Pirates Nation and local media are already panicking with the recent news that the Andrew McCutchen trade talks have accelerated with the Nationals on the cusp of the MLB Winter Meetings next week. We’ve discussed this possibility as far back as spring training with the idea that with McCutchen’s contract winding down, nothing is a guarantee.
If you look at this objectively and realize the behind the scenes things that are going on, you’ll realize that moving McCutchen isn’t an absurd thought, an actually a logical one.
Fans, media and the typical yinzers are claiming this is a straight salary dump for the Pirates because Cutch is set to make $14M this season. That is false. Reason number one why this isn’t a salary dump is because trading McCutchen is the Pirates best avenue to acquiring a quality, Major League starting pitcher to slot right into the rotation next season. The Pirates signed McCutchen to this contract and are willing to play it out if the ideal return is not met in trade talks.
Let’s take a look at what else is going on here that makes this move their best option.
First, let’s not act like McCutchen is coming off an MVP-caliber season. Quite the opposite actually. Cutch regressed in 2016 to the point where he looked lost at the plate for most of the season. It’s hard to ignore his declining numbers from ’14 to ’16. His OPS fell from .952 to .889 to a career low .766 in 2016. His strikeouts increased, walks decreased and his defense fell off a cliff to the point where it put Cutch at a negative 0.7 WAR. Yes, that’s below replacement level. Obviously a move out of center field is on the horizon for Cutch, wherever he plays next season. His defense was so awful, he registered a -28 Defensive Runs Saved, six runs worse than any other fielder in the Majors last season. That’s astonishingly bad.
While I think McCutchen can rebound from his tough 2016 season, I don’t think we’ll see the MVP, .400 OBP/.900 OPS player from him again. His numbers will be somewhere in the middle of 2015 and 2016 slash lines. And what if he continues to decline? That’s a real possibility too.
Second, the Pirates have Austin Meadows waiting in the wings. Who’s Austin Meadows? He’s one of the top prospects in all of baseball, has put up Mike Trout-like numbers throughout the minors and is knocking on Pittsburgh’s door after getting his first taste of Triple-A last season. In four seasons in the minors, Meadows slashed .300/.368/.480 and almost walks as much as he strikes out. This is an elite, blue chip OF prospect with speed, power and plate discipline. Meadows is coming and there’s only three OF spots and Josh Bell is at first base. With Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco locked up till at least 2021, trading McCutchen makes the most sense.
STARTING PITCHING NEED
And third, the Pirates need a quality starter for the rotation. Despite what you think of their moves last offseason, Jon Niese did not pan out and Francisco Liriano had a bigger drop off than Cutch in terms of production. No one could have predicted Liriano losing it and Niese did not provide the numbers he had from 2012-15. They’re both gone and the Pirates are left with Gerrit Cole coming off an injury, Jameson Taillon coming off a solid year, but a season in which he threw the highest innings of his career after not pitching for two years and Tyler Glasnow needs to figure out his control issues before he can be relied upon. That leaves the Pirates with a big hole in the rotation, and one that can be easily rectified by trading from one of their strengths (OF) for a SP and more.
If this were a straight salary dump, the Pirates would trade McCutchen to wherever for any prospects they could get. Trust me, if the Pirates trade Cutch for a Single-A low level arm or two, we’ll be the first ones to call out the front office. But that won’t be the case. An MLB starting pitcher is coming back to Pittsburgh for McCutchen or he won’t be traded. Period.
Most fans seem to be taking the news of a potential McCutchen trade a little hard. I get it. There’s an emotional side to every trade between the players, the team and the fans. I love McCutchen and what he has done for this team in his career to help turn the franchise around with its first winning season in 20 years and three straight postseason appearances. But baseball is a business. We’re in a free agency, opt out clauses era where players staying with one team their entire career will be a rare circumstance. No one player is bigger than the team or the game, and fans need to put aside their emotions and see that a McCutchen trade makes a lot of sense.