Last offseason I wrote a primer covering every angle of a potential Andrew McCutchen trade. The Pirates didn’t end up trading McCutchen, although they came close.
A big part of the primer involved the emotional aspect of trading McCutchen and the business side of a deal. I’m not going to recap that, except to point out that the business side has clearly won over the emotional side in the last year. When McCutchen struggles, which he has done for months at a time in each of the last two seasons, fans are open to the idea of letting him go. That’s a nice way of saying they boo him, and get upset that the Pirates didn’t trade him at a high value.
When McCutchen performs like he did in June and July this year, everyone is on board the extension bandwagon. That of course is when his trade value is the highest, and when it makes the most sense to trade him.
As we’ve seen the last two years, the reasons to trade him are starting to outweigh the reasons to keep him around. He’s starting his decline, and will only get more expensive. Even if the Pirates don’t trade him, and decide to keep him around in 2018, it won’t make sense to extend him. The emotional aspect will still be there, even if it does disappear when he is slumping, but the business reasons are making this an easier decision than last year.
I don’t know if the Pirates will trade McCutchen this offseason, or keep him to try and contend in 2018. What I do know is that he still has trade value, and there are still factors to debate in regards to keeping him versus letting him go. Here is an update on where we are now with all of those topics, following up on last year’s article.
McCutchen’s Trade Value
There was a question last offseason over whether the Pirates were trying to trade McCutchen at a low value. It’s hard to really say what type of value he actually had, since no trade was completed, and very few rumors came out involving actual players that were discussed. There was one rumor that had Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, and a third player as a close deal. But the Nationals ended up trading for Adam Eaton.
At the time, McCutchen was coming off a year where he was close to replacement level. There was one theory that the Pirates could keep him around, get his value back to being a 6.0 WAR player, and trade him during this offseason when his value was higher. That came with the risk that he might not fully regain his former value, which is basically what happened.
McCutchen put up a 3.7 fWAR this year, and following his 2016 production, it’s extremely unlikely that he will be worth anything close to 5-6 WAR on the trade market. At this point, the best you can hope for is a 4 WAR trade value, which would amount to about $21.25 M if you value a win at $9 M.
By comparison, McCutchen would have been worth $52 M last year if he would have been valued as a 5 WAR player. He would have been worth about $40 M this offseason if he would have returned to a 6 WAR player. The bright side here is that it could have been worse. He could have had another year like 2016, leaving him with no trade value.
The argument gets brought up every year that the team should hold on to McCutchen and see how the team does, then trade him at a later date (deadline, next year, etc). That wouldn’t be a wise move at this point. Trading him at the deadline would lead to about $7 M in trade value if he maintains a 4 WAR value. By keeping him, you’re reducing his value to a third of what it is right now. And considering his trend of struggling early in the season, saving him for the deadline might be a bad idea.
There’s also the option of keeping him and just getting a draft pick. That would have a pretty low value to what he could get in a trade, which right now could still be a top 100 prospect and more. Then there’s the extension talk, which I’ll get to later.
The Attendance Factor
One argument against trading McCutchen was that it could have a negative impact on the attendance. The idea was that the Pirates would damage their loyalty with fans by trading away a team favorite. The opposite idea here is that they would generate some goodwill by keeping McCutchen around.
I think the actual results showed that this argument was overblown, and the only real impact on the attendance is the won/loss record.
The Pirates kept McCutchen. They also had a losing season, winning only 75 games. Their attendance went down to just under 1.92 million fans, which was their lowest total since 2010, and just below their 2011 season total of 1.94 million fans.
To put that in perspective, McCutchen was still a rising star in 2011, coming off a 3.5 fWAR season in his first full year in the majors. In fact, no one even knew if he would be a star at that point. He had a 5.5 fWAR in 2011, but really broke out in 2012 with a 6.8 fWAR and a third place finish in the MVP race. He wasn’t even an MLB icon at that point, and wasn’t the fan favorite he is today.
The only thing that is going to impact the attendance is winning. There is no goodwill to be had from an attendance standpoint in keeping McCutchen. If the team wins, fans will show up. If they lose, fans won’t show up. It really won’t matter whether they keep McCutchen around or not.
The Extension Debate
I think you could have an interesting debate between keeping McCutchen and trying to contend in 2018, or trading him away and starting some sort of rebuild. That said, I still don’t think there’s a reason to extend McCutchen.
When the “Extend Cutch” talk started, he was an MVP candidate. He was a guy who would lead your team to being a contender every year. You could dream that he would continue this in his age 31 season and beyond.
Over the last three years, we’ve seen that this was clearly a dream. McCutchen struggled for a month in 2015. He struggled for two-thirds of the season in 2016. And he struggled for half of the 2017 season, with a two month slump to start the year, and another month-long slump in August.
Things will only get worse as he gets older. This isn’t a guy who will return to being a 6 WAR player and stay that way in his low-to-mid 30s. McCutchen has lost speed. He has lost defensive value. He has lost bat speed. McCutchen is on the decline, and anyone paying for him is going to be paying for the player he was before, and not the player he will be beyond the 2018 season.
The Pirates might be better off with McCutchen in 2018, and maybe even in 2019. But they can’t get him in 2019 without buying extra years where they will be worse off with him, due to the expected decline.
The only argument for an extension is the goodwill toward him, and the goodwill toward the fans. But as we’ve seen, that is a myth. The only thing that will help the Pirates with the fans is winning, and paying a lot of money for a McCutchen extension will hurt them in this regard.
The replacement for McCutchen is still Austin Meadows. That won’t happen at the start of the 2018 season, as the injuries to Meadows have held him back from making the jump to the majors. The Pirates will hope that Meadows stays healthy enough in 2018 to allow him to develop in Triple-A, and make it to the majors for the second half of the season.
Meadows will arrive eventually to take over the third outfield spot. If the Pirates deal McCutchen before that, they will need a short-term replacement to take over in the outfield. Of course if they do trade McCutchen and go for a rebuild in 2018, it wouldn’t hurt to give Jordan Luplow a shot to see if he can be a starter in the majors, at least until Meadows arrives.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.