One year ago during the 2015 offseason, the uncertainty around Andrew McCutchen‘s future in the ‘Burgh officially became a realization. Would the Pirates extend Cutch, would they trade him, or would they just let him walk into the sunset, were all of the possibilities on every Pirates fan’s mind. Of course, most fans didn’t take a liking to the latter two of possibilities. An early uproar began as fans clamored for the front office to not be cheap and to extend the man who has started in center field for seven years and helped turn this organization around.
Fast forward to July 4, a few weeks before the MLB trade deadline, and we now see a very mixed bag of feeling towards Cutch. Not most, but many fans at this time are calling for the face of the franchise to be traded away at almost any cost. Andrew McCutchen, who is a former MVP might I add, is currently batting .236/.309/.406/.715. Never at this point of the season has Andrew played this poorly. As notorious of a slow starter he is, Cutch’s lowest batting average on July 4 was in 2011 when he batted .294 which also came with an OPS of .890. It has been hard watching the play of this talent, but many other people were still hopeful for a turnaround.
Andrew McCutchen finished out the month virtually with the same numbers as he entered. This sparked manager Clint Hurdle‘s decision to bench the star during the Atlanta series to begin the month of August. It was at this point where the MLB started to see the return of the former MVP. After the Atlanta series, McCutchen finished the last two months of the season batting .284/.381/.471/.852 in 244 plate appearances. He hit nine home runs while generating 34 walks to his 36 strikeouts. Previously, McCutchen walked 35 times while striking out an alarming 107 times at the plate for the season.
This now takes us to the present, which is the 2016 MLB offseason. Heading into next season, the Pirates have holes to fill, especially with the starting rotation. They traded Francisco Liriano at the deadline and didn’t see the emergence of uber prospect Tyler Glasnow that were hopeful to see. This begs the question, is now the time to strike a deal to trade away Andrew McCutchen?
Obviously, the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen on the block. Any GM at this point likely does as it is their job to put the team in the best situation. This does not mean, however, that they are looking to dump Cutch. No, as a matter of fact I believe they are looking at this situation as a way to get a very good, young, controllable starter for their rotation. This 2016 free agent class is not the most exciting, and when it comes to the starting pitcher class it is just downright awful. Pittsburgh has quality arms in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but after that it gets pretty weak. Most of their pitchers are young and inexperienced. It would be wise for the Pirates to target a #2 or #3 type starter in some capacity to help stabilize that rotation. Let I also remind you that Cole is coming off of his worst year and Taillon’s rookie season was the first time he pitched since 2013. If there is one thing this organization learned from this past season, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted.
The link between the Indians and Andrew McCutchen started in the middle of this past season. With Michael Brantley down due to a shoulder injury there is a real need for outfield depth. With Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp gone, Lonnie Chisenhall isn’t your ideal player to be manning right field and it could be hard to envision giving Brandon Guyer full time duties as well. A player like Cutch to add in the middle of that lineup could really help take this team to that next level. Let’s face it, they were just one run away from winning a World Series. What do the Indians have that the Pirates would want in return? Pitching.
As mentioned, the Indians were just one run away from winning a World Series. In this post season, they took down powerhouse lineups in the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and gave the Cubs fits for half of their series. They also did this without two of their top arms in that rotations. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were injured during the season and unable to make any starts for the Tribe. This isn’t the reasoning I am mentioning these two players as a return, but they fit the mold more for the Pirates needs and nobody is going to look at Corey Kluber for an actual return.
Danny Salazar looks like the most likely return in a deal. He is just 26, controllable through 2020, and owns a 3.72 ERA (3.58 FIP) for his career exclusively in the A.L. Anytime you are talking Pirate pitching targets, you know the first thing to bring up is ground ball rate. Well, last season Salazar saw a ground ball rate of 47.8% and a year ago it was 43.9%. He has steadily watched this number improve as he matures and those numbers fit the bill for the Pirates. He also averages around 95 MPH on his fastball. He also features a slider, curveball, and changeup. Salazar has been a strikeout machine during his tenure as he has tallied 541 K’s in 484.1 innings and has a career 18.5% K/BB%.
Carlos Carrasco is the second target I see the Pirates going after. He is a bit older and has just 2 years of control left, but he is certainly the more polished of the two pitchers. Carrasco has a career 3.92 ERA (3.50 FIP) but much of that is due to his early career struggles. Over his last three season, Carrasco has sported a 3.22 ERA (3.00 FIP) in 464 innings pitched. He’s allowed just 7.6 H/9, .9 H/9, and 2.1 BB/9 in that time frame. To put this in perspective, Gerrit Cole’s beast season came last year where he finished 4th in Cy Young and 19th in MVP voting and he allowed 7.9 H/9, .5 H/9, and 1.9 BB/9. Carrasco also carries a career 50.6% groundball rate. The velocity has decreased a bit over the last 2 years, but I don’t find it to be at an alarming rate to feel this would a major concern.
To me, the Indians feel like the most logical destination. Another component to this is the fact that the Indians are in the A.L. and could play Cutch at the DH to allow him some cheap rest days to help maintain the troublesome knee injury that creeps up from time to time. With a rotation that still features Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger, and the other pitcher that doesn’t get traded, you can see that this rotation is still a strength while the offense gets a boost.
The Mariners also seem like a logical fit. As it stands, the current projected outfield for the Mariners include Leonys Martin, Seth Smith, and Ben Gamel. Not quite the premier outfield scene of a World Series contending team. As I mentioned about the starting pitching being very weak this offseason, there really isn’t a lot out there for the outfield. Especially ones that can play the position. Sure Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista are out there, but they are more suited for the DH role. Matt Holliday is out there but with his age and injury record now, it doesn’t seem like a logical fit. Then when you start to factor in price points, the rest seem to be likely out of what the Mariners are trying to spend. This is where the match looks fitting.
With Cutch owed just $14 million this year and a team option next year for $14.75 million, he comes at a pretty affordable rate. Again, this is a player who averaged .298/.388/.496/.884 for seven seasons and was top five in MVP voting in four straight seasons winning it in 2013. With Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz in that lineup, a player like Cutch could really exceed. It would also give the Mariners that lineup they have been looking for since they gave Cano that monster contract.
Let’s now take a look at the pitching the Mariners have. Clearly they have one of the best pitchers of our time in Felix Hernandez that is not going anywhere. Hisashi Iwakuma has been Mr. Depandable for the M’s but isn’t on the radar for a Pirates return. Nate Karns and Ariel Miranda are both capable of a rotation spot.This is where I believe it comes down to two pitchers again. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker would likely be the two pitchers the Pirates would look to nab.
Taijuan Walker would embody the perfect buy low candidate for the Buccos. Once regarded as a top 5 prospect in all of the game, he has not had much success in the MLB. For his career he owns a 4.18 ERA (4.30 FIP) in 357 innings. His ground ball rate for his career is a 41.5%. He gives up a ton of homers (1.8 HR/9 last year), but doesn’t give up entirely too many hard hit balls. As a matter of fact, when you look to see the percentage of hard hit balls compared to softly hit he is more in line with Jon Lester. All these numbers are not truly what the Pirates look for when acquiring an arm, however, Walker’s problem has been locating his pitches. Lucky for the Pirates, they have someone in Ray Searage that has been able to work with many pitchers and turn their game around. Walker could be a nice asset for the Pirates to nab, but this would only be if the Mariners are willing to give up on the hopeful 24 year old arm. Unfortunately, I don’t perceive the M’s giving up on this live arm which presents me to my next target.
James Paxton is a 27 year old starting pitcher who was the Mariners #6 prospect back in 2013. He features a live fastball with a solid curveball. The one thing that stands out on this list with Paxton opposed to the other pitchers is the fact that he is a lefty. With a projected lineup of Cole, Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and then possibly Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, and Steven Brault, there is only one lefty. It’s likely the Pirates don’t want Brault in that rotation, so the need of a left handed pitcher is certainly something to look into.
The other thing that separates Paxton from the others is innings. Paxton has had some injury concern and in four seasons he has managed to throw only 286 innings. Last year he threw his most at 121. However, in the short amount of work he has a career 3.43 ERA (3.32 FIP), 8.7 H/9, .7 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, 8.7 K/9. Coming through the minors it was Paxton’s command and control that would decide if he would amount to an above average pitcher and it looks safe to say that weakness hasn’t hindered his abilities. Paxton also comes with the highest velocity of any mentioned pitcher so far. Last year he averaged 96.7 MPH on his fastball and had the 19th most pitches over 99 MPH in all of MLB. Again, that was accomplished with only pithing 121 innings. His ground ball rate at a career 50.6% along with the 4 years of control, makes Paxton another logical fit.
The Nationals also seem like a good fit, but this get complicated on their decisioning on whether Trea Turner stays in center or moves to the middle infield where he has exclusively played in the minors. Moving Danny Espinosa off of short and into a utility role makes the most sense, but who knows what they’ll do. Adding Cutch would make this decision easier on them because it would force Turner’s bat to stay and move to short. Their outfield would then feature Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Andrew McCutchen. With Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman in the infield, this lineup looks as strong as ever. What to also consider is the Nationals are also looking at a window closing in with Bryce Harper. Like Cutch, he can become a free agent after 2018 and it looks likely that will happen. Along with Harper, the Nationals owner, Ted Lerner, is 91 years old and seems ever more impatient to witness a World Series victory. The thought of the Nationals playing for the now is real and a player like Andrew McCutchen could heighten their chances.
The trend to this article is teams that have a plethora of starting pitching, and the Nationals are just that. With a lethal combo of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, they also find themselves carrying Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross, Aj Cole, Reynaldo Lopez, and top prospect Lucas Giolito. Obviously, they have a very talented bunch and a loss of one or even two pitchers would not hurt. I feel there is really only one fit here and that is with Gio Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was a hyped prospect coming through the A’s farm and did not disappoint. He pitched 402 innings of 3.17 ERA for his two final seasons in Oakland before getting traded to Washington. He resumed pitching well but did see his numbers diminish slightly each season since. Last year was the largest drop in production and he finished the year with a 4.57 ERA (3.76 FIP). He has given up a larger amount of hits (9.1 H/9) while his 1 HR/9 rate has nearly doubled from his 2010 – 2015 average. Last year his velocity dropped a full tick and he was hit the hardest than he ever was before.
With all of that being said, he still was a productive pitcher who could also be a nice comeback player. His ground ball rate of 47.7% and 7.7% BB rate is something Ray Searage and the Pirates can work with. Like mentioned with Paxton, he is another lefty which is something the Pirates do need. He has only one year on his deal, so its likelier the Nationals would be willing to part with him, though there definitely would need to be more coming back to the ‘Burgh if this deal were to happen.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays are a team the Pirates were in talks with last deadline in hopes of acquiring an arm but failed to find common ground. A player the Pirates liked was Chris Archer, but the return on him was mentioned to be of Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. As affordable and talented Archer is, giving up that type of future is something the Pirates cannot afford to do. This is where Andrew McCutchen may come into play. No, the Rays are not going to trade Archer for Cutch in any scenario, so don’t come at us with that. However, the Pirates want Archer, the Rays want prospects, and teams like the Blue Jays, Astros, Mets, Giants, and Rangers want outfield help but don’t have the pitching depth to make a trade to fit the Pirates needs. There could be a scenario where a three team deal is staged that the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen to the third team and give up a prospect to the Rays and land Chris Archer.
This scenario may in fact be the dream scenario for the Pirates because it would help them land an affordable ‘ace’ type pitcher who is controlled through 2021. Archer has been one of the game’s premier pitchers and has just turned 28 years old. In the five seasons he’s played, he owns a 3.51 ERA (3.48 FIP) and has recorded 795 strikeouts in 766 innings. He has topped 200 innings the past two seasons and shows durability is not much of a concern. He has allowed 7.8 H/9, .9 HR/9, 3 BB/9, and 9.3 K/9 over his career. He also is a 46.7% ground ball pitcher who averages 94.5 MPH on his fastball. His slider is devising and resulted in 226 swinging strikes and 213 called strikes last year which was good for second best in each category for all of MLB.
Archer to the Pirates would result in a devastating three headed monster with Cole and Taillon for years to come while not mortgaging the future. Its likely we may lose Glasnow to do so, but ensuring this team has the Ceiling of Glasnow from day one of next year through 2021 is something worth investing in. Also, it would allow us to keep Meadows who is McCutchen’s clear cut replacement. Will this scenario play out – that seems like something we will have to wait on, but this possibility does in fact seem somewhat realistic.
Stays In Pittsburgh
The last scenario is one that I felt was more likely to happen after the season. It is quite possible that Cutch ends up not going anywhere this season. A lot comes down to what player you think Andrew McCutchen is. I think it’s safe to assume he isn’t the MVP caliber Cutch any longer, but is he the .236/.309/.406/.715 Cutch up to July 4th or more of the .284/.381/.471/.852 Cutch after Atlanta? The trade options will come down to however any of the previous teams mentioned view Andrew McCutchen. For the Pirates, I believe it’s safe to say that they view him as the latter and will demand a return value in favor of that. If the other team feels he isn’t then the Pirates should balk at that trade offer and insist on keeping him for the value he will likely produce on the field. With the way the pitching market is in free agency, teams do recognize this and will put a premium on starting pitching via trade.
With a trade not happening through Cutch, the Pirates could very well meddle with some more reclamation projects such as Andrew Cashner in hopes of developing their next #3 starter. If McCutchen proves he is the All-Star type player the Pirates believe him to be, then he will obviously help this club still. A lot will also depend on Austin Meadows development. If he is slow next year in Indianapolis, then we may see Cutch the full season. If he comes out the gate strong like he did this year, it may force the Pirates hand to then re-explore the trade market towards the deadline with reestablished trade value for Andrew. If this is how it pans out, then we will in fact be seeing Andrew McCutchen in Boston on April 3, wearing black & gold.
Let us know your thoughts by commenting below. Also, make sure to follow us on twitter @NorthShoreNine