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.