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Some Cold, Hard Truths About McCutchen, Cole Trades

If those angry reacts mean anything, Neal Huntington is not very popular right now. It’s not all his, or even his boss’s, fault. Screenshot taken during the KDKA Facebook Live casting of Huntington’s press conference Monday.

One: The Erosion of Skills Over Time

Let’s look at Player A. Player A was once an MVP candidate, but was worth just 4.3 fWAR in 2016 and 2017 combined. He hit .267 over those two years, averaging 26 home runs, 28 doubles and 83.5 RBI a season. The downside is he has had very slow starts each of the last three seasons, ranging anywhere from a month to four. He also has become a liability in the field, with -42 defensive runs saved since 2016 — the worst among all outfielders. He is a free agent at the end of the year.

Let’s look at Player B. Player B was once a Cy Young candidate, but was worth 5.6 fWAR in 2016 and 2017 combined. He recorded a 4.12 ERA over those two years, striking out 8.29 per nine with a 45.7% ground ball rate. The downside is he has made three trips to the disabled list in that span. He also has become a home run liability, allowing 31 last year — the sixth most in baseball. He is a free agent at the end of the 2019 season.

You probably guessed where I am going with this. Player A is Andrew McCutchen. Player B is Gerrit Cole. Both were recently shipped out of town. Cole’s an Astro, McCutchen’s a Giant, and Pittsburgh is pissed.

But they’re pissed more because of the names being traded rather than the players themselves. Pittsburgh lost McCutchen to Father Time before they lost him to the Giants. Cole is a better pitcher than his results would indicate, but results pay the bills. This isn’t a MVP and Cy Young being shipped out of town. These are two guys coming off of 3 WAR seasons.

That’s a cold, hard truth. Here are some more:

Two: the Pirates didn’t get top prospects because neither one were worth top prospects

Do you know how valuable a Clint Frazier, Forrest Whitley or Gleyber Torres is? I’ll give you a hint: a lot more than current day Cole or McCutchen. Top prospects are a general manager’s drug of choice. Cole and McCutchen are roughly three win players who used to be, or could be, more. There are a half dozen free agent starters and outfielders who could do that, and those guys don’t cost prospects.

I’ll go on record for saying I like the Cole trade. I think I see what Huntington sees in these guys. They’re flawed, they’re young, but they all have plenty of upside. I guess I can see the same in the McCutchen haul, but I’m not as excited. Kyle Crick has upside too, but it took him three years to get out of AA hell.

Prospects are pure. They have no sin, just potential. Players either in the majors or on the cusp of the show have spots. Huntington chose the spots because it’s what his guys were worth.

Three: They weren’t good enough to make the playoffs the last two seasons with them, so why does trading them now end the 2018 season?

It’s not fair to pin all of the Pirates’ shortcomings the last two years on McCutchen and Cole, but they were part of the problem. They combined for 11.1 fWAR in 2015 and 3.1 in 2016. They missed a wild card spot that year by eight games in the loss column. If those two had matched their performance from a year ago, the Bucs likely would have gone to the playoffs a fourth straight season.

In 2017, McCutchen had an extended cold spell once Starling Marte was suspended and Gerrit Cole faltered once Jameson Taillon and the rotation were finally healthy. The Pirates needed them to throw the team on their backs, but neither one came through. They went on to have good, not great years on a bad, not terrible team.

Sure, there were other players who underachieved, suspensions, injuries and a certain owner who could have spent a hell of a lot more, but guys with high ceilings have to play near that ceiling for a team to be good. They didn’t, therefore, their team wasn’t.

The rotation will be fine without Cole, with Jameson Taillon most likely leading the charge. There isn’t a true fit for an outfielder right now, so don’t be surprised if Austin Meadows is called up in June. It’s trial by fire time.

If 2018 is punted, getting the new core another year of experience could be the difference for a run in 2019.

Four: We all knew this was coming someday. That someday just happened to be today

Pittsburgh has been spoiled for the past decade and a half. The Steelers have consistently been one of the best teams in the NFL. The Penguins have made the playoffs 12 years in a row and hoisted three Cups. They both have also been able to keep their superstars for their entire careers, whether that be Ben Roethlisberger, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Hines Ward or Troy Polamalu. Losing Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft and cutting James Harrison twice are the most noteworthy times a former Pittsburgher donned different colors. If you become a key player for the Penguins or the Steelers, you stayed a key player.

The last time the city traded a superstar in this vein was when Jaromír Jágr was shipped to Washington in 2001. Before that, it was the mass Pirates exodus of the 1992 offseason. Before that…maybe those awkward couple games where Franco Harris was a Seahawk. Losing two faces of the franchise in a three day span is pretty uncharted territory for this city. Penguins and Steelers superstars stay Penguins and Steelers superstars, but Pirates don’t. Sometime in the next five or so years, there’s going to be similar outrage when Taillon, Josh Bell or Felipe Rivero leave.

Sure, blame the owner for his penny pinching. Blame the GM for choosing practicality instead of loyalty to a guy entering his 30s. But also blame baseball. The current state of the game makes it extremely difficult for small market teams to keep players throughout their career. 

The gap between large and small market teams is rapidly expanding. Be concerned.

Fifth, and finally: Huntington just did McCutchen a favor

Sure, Huntington just dealt Cutch to a team trying to win NOW, but this deal means more than that. He just absolved Cutch of sin.

McCutchen would have left after 2018 if he wasn’t traded. Even if the front office never made him an offer, some fans would have blamed McCutchen once he signed elsewhere. Maybe claim he didn’t love the city or just wanted to chase dollar signs.

This way, he’s not at fault. Cutch wants to be here. The front office screwed it up.

And in a weird way, I’m taking solace in that.

Thanks for the ride, Andrew and Gerrit. You both deserved better.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

38 Comments on Some Cold, Hard Truths About McCutchen, Cole Trades

  1. Henry Kassab // January 16, 2018 at 8:17 AM //

    It will be an interesting spring especially if they trade JHay. A platoon of Frazier, Osuna or Luplow in left just does not impress me. But I do like the potential of Crick. If he can harness that control, paired with Rivero, the Pirates could have a solid late inning pen. Musgrove to me is still the key. The Pirates can’t afford another Hutchison Part II.

    • Bob Stover // January 16, 2018 at 4:52 PM //

      Osuna’s arm is very impressive and he’s a more than adequate glove/range guy for left field. The question is, will he hit? I still expect to see him given a try at 3rd base in S.T. He played there some in the Fall League. When you stop to consider that the Pirates regularly used Adam Frazier, John Jaso and others as starting outfielders for most of the first half in 2018, you would think that they would have liked to have had both Osuna and Luplow ready to go at that time. They will definitely have a little less power without Cutch’s bat, but they may make up for that with better overall hitters than what they were getting out of Jaso and Frazier; assuming Marte regains his mid-level power stroke of 15-18 home runs.

      • By the way, how has that “Nutting will spend money this offseason because the tv contract is expiring and he wants a big new deal” flimsy argument working out for you now?

        • Tony Ventimiglio // January 16, 2018 at 7:47 PM //

          Not sure that he has the range for LF in PNC.

        • Tony Ventimiglio // January 16, 2018 at 7:48 PM //

          There is no big new TV deal, for any organization. Viewership of sporting events is down, across the board. Look at the ESPN cuts. Local TV is experiencing the same. That is the reason for the reduced payroll, I believe.

          • I never made that argument to begin with. Actually, there is never, ever an argument that can be made that cheap Bob will raise payroll to anywhere even near the major league average. He has never done so. And teams without at least major league average payrolls never win it all (look it up).

          • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 10:54 AM //

            I would love to see some data on that Tony. It is true that the national telecasts are in ratings trouble and that ESPN made their moves in reaction to that reality. Local television ratings are pretty strong and fans almost always prefer to watch their local team over whatever match-up ESPN is offering in direct competition. There may be fewer blockbuster local rights deals in the near term, but the Pirates had such a poor return on their local rights in the last deal negotiated in 2007 that they will definitely get a nice upward bump from the new deal which starts next year. Cincinnati just signed a very nice new local deal with Fox Sports Ohio, and the Reds have just about the same size market and much lower ratings within that market than the Pirates have in Pittsburgh.

          • Kevin Creagh // January 17, 2018 at 1:35 PM //

            To my knowledge, Bob, the terms of the Cincy deal have never been released. I suspect it is because it is not that great of a deal, comparatively. I wrote 2 years about the TV Bubble and trying to forecast what markets like CIN and PIT would get on their next deals, based on market size.
            http://www.thepointofpittsburgh.com/the-baseball-revolution-of-money-has-been-televised-a-look-at-local-tv-contracts/

          • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 2:32 PM //

            I think that few small market teams are willing to talk about finance, thus we don’t see the details published. We’ve had all kinds of numbers bandied about on the value of the Pirates current deal and we don’t know for sure what they’re getting. Still, you’ve got to believe that Cincy made out much better in their second deal than in the expiring one, and I suspect that the Pirates will as well.

        • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 10:40 AM //

          I looked this morning and there are over 100 free agents still unsigned. You want to bet me something of value that the Pirates won’t sign one or two of them before the end of S.T.?

          • Bob…are you for real? What does it matter at this point. I concede (and could care less at this point) that they may sign a couple of guys to fill out the roster, but they just traded their best player and best starting pitcher, so what exactly is your point? They significantly lowered a payroll that was already in the bottom quarter of all mlb. Now they’re probably looking at about 75M or 80M for next year, and you think that them signing a couple of middling or lower FA’s to round out the team, and to raise the payroll a bit more (will still be one of the lowest in mlb), will keep this team from tanking?

          • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 4:06 PM //

            And they’ve had two consecutive sub-par under .500 seasons with them. What is the point of holding onto them? There isn’t one.

          • btw…low payroll isn’t always a big problem, if you have a team full of young elite talent, and you’re willing to supplement that talent with elite, more senior FA’s at the appropriate time. The Pirates do not have the former, and are unwilling to do the latter. Still, such teams almost always still end up near the middle of the payroll pack. Think KC; think Houston.

            Your definition of the team signing FA’s is certainly more of the same dumpster dive scrap’s that we are accustomed to. The ones that are left over after the good teams have picked over the litter. Yeah, that will open up the wallet of ROOT Sports.

          • Bob Stover // January 18, 2018 at 10:31 AM //

            In 2013 the Astros spent just $20 million on payroll. You increase payroll as your prospects age and you supplement with strategic FA’s. An increase in payroll can be very misleading because each year teams have to pay players they keep more money, either through Arbitration Awards or new contracts buying out their arbitration years. The Pirates have gone the latter route with Cutch, Marte, Jay Hay and Polanco. Marte, Jay Hay and Polanco are still here. So the Pirates do have some elite players. Bell looks like he will be and Jordan Luplow looks like he might be the real deal, but it’s early. The weak links on this team are corner outfield and catching, and that’s mostly due to injury issues the last two years. Much has been blogged about the Pirates lack of power, but if we had gotten fully healthy seasons out of Polanco and Cervelli, and Marte had not been suspended, their power numbers would not look so abysmal. Then you throw in the loss of Kang, which was in no way foreseeable or the Pirates fault, and you can see that luck has not been kind to the Pirates.

      • Henry Kassab // January 16, 2018 at 5:59 PM //

        Osuna was the one player I was rooting for last year to make the 25 roster. He showed a good arm and a good glove when playing his natural position, first base. But, at times, he reminded me of a wounded quail when positioned in right and I’m not sure if he can consistently cover the spacious ground in left. Still like him coming off the bench and giving Bell the occasional day off.

        • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 10:43 AM //

          I think with Marte patroling CF that Osuna can probably cover enough of left field to be a little above average out there. Once upon a time Cutch would have provided that same benefit, but we all know that he lost a step or a step and a half and couldn’t provide any benefit to a guy with a little less than average speed like Osuna. I’d rather see him at third base, but the recent trade makes it unlikely that he will be given much of a chance there, even as a back-up, before next year when Freese is gone.

  2. Lee Young // January 16, 2018 at 9:44 AM //

    I agree with this article, but it doesn’t make it any easier to take.

  3. Harry Schade // January 16, 2018 at 10:14 AM //

    Thoughtful, accurate, sensitive, honest…thank you for a clear-headed analysis.
    All the best to Cutch and Coal Train….and to Musgrove, Moran, Felix, Martin, Crick, Reynolds.

  4. It seems like the Pirates are doing a total rebuild, especially if they end up trading JHay. However, they just signed Rivero to a four-year deal. Maybe they should have traded him as well. What’s the point of having a great closer when there won’t be that many games to close?

  5. dlongley44 // January 16, 2018 at 12:18 PM //

    I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. I still see a chance for us to be competitive this year. The 3B from Astros is very intriguing. He’s a bit older than what i would of wanted but and this is a big but, if he steps up and that gives us two young corner infielders to build on and 2 quality OF that haven’t hit their potential yet, we could be building something here. I have an idea that will never happen but why don’t we go out and trade for Christian Yelich. I think we could afford him, and trade him toward end of the year. They want prospects, and we have high end prospect pitcher we could deal. That would give Austin, the time he needs, and gives us a solid to very good OF.

  6. Bob Stover // January 16, 2018 at 1:27 PM //

    I don’t think the Pirates will miss Cole or Cutch as much as the fans will miss the memories of them. They were part of that thrilling and heady 2014-16 run that lifted our spirits and made us believe the Pirates could be relevant again. Now they’re gone.

    Still, the Pirates picked up more major league ready or near major league ready prospects this past week than they have in their entire Triple-A team and most of the Double-A team. The Pirates poor drafts of recent years was threatening to return them to dismal realms of the mid-90’s through 2010. What they’ve done instead is bring in enough new blood to still be marginally optimistic for 2018 and perhaps a real boon in 2019 and beyond.

    One thing that the two trades told me most clearly about what the Pirates are thinking (other than dollars and cents), is that they are ready to go to a new pitching model that de-emphasizes starting pitching in favor of the newer trend that emphasizes a dominant bullpen and five innings from a starter is just fine.

    The only real quality the Pirates have a Triple-A not named Meadows are all pitchers. Cole will be replaced by one or more guys named Brault, Glasnow, Musgrove or Kingham. Taillon almost by default becomes the #1 starter followed by Kuhl, Williams and Nova. The #5 will be one of those four. It could be a way better starting rotation top to bottom than they’ve had since 2014.

    • Bob, I agree with your comment that the Pirates seem to be emphasizing relief pitching based on these trades. Relief pitchers are generally cheaper than starters so that would fit with their status as a small market team that needs to be as efficient as possible.

      • Bob Stover // January 16, 2018 at 4:45 PM //

        It also fits with having a quite young corps of starting pitching with good to great arms but who perhaps get into high pitch counts by the 5th inning. If you have a crop of 5-6 pitchers with big arms, you can get a lot out of a youngish starting rotation.

  7. iheartbuccos // January 16, 2018 at 5:07 PM //

    Would love to have Steve defend his ridiculous defense of the bridge year – http://www.thepointofpittsburgh.com/are-the-pirates-heading-for-a-transitional-year/

    The article linked above and Michael Bradley’s article about Cutch’s contract are reasons why I don’t read this site very often. Is this bridge year #3, Steve? Entirely too much love for NH from those two guys that can’t be entirely balanced by Kevin’s more level-headed approach to critiquing the GM.

    • Yes, I remember reading that article and thinking “what a crock”. All that supposed top minor league talent was going to blossom after one transition year, and we were going to be set up as contenders forevermore.

      Good organizations build from within, then supplement with elite talent when the time is right. The Pirates attempt to build from within, the supplement with trash heap pick ups when the time is right. (then the Nutters will cherry pick the trash heap pick ups that worked out, and try to make an argument that enough was done, despite all evidence to the contrary).

    • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 10:38 AM //

      Dollars and cents figure into every Pirates roster move, including the two recent trades. However I think that people who give N.H. a pass are doing so based on prior history. The tides is turning in that respect. The trades of Cole and Cutch were made necessary, at least in part, by the fact that the Pirates have drafted so poorly on position players that they needed to go this route to overcome the fact that the Pirates have no position players not named Meadows or Newman at Triple-A that will ever wear a Pirates uniform on a regular basis. They had no answers for third base or a fourth outfielder. The fact that they traded Cutch and Cole is a recognition of the fact that you have to give to get. When you finish below .500 two years in a row with those guys, they are no longer untouchable. Arguably, the Pirates outfield with Marte in CF and a healthy Polanco in RF will be better defensively no matter which platoon of young bodies they trot out to LF from day to day. Marte and Polanco together ought to be able to hit the same number of HR’s as Cutch did, and probably knock in more runs. It was time to move on and they got an average to sligthly above average return for him.

  8. Here’s the ONLY article you need to read regarding the Pirates, folks…

    https://www.si.com/mlb/2018/01/16/pittsburgh-pirates-andrew-mccutchen-gerrit-cole-bob-nutting

    The GM did NOTHING of great significance,even during the window of opportunity years. to put the team over the top.And that is mostly because Nutting sat on his prospects and his piles of money.

    Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know baseball.

  9. Daquido Bazzini // January 16, 2018 at 6:18 PM //

    More ridiculous, pseudo intellectual garbage from Neal Huntington. If Huntington is such a great GM, what he still doing with the Pirates? The answer is simple. No other team wants him.
    As for Bob Nutting, he could’ve tried to do something about the financial unbalance in MLB. He didn’t do anything because he didn’t want to. He likes it this way.
    Sell the team to Thomas Tull, and let’s see what happens. Nutting could make a massive profit, and then he could spend less time lying and running away from people. It’s a an over 20 year scam that he just won’t give up for some strange and unusual reason.

  10. Kevin Schafer // January 16, 2018 at 7:22 PM //

    Here’s the ONLY article you need to read regarding the Pirates, folks…

    https://www.si.com/mlb/2018/01/16/pittsburgh-pirates-andrew-mccutchen-gerrit-cole-bob-nutting

    The GM did NOTHING of great significance,even during the window of opportunity years. to put the team over the top.And that is mostly because Nutting sat on his prospects and his piles of money.

    Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know baseball.

    /\ THIS /\

    • Kevin..Bob Smizik continues to say that those who believe NH did not do enough to take this team over the top during their wild card years do not know anything about baseball. My final sentence above is simply in reference to this.

      In reality, NH hung on the all his top prospects, and he hung on to Nutting’s money (I assume under Nutting orders). NH didn’t, or wasn’t able, to make the big splash needed to take the team over the top. The proof? A quick review of 2013-2015 will show a team that did not trade the top prospects needed to reel in a big fish, it will show a team still in the lower rung of the payroll totem poll, and it will show a team that never was able to even win a single division title, or playoff series, during those “glory years”.

      The attached article encapsulates the argument perfectly, by someone who knows baseball.

      • Tony Ventimiglio // January 16, 2018 at 7:53 PM //

        Who performed better than Marlon Byrd, Happ, Liriano, Volquez, that were over the top performers that other teams acquired?

      • Bob Stover // January 17, 2018 at 10:49 AM //

        The worst part of it all is that those so-called prospects that N.H. hung onto may turn out to be never major league caliber. Prospects are worth the most when they are judged by the GM’s around the whole universe of MLB to be major league ready or near major league ready. Guys like Glasnow and Polanco had their highest trade value when the window of opportunity was open from 2013-2015. Sitting on them has made them decline in value. Faint heart never wins fair maiden and faint-hearted GM’s never win world series titles.

  11. Did the Pirates win a division title with those guys? did they win a playoff series?
    Was their payroll near the bottom during those years? Did they keep their top prospects (by the way, how did that turn out?)?

    More needed to be done. If Houston didn’t take a chance on Verlander they do not win the WS. Sure, maybe they could have been one and done like the Pirates. But they took a chance. That’s all you ask your team to do. the Pirates had the resources during the offseason and trade deadlines during those years to bring in additional elite talent. They took the garbage bin route. The cheapskate route. They lucked out on a few of those guys, as they certainly would. But it wasn’t enough to win a division, or a playoff series.

    Enough said.

  12. Mark O’Keefe // January 16, 2018 at 8:43 PM //

    Some cold heart facts about the Pirates. The Pirates, if thy wanted to, could lead the fight for a salary cap in baseball. But the Pirates have no chosen to do so. Why not? Well, you have to believe they don’t want a salary cap because they would have to boost their payroll spending by a ton. Under the current system they can spend as little as they want, meanwhile getting luxury tax $$$$ from the big spenders. It’s a win-win for the Nuttings who care vastly more about making money than they do about winning

    • Kevin Schafer // January 16, 2018 at 11:07 PM //

      Nutting would put the team up for sale the moment a Salary Cap was implemented. That’s how much he cares about winning.

  13. betterthanchickwood // January 16, 2018 at 8:47 PM //

    I am going to have a big smile this summer watching attendance drop by another 1/2 million.

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