The MLB trade deadline is a little over two weeks away, and the first big trade of the season took place yesterday, with the Cubs acquiring left-handed pitcher Jose Quintana from the White Sox. That officially launches trade rumor season, in which we’ll probably be hearing things on a daily basis about people the Pirates could acquire or trade away.
We still don’t know whether the Pirates will buy or sell, although I have a feeling their approach will be similar to last year, where they sell guys with expiring contracts, while also adding guys who might be able to help them beyond 2017, even if it means adding someone on an expiring contract who they could try to re-sign — much like they did with Ivan Nova. I would also point out that I don’t think every single person with an expiring contract will be sold. There could be some players who the Pirates want to retain, similar to Sean Rodriguez, who they kept through the trade deadline, and tried to re-sign over the offseason.
One thing that I know for sure is that we’re going to hear a lot of talk about Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates might not necessarily trade him, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where he gets dealt. They shopped him over the offseason, and almost traded him to the Nationals, before Washington ended up trading for Adam Eaton. While they’re still technically in striking range of the division, the reality is that they don’t have a strong chance this year of contending. So it’s not out of the question that they could deal McCutchen.
As I did during the offseason, I wanted to throw together a primer on a potential Andrew McCutchen trade, giving some perspective on what is likely to be a busy two weeks of rumors and a possible trade, all while providing an update with what we know since the offseason.
THE EMOTIONAL SIDE
Any trade has two sides: business and emotional. Some trades make it easy to remove emotions, such as when you’re trading away a lower level prospect for an MLB player. In other cases, such as a potential McCutchen trade, the emotional side will be strong.
McCutchen is the most productive player to play in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds, and arguably more popular. He’s a guy with mass appeal — a star recognized by fans all across baseball, and not just in Pittsburgh. When he’s on his game, he’s exciting to watch on the field, and he can be entertaining and is viewed as a good guy off the field. McCutchen is the type of guy you want to root for, and doesn’t give a reason to root against him.
The business side says that McCutchen is close to free agency, has shown some inconsistent performances the last two years, and probably won’t age well if the Pirates decided to extend him. The emotional side doesn’t care about any of that, and would love to dream of a scenario where McCutchen is extended and somehow maintains his current star status, with no bumps in the road.
I said a lot of this during the offseason, but we’ve seen a new development this season. It’s easy to ignore the emotional side when McCutchen is struggling. We saw him struggle early in the year, and at that point, there probably wouldn’t have been emotions about trading him. Now that he’s performing like Andrew McCutchen again, the emotional side is strong, since it’s easy to envision this production continuing, and easy to forget how possible it can be for him to struggle again like early in the season.
The good news for the Pirates is that the emotional side exists for MLB General Managers. They aren’t immune to dreaming about a player fulfilling his upside, and removing themselves from the reality that the player could easily struggle. They still factor in the business side, but MLB teams aren’t exclusively on one side. For that reason, McCutchen’s recent surge could give him value, beyond just what the business side says.
THE BUSINESS SIDE
The emotional side is optimistic and rose-colored. It only remembers the best of times, and envisions those times continuing going forward. The business side is cold. It strips all of that emotion, and only looks at the facts. It avoids treating the player as a human, but instead looks at the player as an asset or a stock with rising and falling values. You need to combine both sides in order to fully evaluate a trade, but the business side is important to see why the Pirates would trade a player like McCutchen.
Just like the offseason, there are two things to consider for a McCutchen trade on the business side. The first is the return of the deal. The second is the approach that small market teams need to take. The Pirates aren’t going to be able to afford to keep McCutchen at free agent prices, while also building a contending team around him. As with all players, they need to maximize the value while the player is there, and trade him when a replacement comes along.
Austin Meadows is the eventual replacement for McCutchen. The 2017 season has shown us that the hamstring issues for Meadows continue, which just means that he is not a guarantee, which really doesn’t make him different from any other prospect. The key difference here is that we know the thing that could hold Meadows back, since his skills at the plate are less likely to be the issue for him making the jump to the majors and maintaining good production over the long-term.
If the Pirates extended McCutchen, they would be paying for his decline years, which may have already started. Meadows might not be better than Andrew McCutchen was in his prime, but it’s not hard to imagine him being better over the next five years than McCutchen will be at ages 31-35. When you add in the $15-20 M that the Pirates would save per year, and the value that money would get when spent on a different player/players, you get much more value moving on from McCutchen and going with Meadows.
This is very much a small market problem. Big market teams can keep a player like McCutchen beyond free agency, and not have to worry about prospects. They have many avenues for acquiring talent, whether it is trading top prospects for MLB help, or signing free agents — and if they make a mistake, they can afford to pave over that mistake with another similar deal. Small market teams need to keep finding cheaper options to replace the more expensive options, while also restocking the farm for future replacements.
The Pirates know that Meadows is the replacement for McCutchen. They now need to work on the eventual replacements for Starling Marte (under control through 2021) and Gregory Polanco (under control through 2023). That could happen in a trade for McCutchen, with a future replacement being added in the deal. It could also happen through other avenues, such as draft picks like Calvin Mitchell or Conner Uselton. The player may have already been in the system before the 2017 draft, like Jeremias Portorreal or Lolo Sanchez.
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.
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.
During the offseason, I pointed out that there was a reason to trade McCutchen at a “low value.” He was coming off a down year, and wasn’t getting the same attention that he would have a year before. But the extra year of control added value that made up for the loss in value that McCutchen’s struggles brought.
At the time, I had McCutchen’s trade value at $35.9 M if teams viewed him as a 4.0 WAR player. I also had him with a $33.7 M value in the upcoming offseason if he bounced back and looked like a 6.0 WAR player again in 2017. I’m not sure if that is happening right now, although you could make an argument that he’s getting there. He was the second most valuable position player in June, behind Aaron Judge. He’s currently 8th in July. This is the old Andrew McCutchen we’re seeing. We just don’t know how long it will last.
That was the other scenario I pointed out. If McCutchen’s value drops, he loses a ton of value. If he looks like a 3.0 WAR player, he’d have $9.7 M in value in the upcoming offseason. That makes the timing of a McCutchen trade very important.
There will probably be arguments to delay a McCutchen trade, saying that the Pirates could get better value for him over the offseason. This could be true. If McCutchen continues this pace the rest of the year, he will easily get that 6.0 WAR value over the offseason. Of course, if that happens, the emotions will be extremely strong, and people arguing to delay now will then be arguing to delay until the deadline in 2018, leaving the option to trade McCutchen if the Pirates aren’t contending next year.
The problem with the delay approach is that it leaves time for McCutchen to show the cracks in the armor of his value again. It’s easy to imagine him maintaining the current production for a few more weeks. But a few months to carry him to the 2017-18 offseason? A year to carry him to the next trade deadline? Those assumptions ignore the fact that he has struggled for months at a time in each of the last three seasons, with the struggle periods only getting longer as the years go on.
The Pirates might be able to get around $35 M in trade value right now, and possibly more when you factor in the trade deadline urgency. They might be able to get the same amount during the offseason if McCutchen continues this performance. But the longer they wait, the more opportunity they give to McCutchen struggling again, which would sink his value.
EVALUATING THE TRADE IN A VACUUM
Any McCutchen deal will be evaluated on the individual trade value, judging what the Pirates received in exchange for McCutchen. But the trade can’t be evaluated in a vacuum.
The other factors of a McCutchen trade include how his replacement performs. That would likely be Austin Meadows. If he comes in and matches the production of McCutchen, or comes close, that would have to be considered. The same could be said for the money the Pirates have left from a McCutchen trade, and what they do with that money. If one scenario has them with McCutchen, and another has them with Meadows and another player who costs $14 M, then those two scenarios would need to be compared to give another view of the trade.
That’s not to say that saving money is a main reason for a McCutchen trade. It’s just that this process can’t be ignored, and needs to be a factor for any small market team.
Getting Out of No-Man’s Land
The Pirates are in an interesting situation. They’re not far from being strong contenders, and you could argue they’d be in a much better spot this year if Jung Ho Kang didn’t have his visa issues, or if Starling Marte didn’t get suspended. They have a lot of young talent starting to arrive, and we’ve seen some of the inconsistent performances that come with young talent making the initial jump to the majors.
But they have the unfortunate situation of being in the same division with the Cubs, which means they have a more difficult road to contending than most teams. What might be good enough to contend for a division outside of the NL Central is not necessarily going to cut it in the NL Central.
The current Wild Card setup creates more “contenders” than ever, and I use quotes because some teams aren’t actually contenders, but think they have a shot. Take the Pirates, for example. They’re five games under .500, seven games out of first place, and nine games out of the Wild Card. Yet we still don’t really know if they’ll be sellers at the deadline.
The extra Wild Card spot gives false hope, and the value of winning the division (and avoiding a one-game playoff) drives urgency to improve. As a result, teams who commit to being sellers at the deadline can really enjoy massive returns, allowing them the potential to restock in a big way for the future. Just look at what the Cubs did at the start of this system.
The Cubs got to where they are now through many different avenues of acquiring talent. One of the things that gave them a big boost was being sellers for a few years at the deadline. Their biggest trade saw them land Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They also received Dan Straily in that deal, who was later traded for Dexter Fowler. Billy McKinney was also acquired in that deal, and was part of the Aroldis Chapman trade last year.
The Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta in July the previous year, trading Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman to get him. They also received Pedro Strop in that deal. Arrieta wasn’t as big of a name then, and really turned things around with the Cubs, but was still a good return for a back of the rotation starter and a backup catcher. They also traded Matt Garza that year, receiving 2017 bullpen members Carl Edwards and Justin Grimm.
In 2012, the Cubs received Kyle Hendricks as part of a Ryan Dempster trade. In those three years, they received a starting shortstop, two starting pitchers, two major bullpen pieces, the key piece in the Dexter Fowler trade, and a smaller piece in the Chapman trade.
You could argue that the Pirates have a good shot at winning in 2018 if this version of Andrew McCutchen shows up all year. But as we’ve seen this year, the Pirates don’t have a lot of margin for error. If they capitalize on the current market, and dedicate toward selling — which includes selling right now on McCutchen when his value is high — then they might build a stronger team in the long run, giving them more margin for error in the future.