The Pittsburgh Pirates are currently exploring the possibility of trading center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the face of their franchise for the past eight seasons. While the 30-year old outfielder is coming off his worst season statistically, the former 2013 National League MVP could hold tremendous value to a team in the hunt for both a center fielder, and an offensive threat at the plate.
Enter the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians have a slew of outfield questions heading into the 2017 season, especially with left fielder Michael Brantley trying to return from a lost season due to a bum right shoulder. With the Indians legit contenders to return to the World Series, it’s a distinct possibility that the club would be willing to make a big move to ensure not only outfield stability, but to also find a player who can supplement the offensive loss of Mike Napoli, who appears to be heading out of Cleveland.
In the end, this deal isn’t an easy one for all parties involved. The Pirates’ outfielder is the best player for a generation of fans, and it’s hard to deal a cornerstone. For the Indians, or any other interested team of the small market variety, they’ll have to weigh hoping for a two-year bounce-back against a two-year, $28 million regression. When you incorporate a package of players that could include over 20 years of control in total, this isn’t easy.
But for the Indians, who were willing to part with four really good prospects for less than 18 months of Jonathan Lucroy, perhaps this is something they would consider, for the right price. WFNY will consider it as well.
On the outside looking in, McCutchen looks to be a perfect fit. In his prime, “Cutch” was arguably one of the best two or three players in the game. He bookended his 8.6 fWAR MVP season in 2013 with two 6.8 fWAR seasons in 2012 and 2014. Prior to the 2016 season, his fWAR had never dropped below 3.4 (his first season in 2009). His career slash is .292/.381/.487, and he is generally a lock for 20-plus homers and has 20-plus stolen base speed (or at least used to). Defensively, McCutchen is a former Gold Glove center fielder, and while I’d argue that throughout his career (especially recently), he’s been a sub-par defender, his best seasons were filled with spectacular plays.
In other words, peak McCutchen is a game changing baseball player. The key word there, however, is peak.
In the best of times, “Cutch” wasn’t only reliable, but he was borderline historic. In 2015, his 144 OPS+ made him only the 13th player in Major League history to achieve such a feat since 1900. He’s a five-time all-star, and had four top-five finishes in the MVP voting, to go along with his 2013 MVP win. From 2012 through 2015, his OBP has been above 40 percent, and his wRC+ never fell below 148.
You could argue that he was the best Major League baseball player not sharing the name with a fresh water fish, living on the West Coast.
On top of that, McCutchen was viewed as a locker room leader. Not only was he the guy that spurred the Pirates on in what appeared to be a run to a long tenure in the playoffs, but he absolutely loved playing for the Pirates. He signed a team friendly contract for six-years and $51 million through 2017, with a 2018 option for $14.5 million. While this deal was before his HUGE run starting in 2012, it was long after his 2010 breakout season.
For the Indians, this means that in any deal, they would control the former MVP for two more seasons if they choose, to the tune of $14 million in 2017, and the $14.5 million in 2018. While that’s a lot of money, if his return are the numbers he’s put up in his prime, it’s a steal of a deal for two years of control, regardless of what the Indians spend on him in prospects.
Of course, that’s a big if.
He’s spent the bulk of his career hitting third, and if Brantley is back, and healthy, you’d have to imagine that he’d be a guy that could hit anywhere in the top four. He’s a right handed hitter, so you could easily see a line-up that looks like this:
- 1B Carlos Santana
- SS Francisco Lindor
- LF Michael Brantley
- CF Andrew McCutchen
- 2B Jason Kipnis
- 3B Jose Ramirez
- DH Guyer/Naquin or whomever isn’t in the platoon, or a new guy…Holliday?
- RF Chis/Naquin/Guyer (I think a guy like Naquin, or even Chisenhall could be in the deal)
- C Roberto Perez or Yan Gomes
While McCutchen was a stud offensively last year, his numbers wouldn’t have been horrible as a middle of the order bat, and obviously, with the length of adding Brantley and Cutch into the lineup, you’d have some play there. His right-handedness would really balance that line-up out nicely, and if he does bounce back, you could argue that this team’s offense would be unrivaled in the American League, and give the Cubs a serious run for their money.
Of course, the bounce-back is a big if, but McCutchen is only 30-years old.
Why not McCutchen?
Last may, a former writing colleague of mine at MVN (Most Valuable Network), Cory Humes, wrote a quick piece on why the Pirates should trade McCutchen. While the All-Star center fielder was struggling at the time, it was only seven weeks into the season, but the piece sent up red flags for me for several reasons, which I’ll get into in a bit.
Today, Andrew McCutchen is most definitively a “sell low” candidate for the Pirates in that his 2016 season was absolutely abysmal. While hearing the term “sell low” could be a bonus for a team like the Indians looking for a “bargain,” at $28.5 million over two years, a Bourn-like bust for major prospects could ultimately halt a playoff window for the Indians that looks pretty substantial, or at least shrink it.
Looking closely at the numbers, his OBP, while still solid, dropped almost 70 points from his 2015 mark of .401, to .336. He went 6-for-13 in stolen bases, and had his fourth straight season of diminishing returns in that stat (27-18-11-6). His walk% was a career low 10.2 percent, down 4 percent from 2015, and his K-rate increased to 21.2 percent, which was the first time over 20 percent in his career. His bWAR was below replacement level, at -0.7, while his fWAR was barely above replacement, at 0.7.
Tyler Naquin was a 2.5 fWAR player and a 0.9 bWAR player in 2016. Michael Bourn was a 0.1 bWAR and a o.4 fWAR player last year, toiling for the Baltimore Orioles.
Now I’m not trying to compare Naquin and Bourn to McCutchen, who clearly has had a more impactful career, but it’s important to note that you can compare their 2016 numbers. While that’s certainly not the end all and the be all to the conversation, it truly is the type of head scratching question mark that a front office may want to avoid adding to a full stable of already-there riddles in the outfield.
Defensively, McCutchen has been one of the worst players in baseball. In 2016, he had a -19 UZR, and a -28 DRS. Both metrics are flawed for a variety of reasons, but when you see both numbers at such a low mark, combined with the eye test that showcased a loss of a step, poor routes and just bad play-making, you have a nightmare center fielder, who’s likely going to move to left or right field in Pittsburgh, if he stays.
He’s never missed a substantial amount of time in his career, but his knees have been an issue for the past few seasons, and you can almost see it sap away his elite athletic ability.
Then I go back to Cory’s piece, and think about his whining about a call in the outfield. If he’s not a clubhouse presence, and he continues to regress, what are the Indians getting here? While I think that Terry Francona and a new situation could help a bounce, do the Indians really want a player struggling with declining ability, and irritated that he can’t perform like his 25-year old self?
Could be combustable, but these are the could bes when looking at making a transformative decision.
So why are we still talking about McCutchen?
I’m not a projection guy, but there are signs that 2016 could have been an aberration, that is, if you can shake all the ‘Bourn-like’ signs of regression that I just mentioned above.
McCutchen’s numbers improved somewhat in the latter two months of 2016. He hit .286 over that stretch, with nine of his 24 homers, and improved his BB-rate to 13.9 percent, while lowering his K-rate to 14.8 percent. If he returns to his five-tool, well, he’s lost his speed, so four-tool ability, he could still provide the Indians with the type of offense that is hard to match at the position.
Is that enough to overlook the bad defense though?
It all depends on the cost. If the Indians can get him on the cheap, he’d be worth the flier. Unfortunately, in a land in which at least ten teams are looking for quality outfielders, I doubt very much that McCutchen is going to come on the cheap. But if there aren’t any other realistic options that could transform an outfield, he could be the best fit.
Of course, it appears as though there are other options, but at what cost?
What about the salary?
The Indians projected payroll is an interesting animal. As it stands right now, the Indians have about $70 million wrapped up in payroll wrapped up in about ten players, after picking up Carlos Santana’s option. If you take into account MLBTR arbitration projections, this grows fairly substantially:
- Bryan Shaw (5.081) – $4.5MM
- Lonnie Chisenhall (4.158) – $4.1MM
- Zach McAllister (4.077) – $1.7MM
- Cody Allen (4.076) – $7.7MM
- Brandon Guyer (4.066) – $2.0MM
- Jeff Manship (3.130) – $1.2MM
- Dan Otero (3.124) – $1.2MM
- Danny Salazar (2.162) – $3.8MM
- Trevor Bauer (2.158) – $3.7MM
If you assume they sign all the players listed above, that bumps the salary to around $100 million. Putting all of that together, the Indians only have 19 players figured into that number, and have to add another six players, since the new CBA nixed the 26th roster player. That’s going to put their salary structure above $105 million, understanding that they could still release some salary, sign some players under that arbitration slot, trade away salary, and of course, they could extend players like Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, which could add to the salary. It’s still pretty fluid, but still, the belt’s are going to be tight this year, all things considered.
In other words: Cutch’s $14 million isn’t a great fit.
It’s been reported that the Pirates are looking for prospects, and if that’s the case, the Indians would almost have to cut cost by either releasing players, or trading them in another deal. If the Indian can somehow add salary to the deal to send to Pittsburgh, it’s possible it could work. It’s also distinctly possible that the Indians could just add on salary, based on the playoff game revenue, as well as an increase in ticket sales. With increased ticket sales in 2017, it could give the Indians more money in the coffers, should they decided to swing something early in the offseason.
If the Pirates are looking for able bodies to go along with some prospects, it’s possible the Indians can try and match money, while still giving the Pirates the prospects they want. I just don’t see them adding on $14 million when they could try and formulate numbers around the mix of Almonte and Guyer and Chisenhall and Naquin and Zimmer and hopefully, Michael Brantley.
They would have to move some money in the deal, or come up with a second trade to help defray the cost a bit.
What would a deal look like?
This deal is a hard one to really figure out. He’s a sell low, in a market that would seem to be ravenous for just the potential for his prime skill-set. He has two years of control, and for the Indians, it’s right in the window of a potential playoff run. With the large haul that it took to get Miller, and would have taken to get Jonathan Lucroy, you would have to think the deal should be a big one, right?
But this isn’t the trade deadline, and the Indians front office saw this Terry Francona-led team figure it out in the outfield without a true anchor. While it bit them in the World Series, it’s also possible that Antonetti and Chernoff could just wait until the deadline in 2017, if they were so inclined.
A good starting point would be an article that came out about two weeks ago. ESPN’s David Schoenfield got Tribe fans all riled up with a piece over a week ago suggesting the Indians and Pirates could make a splash with a McCutchen deal. Here’s what it looked like:
RHP Mike Clevinger
RHP Triston McKenzie
SS Erik Gonzalez
CF Andrew McCutchen
While I don’t think this deal would ever happen, I do see its positives. Clevinger is arguable a battle-tested, major league-ready starter, but with somewhat limited upside. I’m not saying I don’t think he can be effective, I just don’t know that he had even middle of the rotation stuff.
He could, but that’s still suspect. His control is a bit of a worry.
Erik Gonzalez is a fine defensive option, and he can hit minor league pitching, but I’ve never seen him as anything more than minor league fodder. That’s probably harsh on my part, but I don’t see many pluses in EGon as a long-term major leaguer that isn’t connected to “utility,” and no, not #JRam utility.
Triston McKenzie would be the get here, but is at least two years away. I find it hard to believe that the Pirates would be okay with this deal.
So taking into demand of the market, combined with the “sell low,” I think the deal will be slightly more substantial than just these three players, and the Pirates will likely be looking for a starter with some upside, a servicable outfielder, a major league starter, and another piece.
Their offer, if there’s interest, should look something like this:
SP Danny Salazar
SP Triston McKenzie
OF Tyler Naquin
SS Yu-Cheng Chang
Here, the Pirates get Salazar, who has tremendous upside, McKenzie, Naquin, who is a bad defender, but can provide them with No. 4 outfielder service and control, and a solid “extra” piece in Cheng Chang, that the Indians don’t need.
I think that’s way too much, and so will the Indians, who would want to give up something like the deal already mentioned via ESPN, or something like this:
RHP Mike Clevinger or LHP Triston McKenzie
OF Greg Allen or OF Tyler Naquin
OF Lonnie Chisenhall
Understand that the Indians would be basically saying, “you’re selling low, and we aren’t paying any more than this,” and totally be okay with not getting the deal done.
I preface the ors in my proposed deal because the Pirates could value those guys differently. My preference would be Clevinger, Naquin and Chisenhall, with the only player being non-negotiable in that deal Lonnie Chisenhall. He’s only a $4 million hit on our payroll, but adding on $10 million with the McCutchen deal would certainly be better than $14 million. The hope is then that the Indians find a nice affordable platoon-mate for Guyer in right, McCutchen slots into center, with Brantley in left, unless Brantley can’t player there because of injury. In that case, you have McCutchen move to left, with Almonte in center, and the aforementioned platoon in right field.
You would also still have Zimmer coming up at some point, if not right away, because of this deal.
Would I make this any deal if I’m the Indians?
The only way I’d want him is in a steal of a deal, but said deal would only include two players, with one of them being an outfielder making over $4 million. The Pirates shouldn’t do a deal like that, because McCutchen can get them more, and should get them more. I just don’t want the Indians to take on that gamble.
In the end, I fear that McCutchen is a declining asset, whose regression will prove far too costly for the prospects that he is traded for. In other words, for the Indians to get value over the two years he’d be with the club, he’d have to outperform expectations, so that he makes up for the players lost.
I don’t see it happen.
I’m not trying to knock McCutchen here, it’s just that I’ve been watching pieces posted for almost a year now regarding his regression. As Cory Humes mentioned in his forward thinking piece in May, the Pirates needed to get ahead of the curve Cutch-sale then, so the Pirates could acquire as many assets as possible. If smart writers have been predicting his regression based on the metrics, and if he then regresses (as he continued to do for much of 2016), that’s all I really need to know.
So while Huntington and the Pirates try and sell off a declining piece before he loses any more value, the Indians should look elsewhere if they want to improve their team in a meaningful, impactful way.