Andrew McCutchen has struggled this season, but even if the Pirates are sellers at the deadline, trading him now would be foolish.
The Pirates’ struggles have once again brought Andrew McCutchen‘s future with the team into question. The Pirates’ struggles, McCutchen’s own struggles, and uber-outfield prospect Austin Meadow’s rapid rise through the minor league system have pushed the trade Andrew McCutchen topic into the forefront. We at Pirates Breakdown have even penned articles advocating for the trade of McCutchen. It’s a divisive issue, and one that will only grow in significance over the next few seasons. First, let’s look at the facts:
- The Pirates (before the Pirates-Giants game on June 22nd) currently sit under .500 at 34-37, 13.5 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central and 4.5 games behind the Mets for second place in the NL Wild Card race. It’s certainly not impossible for the Pirates to make the playoffs. After all, they were under .500 in June of 2014 and made the postseason. But for a small market team, making a definitive decision to sell when necessary at the trade deadline can go a long way towards ensuring future success.
- Andrew McCutchen is off to easily the worst start of his career. He could be battling through an injury, or he could be regressing. In any case, his stats aren’t good. He has a .238/.316/.403 line (through June 21st), and his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS would all be the worst of his career. Matt Joyce has arguably been more valuable as an outfielder off the bench than McCutchen has as a starter.
- Austin Meadows is tearing up the minors for the Pirates this season, and he has been since he was drafted by Pittsburgh ninth overall in the 2013 draft. He could be the Pirates’ 2017 major mid-season call-up. This year, he crushed Double-A pitching, to the tune of a .311/.365/.611 line, and then was promoted to Triple-A. He hasn’t batted under .300 in any season in the minors, and figures to be the eventual replacement for McCutchen in the outfield should McCutchen leave.
- And let’s not forget McCutchen’s contract situation. He’s only signed through 2018, and figures to be out of the Pirates price range should the team want to re-sign him. He’ll also be 32 once the 2018 season concludes, which is old for a baseball player.
These are the facts. None of the above makes re-signing McCutchen ideal, and rather than let him walk, trading him may be the best option to allow Meadows to not be blocked in the outfield and to get a bevy of young prospects in return. But the Pirates need to consider all of their options, and trading McCutchen at this year’s trade deadline, even if the team is clearly selling, would not be a wise choice.
- For one, who knows whether McCutchen’s struggles are a sign of regression or not. He could be battling an injury, or he could just be having an off year. If it’s not regression, McCutchen could rebound next season and return to being a perennial MVP candidate. If the Pirates want to compete next season, the difference between having All-Star McCutchen and not would be tremendous. From 2009-2016, McCutchen was worth an average of 5.7 wins per season, and 5-6 wins can easily be the difference between a playoff berth and a disappointing season, or the difference between a division title and a Wild Card berth. Essentially, McCutchen is not someone you can give up on because of one poor season.
- If the Pirates traded McCutchen this season, who would be his replacement? Meadows probably won’t be ready until next June at the earliest, and Joyce, who would logically replace him for the remainder of the season, might not give the same quality results as a starter as he’s given off the bench. Would the Pirates be okay with Joyce until June of next season? Probably not, and no one they bring in will be able to replace McCutchen’s expected production for next year. And they can’t count on Meadows to make an immediate impact next season, so the team could have a hole in the outfield until the 2018 season.
- What value could the Pirates expect to get for McCutchen this year? I’d argue the return for him would be lower than it would this off-season. McCutchen could be at career offensive lows at the trade deadline, but waiting until the off-season or next year to trade him gives him time to improve his value. And what team wants a struggling McCutchen if they want to compete this season? How many contenders would see an improvement in the outfield from the current McCutchen? Not many I’d wager. Plus, why rush a deal now? By waiting until the off-season when not only playoff contenders but the entire league would make trade offers could be the best choice. Neal Huntington could wait until he’s had an ample amount of time to evaluate all trade offers and make the best trade possible. A rushed trade before the trade deadline this season could lead to a bad trade looked back upon for years to come, and not for good reasons.
In the end, it seems likely that the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen. It’s not wise financially to sign a 32-year-old declining baseball player to a big-money contract, and Meadows could turn out to be a future All-Star outfielder. But the Pirates need to go about this situation the right way, and find the right deal with an adequate amount of time to evaluate all options. Trading McCutchen at this year’s deadline would not be the best approach.
Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography