First Pitch: A Primer on a Potential Andrew McCutchen Trade

I had a rare experience growing up that very few sports fans will have going forward. I got to see my favorite player play for my favorite team for his entire career.

Growing up, I was an Orioles fan, and my favorite player was obviously Cal Ripken. Occasionally, you’d hear rumors that the Orioles might let him walk, or might trade him. But you knew that this wouldn’t happen. Ripken was the face of the franchise. He was a Baltimore Oriole, and that would always be the case. If he didn’t end his career in Baltimore, fans would have rioted.

Of course, this was also during a time when you didn’t hear a lot about market sizes. The Yankees still paid for the biggest names, but it was still possible for small market teams to re-sign their best players. That’s not the case now.

Today’s reality is that small market fans can’t get attached to their best players. Eventually, those players are going to get traded, or are going to leave via free agency. It’s a harsh reality when you realize that kids growing up watching baseball today will never have that Cal Ripken to follow over the long-term, spanning from when they played as him in the back yards, to when they watched him hit a majestic final All-Star Game home run while in high school. Now there’s a choice: You can either follow one player his entire career, or you can follow one team. But if you want to follow your favorite team, and the team your favorite player plays for, then you will most likely be rooting for two different teams at some point in time.

This reality hits Pittsburgh pretty hard right now, as it becomes more apparent that Andrew McCutchen will be traded this off-season, possibly even in the next week.

Losing McCutchen eventually was inevitable. He would have been gone as a free agent after the 2018 season, or traded next off-season. This is obviously a huge subject, warranting discussions about the many different aspects of the deal. To break it all down, I wanted to put together a primer, adding the proper perspective to every aspect of an Andrew McCutchen trade.

The Emotional Side

In any trade that involves a player like McCutchen, you’ll have two sides to the deal: the business side and the emotional side. It’s difficult to separate those two when evaluating a deal. The business side relies around logic and numbers, looking at the reality of small market economics and trade values. The emotional side can be illogical, looking at very good reasons for a trade, and dismissing them simply because the personal investment in that specific player outweighs any other value the team could get.

That’s not to say that one side is better than the other, or that the emotional side should be more logical. But in order to break a potential McCutchen trade down, the business and the emotional side need to be separated into separate arguments. That said, neither of them can be ignored completely, and both must be given the proper attention.

We’ll start with the emotional side, because that’s going to be the most important thing for a lot of people in a McCutchen deal.

The reason emotions will be so high in this situation is because McCutchen is a unique player. I’d go back to Barry Bonds and say that McCutchen is the best player in about two decades to play for this franchise. But McCutchen’s appeal isn’t just his production on the field. It’s about the man off the field.

Bonds wasn’t likable in Pittsburgh. He was never really an embraceable icon across baseball. Elite player? Absolutely. But he didn’t have the same mass appeal that someone like Ken Griffey Jr. had. Andrew McCutchen has that appeal. He’s an exciting player to watch on the field, and he’s a great person off the field. He uses his fame to further good causes, he can be entertaining and joke around in his interactions with the public, and he’s generally just a good guy. He’s the type of guy you can root for, and who you will never regret rooting for.

The business side of this says that Austin Meadows is close to ready in Triple-A, and could be an impact outfielder in the future. It could end up saying that the Pirates got a good return for McCutchen, and made a smart move for a small market club. But none of that really matters from the emotional side.

The emotional side is so strong that the Pirates could get every top prospect in the Nationals’ system, watch all of them reach their upside, watch Meadows become an impact player, and there would still be a part of the deal that would sting. Everything could work out great in the trade, and there would still be part of the trade that would be bad, just because of the player Andrew McCutchen is.

I don’t want to knock the other players here. I’ve been covering Austin Meadows for parts of four seasons now, and he’s an extremely nice guy. He’s also a guy you want to cheer for. He’s got the upside to be an impact player in the majors, possibly as good as McCutchen was in most years. But there’s just something that McCutchen has — that “it” factor — which most players aren’t going to have. And that’s what makes the emotional side of this deal so difficult.

The Business Side

The business side of a trade is cold. It strips all emotion and looks at the facts. It’s not a human approach, but more robotic. You need the emotional side so that you don’t just go around looking at players as assets or numbers on a spreadsheet, but instead look at them as real people. But part of any trade evaluation involves stripping the human elements away and just looking at those numbers on a spreadsheet.

In terms of the business side of things, there are two things to consider about a potential McCutchen move. The first one is obviously the return on the deal, along with other future deals that follow the move. Obviously we can’t discuss the actual return until it happens, but I will go into detail about evaluating the deal in a vacuum in a bit. First, I want to look at the more important part of the business analysis, and that’s how small market teams need to operate.

I’ve been saying for years on this site that small market teams need to have a non-stop cycle of talent from the minors. They need to bring up young talent before the MLB talent is ready to leave. Then, they need to trade the MLB talent to get more young talent to repeat the process in the future.

We’re seeing that process in a McCutchen deal. McCutchen wouldn’t realistically stay in Pittsburgh for the rest of his career, unless he was willing to give up well over $100 M to make that happen. But even then, it probably wouldn’t make sense. The Pirates would be paying big for his decline years, and they have Austin Meadows ready to take over soon.

Meadows is one of the best prospects in baseball. He was rated 10th overall in Baseball America’s mid-season rankings, and has the potential to be an impact hitter at the plate, similar to what McCutchen has been throughout his career. Even if he falls short of his highest upside, you’re looking at a guy who should put up 4.0 WAR or better in the majors. Stripping away the emotion, it doesn’t make sense to pay big money for McCutchen’s decline years when you have Meadows ready to take over at a fraction of the price, and probably putting up better numbers at his young age than McCutchen will in his early-to-mid 30s. Even if you could extend McCutchen, it makes more sense to go with Meadows moving forward.

That’s definitely a small market problem. Large market teams can extend McCutchen and don’t have to worry about prospects. When McCutchen breaks down, they will just eat his salary and go on to sign the next big free agent to replace him. But small market teams don’t have that luxury.

So the Pirates will trade McCutchen, replace him with Meadows, and hope that the return for McCutchen helps stock the system for the next round of trades. And if you’re thinking to yourself “We will just go through this again with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco”, then in theory, you are right.

The latest rumors have the Pirates targeting Victor Robles, who is right up there with Meadows in terms of being one of the top prospects in baseball, but also a guy with plenty of projection who could end up just as good as McCutchen. I realize I’ve used the phrase “just as good as McCutchen” for two players, and that’s high praise, but we’re also talking about two prospects who rank around the top ten in baseball. These are very good players we’re talking about here, with some really high upsides.

If all works out, then Robles would be ready before Marte’s contract expires, which means we would go through this again in a few years, with Robles in the Meadows role, and Marte in the McCutchen role. And then maybe the prospects the Pirates get for Marte would be the eventual replacement for Gregory Polanco a few years later. And Polanco’s return could be the eventual replacement for Meadows. And the Meadows return could be the eventual replacement for Robles. And the Robles return could…I’m getting a headache.

Now that’s all in theory, and the reality is that prospects aren’t guaranteed, and the Pirates wouldn’t have a 100% success rate. But that’s the risk they have to take if they want to try and compete for the longest term possible. They also don’t need a 100% success rate to accomplish this, as long as they are successful more often than not. This gets into the abilities of Neal Huntington and the scouts trying to find players, and I’m going to stop the conversation right there. I don’t want to go off on that tangent, and the truth is that I don’t think anyone really has the information to say whether the Pirates can try and compete for the long-term, because they are just entering their first chance at trying to compete for the long-term.

The downside to the business side is the realization that, as a small market fan, you’ll never have a situation where you can get attached to a player, because eventually they will be traded or will leave via free agency.

The Battle of Emotions vs Business

I just want to add a quick section here noting that some people will be letting their emotions dictate their response to any deal, while some people will look at it from the business side. There’s nothing wrong with either approach. It’s going to be impossible to have calm discussions and debates about this issue, but the best approach would be to recognize where a person is probably coming from. If you’re taking the business view of the deal, then you’re probably not going to have success arguing your points to someone taking the emotional view, and vice-versa.

But as I said above, the best approach would be to try and see both sides, realizing that while it makes business sense, it might never look like a good deal from the emotional side. At the same time, while it might leave a sour taste from the emotional side, there would be legit business reasons to make this deal. The best way to get through this in a civil manner (and that seems very unlikely) would be to recognize both sides, and try to identify where you and other people are coming from with their views.

The Loss in Attendance

There has been one argument I’ve seen that a McCutchen trade will lead to a decline in attendance. I think this is true to an extent. If the Pirates end up winning, then the drop off won’t be that big. The Pirates had McCutchen from 2009-2012, but attendance in those years was down compared to when they were winning in 2013-2015. And they had McCutchen last year when attendance dropped while they were losing.

When McCutchen leaves, there will be some fans who leave with him. Some of them might come back, and some might be gone for good. I know first hand that this is the case. I was an Orioles fan my entire life until Ripken retired. About two or three years after that happened, I stopped following the team. Part of that was because my favorite player was gone, and part was because I didn’t like the owner of the team. And I think it’s fair to say that this combination would exist in Pittsburgh for some people after a McCutchen trade.

So if the Pirates trade McCutchen, then have another losing season next year, we could see a swift decline in attendance. Probably not below where they were pre-2013, but definitely not close to the 2013-2016 figures. But if they start winning without McCutchen, the attendance probably won’t see a hit, since fans would value winning a lot more than having their favorite player on the team. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t care McCutchen is gone. It’s just that winning is the quickest way for the Pirates to bring people back after a McCutchen deal.

Why Trade McCutchen at a “Low Value”?

One of the most common things I’ve seen is the question about whether the Pirates should trade McCutchen this year, due to his low value. McCutchen is coming off the worst year of his career, both offensively and defensively. His offense did rebound to some more normal numbers in the final two months, and the Pirates have chalked up the defensive struggles to his shallow positioning, which is backed up somewhat by advanced metrics.

The focus on the down year ignores the value of the extra year of control. Let’s assume that a lowered value for McCutchen is equal to 4.0 WAR per year. That’s more than he had last year, but less than he had in the previous five years. And realistically, McCutchen isn’t going to fall below that due to one down year, all because of his name value. If a down year equaled 4.0 WAR per year, then McCutchen would have a trade value of $35.9 M.

Let’s say that McCutchen bounces back for the Pirates in 2017, and they trade him next off-season at a value of 6.0 WAR. While he would have more value, the trade value would remain about the same. His trade value for one year in 2018, at 6.0 WAR, would be $33.7 M. So the return would be about the same.

You could argue that they’d get more value on that side by getting his production for the 2017 season. If he returns to being a 6.0 WAR player, then they would be getting about $34 M in value from him for his production in 2017.

The flip side to this is wondering what happens if he has another bad year. I don’t want to project him at another replacement level year, but let’s say he drops down to a 3.0 WAR in 2017. With two down years in a row, you’re less likely to get a favorable return for him next off-season. At that point, a 3.0 WAR trade value would be $9.7 M, which is barely enough for a prospect just inside the top 100. You’d get $10 M in value in 2017, but overall, you’d see a loss, and an even bigger loss in the long-term when you factor in the decline in future value from the prospects.

It’s all about the level of risk you want to take. I think that McCutchen is worth 5.0 WAR/year, which would be about $52 M in trade value. That would buy a hitting prospect outside of the top ten in Robles, and a pitching prospect just inside the top 50 like Reynaldo Lopez. If you make the deal now, you risk losing out on extra value, with McCutchen’s value to the team and his trade value next year being a combined $68 M if he returns to being a 6.0 WAR player.

However, if you bank on the comeback and go for more value, you run the risk that he doesn’t bounce back, which could result in a massively lower return and lower value overall. So do you take the $52 M in value right now, or do you gamble and try to go for $68 M in value, with the risk of dropping to $27.9 M in value (being a bit more generous here by giving him a 3.5 WAR in this scenario) if he does struggle again?

Evaluating the Trade in a Vacuum

I just spent a lot of time discussing the individual trade values, and that is largely going to be what a McCutchen deal will be evaluated on from the business side of things. We’ll see if the values match up, and then the long-term success of the deal will be determined by how the prospects perform.

But there is more to the deal in the short-term. A trade of McCutchen can’t be evaluated in a vacuum when thinking about the 2017 season. It can’t just be about the prospects they receive in return. There are a lot of scenarios that could spin off from a deal.

The Pirates could indirectly acquire starting pitching help through a McCutchen deal. They could do this by trading prospects, and possibly some of the prospects acquired in the McCutchen deal, to get an established pitcher. Or, the Pirates could just use the savings from McCutchen and add to their team in other methods — either via free agency, or taking on salaries in trades.

They’re currently at around $86.6 M for their projected 2017 salary. If we assume they have a budget of $100 M, then that would leave them room to sign a pitcher like Ivan Nova, but not much else. Or it could allow them to sign Derek Holland and a reliever like Neftali Feliz. But without McCutchen, the Pirates would be down to $72.6 M, giving them a lot more room to spend. They could add someone like Nova, then add pieces to the bench and the bullpen. Or they could take on salary in a trade, and still have room for extra help.

I’d be surprised if the Pirates didn’t end up spending up to that $100 M amount. In fact, I’d be downright shocked, especially after they’ve been near the $100 M mark the last few years. They should be set up to spend and upgrade in a lot of areas with the money they’d have after a McCutchen deal.

Replacing McCutchen

I wrote an article at the start of the off-season about how the Pirates could replace McCutchen, and actually upgrade the team overall. Most of that involved trading him for MLB ready pitching, and using the money for pitching. But it also involved upgrading the defense by subtraction, since he was the worst defensive center fielder in the league last year.

I’d expect the plan without McCutchen to be similar to the end of the 2016 season when the Pirates were mostly playing without Marte. They used Josh Bell a lot in right field, with David Freese and John Jaso splitting time at first base. Bell got some starts at first base, and when he did, the Pirates had guys like Adam Frazier getting starts in the outfield. I could see a similar alignment in 2016, with no real starter at those two spots, but 4-5 players rotating time, with Bell getting a starter’s workload, and Freese getting the second biggest role.

Bell doesn’t exactly provide strong defense anywhere he’s playing, but that was a given no matter if McCutchen is on the team or not. By moving him to the outfield, you upgrade the defense at first base with Freese and Jaso. The overall offense would be downgraded compared to a normal year from McCutchen, but that’s where the added pitching would play a big role in making up for that lost value.

Austin Meadows would be the eventual full-time replacement, and I could see him arriving by the middle of the 2017 season at the earliest. I could also see the Pirates trying to add an outfield option for depth, trying to find the next version of Matt Joyce for the start of the season.

**Our 2017 Prospect Guide will be released in mid-January. This is the 7th year we’ve done the book, and we moved the publishing date back this year so that we could include any players acquired in a McCutchen deal, or any players traded away. The book features profiles and scouting reports on every player in the system, and can be pre-ordered here, with discounts for subscribers.

**Pirates and Nationals Discussing Andrew McCutchen, Nats Want a Deal Done Today. Nothing was completed today, but the Nationals reportedly want a deal done before the non-tender deadline tomorrow at 8 PM.

**Speaking of that non-tender deadline, here is my preview from earlier in the week, looking at the moves the Pirates could make.

**Report: Jung Ho Kang Charged With DUI, Leaving the Scene of an Accident. So how about that David Freese extension?

**Pirates Notes: The 2017 Bench, Bonilla’s MLB Deal, Eric Wood and the Rule 5 Draft. A few notes on some of the transactions over the last few days.

**CBA Updates: 10-Day DL, All-Star Game Doesn’t Count, League Minimum Raises. Some good changes with the latest details on the new CBA.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    December 2, 2016 4:41 pm

    Unless the Pirates get an equal or better return than the Yankees got for Chapman and Miller, they are fools to trade McCutchen. I’d rather have him for the next 3 years and then have him walk if he wants. He is a very driven player and I expect he will bounce back in a big way in 2017.

  • My problem is Cutch went all in when he signed the extension, and Nutting didn’t! I expected (and I’m sure Cutch did too) a serious expenditure towards a championship and instead we have gotten the same old litany of “dollars” and “value” and “flexibility”. I knew when he signed that he wouldn’t be here for the whole contract.I feel badly for all the kids with Mccutchen jerseys and shirts who have filled the seats during this run. Explain this to them!

    • Maybe you could explain to them that the seats were never filled when the team stunk for 20 years and if we want to avoid going back into the basement of the league standings we have to keep our eye on the future, not sit around being sentimental about the past.

    • The extension for Cutch was just a typical pre-arb extension. It was about financial security for him at the time of the deal. He started becoming an MVP candidate after that extension, and if he didn’t work out, or if he dealt with injuries, we’d be talking about that deal a lot differently right now.

  • Heck I grew up a Pittsburgh everything fan but how could anyone not pull for Ripken Jr? I remember that final all star hr like it was yesterday. I’m just trying to figure out how to tell my 8 year old son that Cutch will be gone

  • Great article Tim! Can you send it to the Rob Manfred at the MLB Commissioners office? I wonder if he/they ever think about the deleterious consequences to long term fan interest in small markets across the country that the structural imbalances that result from a lack or revenue sharing create. They are supposed to be concerned about the long term health of the game, and creating a situation where most markets can’t see their star players retire from the team the came up with isn’t a healthy thing.

  • Is the Pirates minor league pitching so bad that it needs to get another teams minor league pitcher? Sure seems that way.

  • I think this is a great article as well. I would suggest that your “business” evaluation piece buys into the premise that the Pirates should continue to churn players, stay reasonably competitive and hope one year an window opens and they get either into playoffs or deep into payoffs. There are other possibilities. They can “go for it” as well. Maybe that means more ups and downs vs. steady-eddy. They could have done that last year by signing Happ or doing something other than patch together a starting rotation. they can do it this year too by keeping Cutch and simply spend some money to sign Nova and have 4 spots reasonably solidified. Your eval of Cutch is forward looking mostly. They have “banked” tremendous value vs. production from him. He clearly makes them a better team this year — no doubt about it. It’s tough to see them tear down an already good 2015 team that was so close. Why not go for it and deal with some potential down years (which will probably also be cheaper on the budget)? Doesn’t that approach also “even out” budgetwise in the end? They have very little risk in keeping Cutch. No matter what happens with him, who can honestly say that they didn’t get a good deal? Trading him now is nothing more than being “greedy”.

  • SufferinBuccotash
    December 2, 2016 10:40 am

    Nice article, Tim.

    I personally won’t have an issue if they trade McCutchen, even if it’s just for prospects.

    What I will have an issue with is if they trade McCutchen, and then start next season with a starting rotation of Cole, Taillon, Kuhl as the top 3, and some combination of Glasnow/Brault/Williams/Hutchison/Bonilla/reclamation project/retread/dumpster dive as the #4 & #5 starters.

    Until they prove me wrong, I fully expect that will be exactly what happens, and the opening day payroll will be in the mid $80 million range. Gotta make up for that lost revenue from the 250k drop in attendance somewhere…..

  • Great article Tim! I think Cutch is a great person and player. He is the only pirates jersey I have ever owned. I have much respect for him. That being said, I think he should be traded. It is completely true, we are a small market team and will never spend substantial money on our own players or free agents. Its like there is a panic button that is pushed as soon as a player is making a certain amount. This is why we try and build from within and get young controlled talent. It will hurt because he is the face of the Franchise, former MVP, and was the biggest factor in turning around our losing ways! Man I wish Nutting could have sold the team to Lemieux or Cuban!!!

  • Even if/when McCutchen returns to a 5 WAR player, a trade could make the team better right now since we can replace a decent chunk of that lost value internally and/or on the free agent market. We have no such options to improve the starting pitching, and if we manage a 4 WAR starting pitcher out of the deal for 2017, I think that direct swap could lead to a better team this year. And I think that sort of deal needs to be the goal of the front office, whether by directly trading McCutchen for a pitcher like that or getting pieces back which can be flipped or free up other assets to be flipped for that pitcher.

  • I’ve been a Pirates fan my entire life. They’d have to do a lot worse than trading McCutchen to make being a fan as tough as it was a few years ago. I’d love to see them win a World Series in my lifetime, but I know that has been said for the majority of profession teams’ fans. I just hope they make it to the playoffs in 2017. There is no better experience for me than the anxiety leading up to a playoff game as a Pirates fan.

    • Meaningful games in September and hopefully October is the primary goal. Winning a WS is the ultimate goal!

  • With the new CBA tilting the playing field even further against the small market teams, any trade of Cutch short of us “sodomizing” the Nationals for their top two prospects, ready to step in and play in 2017, then this is the beginning of my long, slow slide into apathy. Baseball’s economics will be more and more like professional wrestling, rigged.

  • I think the outfield could be better with Marte in center, Polanco in left and Bell in Right. If we can get a #2 starting pitcher or a group of prospects that could be traded for a #2 I would be more than happy. Maybe take the McCutchen prospects and Glassnow for Sales if possible.

  • Awesome job Tim. I don’t think there’s any possible way this could be explained better

  • Great article Tim!

  • Scott Kliesen
    December 2, 2016 7:46 am

    I used to have the same emotional sentiments as Tim with regard to rooting for a player his whole career with my team, but that ship sailed long ago for me. Now I expect to see my favorite players depart in every sport. I’ve learned to appreciate them for the time they spent wearing the uniform I root for, and to wish them personal success afterwards.

    Cutch is no different than Dave Parker, Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, and too many others to list. If we never have the privilege of watching Cutch tip his hat to the crowd as he touches home plate after hitting a HR, than so be it. Thanks for the memories and best wishes for continued success.

    • And before them, when I was young, Ralph Kiner and Dick Groat. Even back then a kid could wind up broken hearted,

      • Different sport, but if Joe Montana and Jerry Rice can be traded away, then anyone is apt to be dealt or unceremoniously dumped eventually.

  • Love the article. Best read in a while and things like this should get broader spread- good idea making free! I’m sending to all my emotional friends instead of fighting them. It stings for a lot of us. Well done.

  • My two problems with trading cutch is 1. It comes on the heels of the Liriano disaster which is going to be a PR nightmare for the pirates, it will effect ticket sales and 2. If you going to trade a player like cutch for prospects, then go on in a
    rebuild. Don’t pull the crap like they did at the trade deadline last year were they made three trades that were all in different directions. Melancon was a
    trade for the future, Nova a trade for now and Liriano a salary dump

    Let’s be honest, unless the cubs are hit with some serious injuries, the Pirates are not overtaking them this year. I think the Pirates should trade Cole, Marte, Harrison, Watson, Kang, Cervelli and Mercer along with Cutch.

    Cole is going to end up in LA or San Fran anyway so I’d send him there now when you can get a fortune for him since he has three years of control. In my opinion, Cole would get more than Chapman. The dodgers could put a nice package together with Bellinger, De Leon and several other young arms.

    They can’t keep trying to piece meal a team on the cheap each year and I know I know two years ago they won 98 games. But unless they find a pitcher to take a third less of market value (burnett) and get an ace out of a back end starter (happ), results like last year are more likely than two years ago.

    • Scott Kliesen
      December 2, 2016 7:52 am

      If you can’t see the Pirates are trying to be proactive to keep the team competitive so they can avoid having to do a complete tear down, than you’re not looking at this from the right angle. The whole reason for making moves like this is to stay competitive year in and year out.

      • Scott, stop using logic. It doesn’t work with some people.

      • Is the goal to win 85 games every year or a world series?

        • The goal is to be a playoff contender year in and year out. That’s the best way to win a WS.

          • I’m not sure that is the right way to go under the current draft system. It pays teams to do a complete rebuild and accumulate prospects for the next playoff run by losing on the major league level and drafting high for a couple of years. Then once you have a competitive team, trade some prospects for rental players that put you over the top. Repeat the cycle every 5 years or so as long as the draft rules remain the same.

            • Absolutely, 100% correct.

              At best, Huntington was naive to ever think this the concept of a never-ending window was practical.

              At worst, he was setting fans up for a perpetual kicking of the can. Look how many folks have bought in.

            • that’s the way I feel, 100% agree. If you trade Cutch for prospects then go all in and do a complete rebuild while you have highly tradable players. Plus thePirates already have a few top prospects that are just getting started.

          • Scott K. You have nailed it. Because once you reach the playoffs, it’s all just one big crap-shoot. So why not try to get as many of those lottery tickets (code for playoff appearances) as you can. We’ve seen teams that have played in the one game playoff make it all the way to the World Series and actually win the World Series. I, as much as anyone, would hate to see the Pirates trade McCutchen. He’s a class person, has a great personality and he’s a great player (easily the best Pirates player since Bonds as far as talent). As a fan, I’d much rather follow a team that is in contention for a playoff spot than one that isn’t. That’s why fans who’ve followed the Pirates through the 20 year losing season streak (’93-’12) came back to following the team. It’s unfortunate that the reality is that small market / revenue clubs such as the Pirates and their ownership can make more money with a team with less talent, lower attendance and lower local TV ratings that a perennial playoff contender. When is MLB and the MLBPA ever going to address this issue seriously in the collective bargaining talks?

      • Ah, yes, the never-ending window!

        Completely practical. Many teams have been able to do this with limited resources.

      • Or to keep Payroll down and maximize profits over a period of time

    • I think the yankees would most likely overpay for Cole. And now they have Frazier, which would make an interesting story having Meadows and Frazier together.

    • ” In my opinion, Cole would get more than Chapman.” Heh heh..that comment tells me all I need to know about you.

      • You’re honestly questioning whether or not three years of Gerrit Cole would bring back more than two months of Aroldis Chapman?

        You can’t be serious.

        • Besides the fact that Cole has an injury problem that you never fail to point out in other places, don’t try trolling me. You aren’t serious here on this site half the time, so why ask me that ridiculous question ?

    • Letting Liriano go was a disaster? He was completely horrible with the Pirates the whole year. If that deal was not made, all of Pirates nation would be screaming for the Pirates to unload Frankie for anything right now. He was costing games by going out to pitch every 5 days. Considering how bad Frankie was last season, I was surprised that they were able to make a deal at all.

      • Liriano, Cutch, Cole, Cervelli and Watson were 11 wins worse in 2016 than 2015 based on WAR/WAA. That is all we need to know regarding the pirates decline last year. Liriano was a disaster for the bucs last year.

      • PR disaster – giving up two top 10 prospects to unload your highest paid player then trading your next highest paid player who is one of the most like players of all time is a PR nightmare, it will effect ticket sales, it will effect causal fans perception of the team

  • Can a team win with guaranteed large turnover every off-season? Looking at it Cervelli, Cole, and Kang will all have 2 years left on their contracts or arbitration after the 2017 season. Do you then move all three? As you pointed out you expect them to move Marte and Polanco. If they do it in the same time frame as McCutchen and the players I listed above then Marte would be moved after 2018, Polanco after 2019. The Pirates are basically giving each group a 1 year chance to win. Can that be done? I don’t know. I understand the business sense when trying to stay competitive as a small market team, but if they’re going to reply on trades and draft and Latin America to build and win, is it better to stay in a straight line or sell out, try to win, and just build from the ground up every few years? Everybody wants to see them win a World Series of course, is it possible the way they appear to be trying to do it?

    • Cards have done it. As did for years until beane went “all in”… winning with the same group doesn’t work either – Yankees, redsox, tigers, etc all need to retool and the same group of 30 something’s can’t get it done these days without “help”. The Indians and Cubs were two of the youngest teams this year. Cubs mostly draft and traded for prospect contributors plus a couple massive FA signings (combining our approach and dodger approach). In 4 years (similar to us in 2013)- some of these guys are in their prime (Bryant and rizzo), some are aging (arrietta, etc) -and they will need to retool.

  • Awesome article, Tim! Great perspective and analysis. Thank you.

  • “It’s a harsh reality when you realize that kids growing up watching baseball today will never have that Cal Ripken to follow over the long-term, spanning from when they played as him in the back yards, to when they watched him hit a majestic final All-Star Game home run while in high school.”…

    Kids growing up hell… I’m 36 and I’ve never seen it and will never see it from my chosen franchise and it disgusts me.

    • I saw it with myself with Willie Stargell, though I only got to see him play
      during his later years. It realty is sad to think that it will never happen again for a team like the Pirates unless something dramatic changes.

  • And one more factor in dealing McCutchen before his deal is up… they are shooting themselves in the foot for signing their future young stars to long term deals. Players will learn that if they give up FA years at a discount the Pirates will just use that as trade leverage later. The only players who will sign extensions are those who didn’t get draft bonuses.

    • I disagree. These guys are often times anxious to hit the pay window. Signing an extension facilitates this process. Furthermore, and most importantly, it protects them from injury and/or performance decline.

      • Agree, because many of the players have dedicated themselves to this career and have no college degree or manual job skills to fall back on if not successful in baseball. Therefore getting to MLB is great, the Arbitration years are important to establish a level of present and future financial comfort, but the real financial security only comes with a long term contract.

  • Don’t forget, if they keep him for two more years, they would be able to make a QO and get an extra draft pick if he leaves.

    But trading him away is passing up on two years of a star player at a bargain. Think of it this way: if he were a FA right now, he’d be getting offers like 6 years, 150-180 million. The Pirates have a chance to own him for 2 years (likely the two best years of those six), for $28M. He’s likely to put up at least 8 WAR for that, which by the standard of FA $/WAR is a bargain. Then, they’ll get a late first round pick if he leaves after 2018. They’d be crazy to pass that up if he were a FA, so why rush to get rid of it now that they have it?

    In the meantime they are paying Antonio Bastardo $6.5 Million. Josh Harrison $7.5M. Francisco Cervelli $9M. David Freese over $6M. There is no combination of two guys there I’d rather have than McCutchen.

    You say they can get their salary down to $72M and that will give them more flexibility… but there are no free agents! Who are they going to spend it on, Ivan Nova? Which team is better, the one with McCutchen (a 4-win player), or the one with Ivan Nova (exactly one season with a FIP below 4.00)? Easy.

    Finally, Cutch is as close to a sure thing as there is. Austin Meadows is far from a sure thing. He may be great, but he hasn’t hit at AAA yet, he’s been hurt way too much, and even without that the bust rate for top 20 prospects is around 50%. Then, there’s the learning curve … if he shows good growth every year, you get something like Polanco, which means by 2020 he might be a 3-win player.

    So, trading Cutch is stupid, not just from an emotional standpoint, but from a business standpoint. They won’t be better without him in 2017, it’s virtually impossible given the available players. The offense will be 3-4 wins worse without him, and there aren’t any 3-4 win pitchers the Pirates can acquire. They won’t contend in 2017. Maybe they do in 2018, unless the “Trade Marte” gong starts sounding.

    Better to ride it out with Cutch, move him if Meadows forces his way into the lineup, or else collect the comp pick when he leaves.

    If they trade him now, they’d better get at least an MLB-ready arm, a top 20 prospect, and a top 100 prospect.

    • I may be wrong, but I believe under the new CBA you no longer get a first round compensation pick. You get a third round pick if the signing team has not exceeded the luxury tax limit, and a second and third round pick, plus 1 million Int. pool money if they have exceeded the limit.

      That assumes he signed for over 50 million in 2 years, but even then we might only get a third round pick if he goes to free agency.

    • Even if under the new CBA the pick is of lessor value, you have correctly raised an important point…………….unless the skills are gone the Bucs will be trading a star controlled with a bargain contract. His performance at the plate in July and August when healthy indicates that the value remains….and yet “small market” Pittsburgh is ready to dump another salary and this time face of the franchise box office draw for the uncertainty of prospects. It smells worse than the Jason Bay deal…….and the fact is the deal is not necessary and will unquestionably hurt 2017 performance and attendance, fan loyalty and ratings.

      • Scott Kliesen
        December 2, 2016 7:49 am

        Fans are fickle. They ebb and flow with the tide. If I were NH that wouldn’t be a factor in the decision at all.

      • The problem, as Tim pointed out, is that he’s walking in 2 years. Yes, we’d get two years of him at potentially a bargain price should his performance get back to normal. But then he leaves and we have nothing to show for it. 2 years from now.

        That’s how we arrive at this solution of moving him to bring in more young guys. That’s how small market teams have to behave to stay competitive for long stretches, tying your wagon to an aging former superstar is a great way to send us back into another 20 year losing streak.

        I mean Tim’s article hits on all these things. It’s all right there.

    • I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that Pirates should wait until next December to shop him, but have no doubt he will be dealt. It’s just the MLB world we live in.

      And it isn’t necessarily a small market problem. As the game becomes “cleaner,” it will be more difficult for older players to maintain their production. I can see more large market teams doing the same thing since it’s more than ever a young man’s sport.

      • Agree- longevity mean is getting squeezed. Anyone have data on career length? That may help… we’ve had cutch for 7 years? That would be a pretty nice run in any career… another thought: It’s not just sports either. It’s a job trend. People have to move now for increased experience, title and, wait for it- pay.

    • There is no way the Pirates will extend a +$20 M QO to a 33-year old McCutchen in 2019. Thus, no draft pick compensation. Per the new CBA, and from a risk-reward perspective, McCuthcen has more value to a large revenue club. Trading McCutchen now not only maximizes his remaining trade value, but also makes sense based on opportunity cost (i.e. backfilling his production with Bell in RF and Freese/Jaso at 1B, then Meadows in RF in June/July; and re-allocating $$$ and potentially other assets to upgrade pitching

      • Well, the QO has gone up by about 0.5M a year, so you’re not looking at 20+ in two years, it’s more like 18+. But even so, even he accepts and it’s a bad one year deal, that doesn’t kill your franchise.

        The reason he has trade value now is because there is expected performance above what they are paying him. That performance = wins in 2017 and 2018. If you trade that away you are taking Wins away from 2017 and 2018 in exchange for a chance at wins in 2019 and 2020. They can afford him, his performance is good value for the money, so there is no reason to trade him except to postpone winning by a few seasons. Unless they get a shockingly good return.

    • You do realize he actually hit well for parts of 3 months in 2015 ? And if he injures the knee or gets off to a terrible start like he has the past two years, what would his value be ?

      • His value would go to nothing and is precisely why the Bucs are looking to move him now. They moved Walker last year for the same reason. No way would they have given Walker a $17 million QO even with the stats he put up prior to hurting his back again. Because of his back history he had no demand last off season. To be honest, I was surprised the Mets offered the QO based on his history with his back. If the Pirates are offered a good package for Cutch, the Pirates need to take it. It would be stupid to keep Cutch for 2 more years just because and watch him walk for nothing. The screaming would be deafening in that scenerio.

    • I get the sentiment, but I can’t stand in the “cutch is a sure thing” category. He was not good last year. Regardless of his final 2 months, he put up a very poor year. When we talk about the regression of last season I look squarely at the veteran declines from Cutch, Liriano, Cervelli, Watson, Cole. If we look at the decrease in WAR/WAA from those players it accounts for 11.2 win decline. That is significant. I see some people saying we shouldn’t just not trade cutch, but we should be looking at extending him. That is a recipe for disaster for this club.

    • Your breakdown of what he would make as a free agent right now, versus what he’s actually making, is essentially the same thing as breaking down his trade value. He does have value to the Pirates in that he’s a discount, but that’s also why he has value elsewhere.

      And you’re saying Meadows is far from a sure thing, but suggesting that McCutchen is going to provide sure value over the next two years, which I don’t think is accurate.

      One minor point, they’re receiving money from the Mets for Bastardo. Not sure how much, but they’re not paying $6.5 M.

  • IIRC from another thread, The Nats wanted to get a deal done Thursday so they could non-tender their Shortstop by today’s deadline. Lots of moving pieces seem to have stopped moving all of a sudden.

    • That was posturing on their part in an attempt to sway the Pirates into thinking the best deal they would give them would expire at midnight. I call BS.

      • Non tender deadline is 8:00 pm tonight.

      • There may have been a need, but it certainly was not more important than signing a player like Andrew McCutchen.

        The Nats exposed their hand and unless the deal got done immediately they feared that it would open up some interest from other teams who have similar quality prospects, such as the Yankees. IMO, they had a terrible OF in 2016 and the outlook is that it may struggle in 2017 until Clint Frazier and/or some of their other prospects are promoted. A strong veteran presence could help the young Yankees.

  • terrygordon30
    December 2, 2016 1:05 am

    Excellent article, Tim. 1966 was the first year that I avidly followed the Pirates. During the 1966 offseason the Reds traded a 30 year old superstar for proven pitching help and a prospect.

    The Frank Robinson trade made some real sense at the time, but the wheels fell off Both pitchers had off years, and Frank Robinson won the triple crown, the AL MVP and the Orioles won their first pennant and their first World Series.

    The Reds really needed a pitching upgrade, and they got a terrific one…on paper. Milt Pappas was one of the best pitchers in the game. But he had a bad year for the Reds in 1966. Jack Baldshun had been a very good reliever. He was terrible in 1966.

    I hope that the Pirates fare much better. Last year, I compared the Neil Walker trade to the Dick Groat trade after the 1962 season. As it turns out, the Walker trade may have been even worse than the groat trade. Trading regulars for starting pitching can be a tricky thing. Some things never seem to change.