We are now steaming towards the 1/3 point of the season and while Andrew McCutchen has shown some glimmers of pulling out of his year+ funk, the numbers simply aren’t there yet. If you want some standard triple slash numbers, he’s hitting .211 with a .285 on-base percentage and a .379 slugging percentage. Those are all well off his career averages, even factoring in that they dropped from 2016’s abysmal year, of .290/.378/.484. If you want a new age metric, his wRC+ is 78 (22% less offense than average major leaguer) and below last year’s pedestrian 106. And if you really want to delve into McCutchen’s decline, his bat speed and exit velocity off batted balls continues to decline, as written by soon-to-be too good for TPOP, Alex Stumpf at Fangraphs.
It is utterly amazing that we’re even at this point in the first place. This is McCutchen’s age-30 year. Last year’s decline year was his age-29 season, by criminy! The only other star level player that I can think of falling off a cliff so early in his career (not counting injuries, of course) is Andruw Jones. So kids, if your name is Andrew or some variation thereof, make sure you get your money early.
If you want to blame someone, go ahead and blame me. In the early days of TPOP, I wrote an article stating what Andrew McCutchen needed to do the rest of his career to cinch up a Hall of Fame case. And back then in March 2015, I had no allusions that McCutchen was going to spend his whole career here. The finances of what he could command (at that time) were simply not in the Pirates’ business model. Unless you subscribe to the theory that McCutchen will rebound with a change of scenery, McCutchen’s days of being an average 2.0 WAR player, let alone contending for MVP’s, are probably over.
So let’s look at three options for what the Pirates may do with Andrew McCutchen and his upcoming $14.5M club option.
TRADE MCCUTCHEN AT THE JULY TRADE DEADLINE
If the Pirates are frittering around at .500 by mid-July, I’ve said they should unload whatever single year commitments they can for whatever they can get (McCutchen, Watson, Jaso [lol, can’t believe I typed that]), but not go full fire-sale with Gerrit Cole, David Freese and Josh Harrison just yet. With better luck and the hopeful returns of Kang, Marte, and Taillon (who each have varying degrees of uncertainty) the Pirates could position themselves in 2018 to come back strong.
But what can the Pirates realistically expect to get for McCutchen at this point? Last winter, Steve took a crack at it during the heights of Nationals Trade Fever week. The results at that time, presuming that Cutch would partially rebound to 4 WAR, said an equivalent of two prospects in the #51-100 range. Now keep in mind that McCutchen continues to deflate his trade value and there’s less team control over him. Will a trading team position themselves that they see him as a 2017 rental with no intention to pick up his 2018 option? Absolutely, in an attempt to drive the value down further. I would say that McCutchen’s value is worth only 1-2 organizational prospects, maybe one at the back end of a team’s Top 10 and one lower level lottery ticket.
Imagine the howls and screams for that return. It will be like an audio-only version of a trainwreck on talk radio and the written hot takes will be scorching.
PICK UP HIS 2018 OPTION IN THE OFFSEASON
I’m going to point you in the direction of Jay Bruce and the Mets. Bruce, a fellow 2005 high school draftee and selected one spot after McCutchen by the Reds, is a good template for McCutchen. One year prior to McCutchen, Bruce signed virtually the exact same contract with the Reds (6 yr/$51M, plus 2017 club option) as McCutchen did with the Pirates (6 yr/$51.5M, plus 2018 club option). At the time of their respective signings, the Reds were betting on Bruce’s upside. The Pirates already had one of the best young players in the game and made a very well-received financial decision.
When Jay Bruce signed his deal in December 2010, he was coming off a 5.1 WAR season. The Reds hoped they were locking down a young slugger. Injuries robbed Bruce of some of his explosiveness, coupled with his own decline, and he never came really close to replicating the 2010 season. He did have a 4.2 WAR season in 2013, but that seemed like an outlier compared to his last three years of -0.8, 0.1, and 0.9, from 2014 to 2016.
The Reds were faced with the same basic conundrum as the Pirates — should they pick up his $13M option for 2017 or cut bait and get what they can? The Reds chose the latter and shipped him to the Mets for Max Wotell (at the time a 19-year old pitching in short-season ball) and old Pirate farmhand Dilson Herrera. Herrera hasn’t seen the Majors since 2015 and is a utilityman at best. Wotell may not even make it to the Majors, at all.
Bruce didn’t exactly set the world on fire down the stretch with the Mets in 2016. He batted only .219/.294/.391 with 8 dingerz, which is eerily similar to McCutchen’s current batting line. The Mets, after some deliberations, picked up his 2017 option and basically viewed him as a placeholder. Amazingly, they were able to re-sign Yoenis Cespedes, so the Mets went about trying to move Jay Bruce’s $13M off the roster. To no avail. They got close with the Phillies, but they pivoted to adding Michael Saunders instead. For a team that didn’t really want Bruce there and a player who deep down doesn’t probably want to be in New York, things have come up roses in 2017.
Bruce is having a typical Bruce-ian prime season (for him) of .259/.339/.524 with 10 homers already. At this writing, he’s worth 0.6 WAR. If he comes in around 2.0 WAR that’s a solid return on investment for a $13M commitment the Mets desperately tried to unload.
So if the Pirates want to look at a recent example of a team enjoying the benefits of a rebound season on a relatively-inexpensive one year commitment, they can use the Mets’ blueprint. They can also, like the Mets, pick up the option and hope to trade him in the offseason when more teams may belly up to the table, rather than in July.
DECLINE THE 2018 OPTION
It is hard to think that we would even be having this conversation back in 2015, when McCutchen was coming off his 4th consecutive Top-5 MVP finish and he was worth 5.8 WAR. This was a total no-brainer at the time. But here we are now.
If the Pirates outright decline the option, they owe McCutchen $1M, so they would save $13.5M off the ledger for 2018. At this point, Andrew McCutchen would be a free agent a year earlier than anticipated. But what kind of contract could he expect to get at that point? I would hazard to say it would be a 1, maybe 2, year deal to prove himself fully. Maybe something in the $8M-$11M per year range.
That would be an ignominious end to one of the finest Pirates to ever don the black ‘n gold. It’s one that no one — McCutchen, Huntington, any writer, any fan — could ever have seen coming just two years ago.