kept him out of 9 games, but clearly impacted his play on the field. His defense was noticeably worse, and his batting average and other key statistics were career lows. One would have thought McCutchen had at least 3 more years of above average/star caliber seasons left in him before reaching the twilight of his career, but his 2016 season planted the seed of doubt in many fans’ minds. Now with a looming contract extension needed and a Pirates team that is showing less potential for the 2017 season, it is fair to question whether the Pirates would be better off shipping McCutchen to a playoff contender and recouping a horde of top-level prospects.
In the past few days, numerous blockbuster deals have been completed, most notably Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals. In both trades, the White Sox received a serious haul in terms of prospects, and their rebuild has been accelerated in a manner similar to the Atlanta Braves in recent years. The Pirates are not as bad as the White Sox, Braves, or Phillies, teams which have pursued rebuilding their farm systems in recent years, and could hope for some MLB ready prospects to head their way in a potential McCutchen deal to keep them somewhat competitive while acclimating their newly acquired prospects to the majors over the next season. The Adam Eaton deal could be a similar point of reference for McCutchen, as McCutchen was the better player over the past 5 years, albeit with a much worse 2016 season to go off of for the team receiving him and a much less team friendly contract. The team acquiring McCutchen would only get one to two years guaranteed without negotiating a new deal, which would likely be very costly. In the Eaton deal, the White Sox acquired three of the Nationals top prospects, according to Baseball America, with Lucas Giolito having top of the rotation upside and Reynaldo Lopez flashing some of the same, with a more likely projection as a high-impact reliever out of the bullpen hitting 100 mph with his fastball. Dane Dunning, the third pitcher included, is entering his first full year of pro baseball after being selected 29th overall in the 2016 draft by the Nationals.
While a deal like this may seem appealing to the Pirates and possibly make the most analytical sense moving forward from a General Manager’s perspective, McCutchen simply cannot be traded. He means too much to the city, franchise, and fans, and trading him away would likely demoralize the fanbase and put the franchise in another extended playoff drought. Nothing is definite with prospects, which is why they are just prospects, and although McCutchen may be tailing off in production, he is still likely to be an above-average outfielder next season if he can regain his health and play more to his natural abilities. Perhaps a move to a corner spot, such as right field, could benefit McCutchen, where his defense will be less important and he can focus more on his game-changing impact at the plate.
Whatever the logistics may work out to be, the Pirates should not consider trading McCutchen this offseason or any time in the near future. Trade talks have cooled down some following the Nationals’ big acquisition, and it is mostly expected that McCutchen will not be moved at this point. However, you never know in the Winter Meetings season, where a deal can be proposed and agreed to in a matter of hours. McCutchen’s impact goes far beyond the playing field, and while comparing his impact on his city to Derek Jeter and David Ortiz is likely unfounded and inappropriate, his meaning to the city of Pittsburgh and the Pirates’ franchise can be argued to approach the same stratosphere. McCutchen should be untradable until the Pirates are truly noncompetitive or “Cutch” asks for a ticket out of town, and neither of those currently apply. Thus, McCutchen should stay, and do his best to bring the ‘Buccos back to playoff relevance.