November 30th will forever be remembered as the day the internet went crazy when Jeff Passan tweeted that the Pirates are aggressively shopping Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has been the face of the franchise basically since his arrival in the show in June 2009, but it appears that his days are numbered as he passes into his 30’s and the likely decline of his career. He also enters the most lucrative and final guaranteed year of a contract extension that has long paid for itself.
Anytime I hear of any player getting trading, I instantly ask the question of what the return could be. The quickest answer is “not as much as the fans think.” Getting closer to a real value is harder, but surplus value is always a way to find out. For those new to the concept the equation looks like this:
Surplus Value = (projected WAR) * ($value of WAR) – salary remaining on contract
The salary remaining is the easiest, $28.5 million assuming the Pirates’ trade partner would pick up the $14.5 million option. For the projected WAR, we shouldn’t assume that the trade team will expect to pay for a 5-7 fWAR MVP candidate type performer. If that were the expectation, the Pirates wouldn’t consider trading him at only $14 million a year. Of course, we can’t expect the 0.7 fWAR, either, as again, the Pirates wouldn’t give away their biggest star since Barry Bonds for that low of a return. As Kevin Creagh puts it, a new normal needs to be established for McCutchen. He puts that normal at between 3.5 – 4 wins. For the sake of ease we can assume 4 WAR in 2017 and 3.5 in 2018 for a total of 7.5 WAR over the rest of the team control.
With contracts skyrocketing the last few years, the assumption is $8M purchases one WAR on the free agent market. In McCutchen’s case a great comparable, Yeonis Cespedes, signed a 4 yr/$110M deal with the Mets on Tuesday. Put in more Cespedesian terms, that’s 25,000 small hogs a year from Jericho Settlers Farm in Jericho, VT. No matter how you add it up that’s a lot of money for a player who, like Cutch, is probably unlikely to match his most productive season again. For Cespedes, if we assume 4 WAR in 2017, 3.7 WAR in 2018, 3.5 WAR in 2019 and 3.5 again in 2020, that’s roughly $7.5 million per win. Star power still pays!
In McCutchen’s case, when we plug the numbers in and do the math, it translates to a surplus value of $27.75 million. Off the calculator, that seems like a handsome some of money, but when you check our latest update on prospect valuation, it really doesn’t go far. That’s a hitter in the #51-100 range plus another solid, but not spectacular, prospect or a little less than two pitchers below #50. That’s a nice return, for any aging center fielder, but not for the one that has the same kind of emotional attachment as Andrew McCutchen.
Why is the value so low? The Pirates are long past the point of a deal where Cutch returns three or more top 100 prospects. For one, the performance expectations are much lower. As Kevin noted, you simply can’t expect him to return to MVP form and you simply can’t expect a trade partner to pay for that kind of past production. Second, his years of control are waning and the contract value is increasing. The closer you get to the end of the deal for any player, the less they’re worth.
Surprisingly, the Thursday trade rumors developed a message board conversation with the national media playing the role of the ludicrous fanboys. It looked a little like this.
Stosh from Blawnox RE: McCutchen Trade Return from Nats
Listen guys I’m not tradin’ Cutch for less than Robles and Lopez.
Irrationally Negative RE:McCutchen Trade Return from Nats
Stosh from Blawnox wrote:
“Listen guys I’m not tradin’ Cutch for less than Robles and Lopez.”
I don’t know Stosh, I think the Pirates should try to sweeten the deal with a third player.
Want to know how these rumors weren’t true? Because if they were, Cutch would be on his way to the Nationals and the Pirates would have two more top 50 prospects in the system. Looking at surplus value from Baseball America’s mid-season update, Robles (#13) and Lopez (#48) are worth a combined $91 million. That’s better than $3:1 to Cutch’s current value. The only way Washington could possibly do this deal is if they think they’re going to get MVP McCutchen for both years. I think whoever he ends up with should be happy with one.
The rumors today are damaging in the sense that they will escalate fan expectations beyond what the market could and maybe should expect. Other market factors could suppress McCutchen’s value. First, the Pirates are actively trying to sell him. Known motivated sellers don’t always get the best offers for their wares. The market for center fielders is also loaded. In his piece on a potential McCutchen trade, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal had this to say:
Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond and Carlos Gomez are the most prominent center fielders available in free agency. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, White Sox’s Adam Eaton, Diamondbacks’ A.J. Pollock and Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier are among the trade candidates, but none of their clubs appears especially motivated to make a move.
On one hand, there are three center fielders that will only cost you cash. The upside isn’t the same, but the Nationals could easily call on Fowler or Desmond if they don’t feel like dropping the top of their system not named Giolito on McCutchen. On the other hand, Cutch’s value might have been enhanced by the CBA terms. His below market salary would provide flexibility to a Washington team likely to flirt with the new luxury tax threshold in the future.
I’ve not been for the Pirates trading McCutchen and really, I’m still not. However, if the rumors aren’t rumors than I say “Nice to have known you Andrew.” I hope the hold out for a haul much larger than the surplus value I calculated, and I hope they find a partner that is more optimistic about McCutchen’s likely production. With rumors swirling about Josh Harrison and Tony Watson as well, it feels like the Bucs are entering a mini rebuild. This probably isn’t necessary as they already have most of the pieces in place to get back to the playoffs. Those pieces just need to perform better, of course, and the team last season lacked star power. While I don’t see an MVP-caliber performance likely from #22 again, he’s still capable of outperforming our expectations here at TPOP. Few others on the team are and that might be reason enough to hang onto him for at least one more year. It seems less and less likely that will happen, however.