I don’t make many articles free. We have to pay the bills around here, and the cost to subscribe isn’t that high, especially for the quality work that we produce year-round. At this point you should be subscribing to us, simply because with the way the team is going with their recent rebuilding trades, Pirates Prospects might be the most relevant Pirates site in 2018. If you’d like to join us, here’s the subscription link. We also have a deal for students and teachers during the month of January. And don’t forget to buy the 2018 Prospect Guide, which will have all of the new players added to the top 50 later this week. I typically make an article free if it’s discussing a big topic where I want to get my thoughts out there to a wider audience. I can’t think of a bigger topic than an Andrew McCutchen trade. So, let’s get to the article.
I knew that one day I would have to write a column about an Andrew McCutchen trade. Everyone knew the trade was going to happen one day. But knowing doesn’t make it all easier when the time comes.
I’ve prepared for a McCutchen trade in the past with a series of articles, looking at the business decision of trading McCutchen, compared to the emotional decision. The debate between the two things is important to note, because it exists with so few players.
When Gerrit Cole was traded on Saturday, people were mostly outraged at a deal that was perceived to be a bad deal. I didn’t like the return, feeling that the Pirates got a little too much “high floor” and not enough “high upside” for their biggest trade chip.
But you’d have to search hard for a fan who said they were done with the organization simply because Gerrit Cole’s time as a Pirate was up. Cole was a good player, but he wasn’t the face of the franchise. So most of the discussion about that trade was solely about the value in the deal, and the business decision of dealing your best pitcher and committing to a rebuild, rather than going for it in 2018.
That’s not the case with McCutchen. People react to the value of the deal. People react to the concept of trading him. And people react to the emotional side of trading the face of the franchise. That last part is so big that it clouds everything else.
So when it comes to breaking down the trade, I can’t just discuss value. I have to discuss that big cloud of emotions over the rest of the deal. Because of that, I think the emotional factor is the best place to begin.
The Emotions of Trading the Face of the Franchise
If you’re tweeting or commenting to me tonight that you’re giving up your season tickets, I believe you.
If you tell me that you’re done with this team, I believe you.
If you say that you’re not going to be following the team, and you’re unsubscribing from the site, well then it sucks for me and our writers, but I believe you and welcome you back at any time.
A lot of people saying this kind of stuff are caught up in the emotions of the moment. They’ll return. Some of them a month from now when Spring Training begins. Some of them on Opening Day. Some of them much later when the Pirates return to winning.
But there are definitely some who are absolutely done with this team. I know, because I’ve been there. I grew up an Orioles fan. Cal Ripken was my favorite player. And when he retired, I had no interest in the Orioles going forward. I was upset at their management group, but I stuck around and followed them while Ripken was around. When Ripken retired, there was nothing keeping me around.
I quickly started taking an interest in other teams, specifically small market teams. The Pirates were an obvious starting point, since my dad was from Pittsburgh, I grew up watching the Pirates, and knew a bit about them. The Oakland Athletics got my interest. Then the Tampa Bay Rays. And basically any small market team that beat the odds and managed to win in MLB. But I didn’t really have a team anymore. From that point forward, I was just following individual players and interesting underdog stories. And even when the Orioles were successful after that point, I couldn’t even try to be a fan again. That part of me, the emotional attachment to a specific baseball team, was lost forever.
That’s going to happen with a lot of Pirates fans. Fans who remember the last World Series will be done with the team. Fans who saw the first winning Pirates seasons of their lives a few years ago. Young fans who are just getting into the game, and no longer have that MLB icon to follow in Pittsburgh.
It’s important to recognize this. It’s important to realize that almost everyone who is commenting on the move is factoring in some sort of emotional response, whether the response is entirely emotional, or just giving respect to a player they admired as a side note to the deal. It’s important to respect this emotional reaction.
But it’s also important to compartmentalize the emotions when breaking down the trade. Because the emotional side of the trade is biased, and doesn’t give an accurate read of the deal. No matter who the Pirates acquire, the reaction is the same:
“That’s all they got for Andrew McCutchen?”
“THAT is all they got for Andrew McCutchen?!”
“THAT IS THE BEST THEY COULD GET FOR ANDREW MCCUTCHEN, ONE OF THE BEST PLAYERS TO WEAR A PIRATES UNIFORM?”
And that reaction is fair from the emotional side. But the business side is much more nuanced, and requires you to look beyond McCutchen’s stature in this town, and look at the details of the trade.
The Business Side of Trading Andrew McCutchen
Here are some facts, with a few educated opinions mixed in.
**Andrew McCutchen had one year and $14.5 M remaining on his deal.
**The Pirates probably weren’t going to be extending him. Neal Huntington said tonight that they didn’t see a way to extend McCutchen and build around him going forward.
**Andrew McCutchen has seen his value declining the last few years. He went from an 8.4 WAR in his MVP season to a 6.8, then 5.6 in 2015, followed by 0.6 in 2016 and 3.7 this past year. The last two years saw some prolonged struggles, and some injury and durability concerns.
**The Pirates aren’t going to be winning the World Series in 2018, especially after trading Gerrit Cole. I’m not sure whether to file this under “fact” or “educated opinion” so I’ll let you decide.
The first question you should ask in any deal is whether it makes sense to trade the player. In this case, it’s simple. The Pirates aren’t contending in 2018, and McCutchen is gone after the 2018 season. The only argument for keeping him around is based on emotions, or the idea that he can somehow gain value by the trade deadline. As we saw from the last year, he can definitely lose value if you wait to deal him.
So yes, trading McCutchen was the right move.
The next thing you should figure out is what kind of value the player has. McCutchen had a 3.7 fWAR last year. He was projected for a 3.1 WAR by ZiPS this year, but I’m going to be generous and give him that 3.7 projection. At $9 M per WAR, that is a little over $33 M in value. Subtract McCutchen’s salary ($12 M in this case, since the Pirates sent $2.5 M in the deal), and his trade value is about $21 M.
That kind of trade value isn’t going to get you much. It’s barely one top 100 prospect, and if it is, you’d be getting a guy who barely made the list.
In this case, the Pirates received two prospects. One was Kyle Crick, a former top prospect who has seen his value fall in recent years due to control issues. He made the switch to the bullpen last year, and had continued struggles with his control, but good velocity. Huntington mentioned that his future would be as a reliever, so the best hope here is that he could figure out the control and become a late inning reliever. That worked with Felipe Rivero. After the Cole and McCutchen trades, the Pirates have two right-handers who fit this bill, with Michael Feliz and now Crick as potential late inning complements to Rivero if one of them figures things out.
I think the bigger part of this deal was outfield prospect Bryan Reynolds. After the Cole trade, I criticized the Pirates for getting higher floor, closer to the majors guys like Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz. Those guys have some value, and could turn out to help the Pirates in the majors as soon as the 2018 season. But the upsides are low. They’re both players who have seen a decline in value, and who would need a big rebound in order to exceed their current projections.
My feeling is that the Pirates should be targeting lower level guys who haven’t figured it out yet. Get them early before they become top prospects, rather than waiting too late when they’re untouchable, or extremely difficult to acquire. They did a good job of that when they got Oneil Cruz as the main return for two months of Tony Watson. They did a good job of that when they got Taylor Hearn as the second piece in the Mark Melancon trade. They probably could have received a higher floor guy that was closer to the majors, rather than those two players. But they went for the upside of a player early in his development, and as a result, could end up getting a lot more from one of those guys than anything a high floor, close-to-the-majors guy could have given.
I like the addition of Reynolds in this trade because he fits that bill. He’s early in his development, and has shown positive signs, but has some questions impacting his value. The biggest question is whether he’ll add more power and reach his potential in that department. He’s already shown power, but Baseball America reported that evaluators questioned whether he’d be able to tap into his full power potential, which might restrict his upside at a corner outfield spot.
If Reynolds had that power right now, he’d be a top prospect and untouchable in a McCutchen trade. If the consensus was that he would add the power with few questions, then he’d be a top prospect and untouchable in a McCutchen trade. And that’s the risk with adding guys who aren’t top prospects yet. If Reynolds doesn’t add to his power, then the main part of this return might struggle to be more than a bench player in the majors. But prospects aren’t guaranteed, and that works both ways. Reynolds has power potential, and even if there’s a belief that he won’t reach that potential, it’s not guaranteed that this belief will be correct.
This is how you get breakout players. You find guys with skills who aren’t on the radar to be top prospects, and you hope that if you acquire enough of these players, one of them will realize the potential of his skills and become that top prospect that would otherwise be untouchable. Every year there are new breakout players who jump to the top of their organization’s prospect lists. The year before, no one would have traded for them as a key piece in a deal. After they break out, teams try unsuccessfully to trade for these players. So why not try to get one before he breaks out, especially if you think a certain guy has that chance?
It’s not an exciting approach at the time. It’s an approach that could very well look horrible in hindsight. Or, it could look genius in hindsight if the player breaks out.
I liked the return of Reynolds and Crick. I’m not as enthused about Crick, simply because I don’t think the Pirates should be focusing on close-to-the-majors guys. But I do see some upside there, and the Pirates have been more successful fixing the control problems of hard-throwing relievers than anything else. And honestly, when you look at how low McCutchen’s trade value probably was, you’re not really getting much beyond Reynolds.
Evaluating the Andrew McCutchen Trade
It’s probably going to be controversial to say, but I think the Pirates got a good return for McCutchen. They weren’t trading a guy with a lot of value, and ended up getting a hard-throwing relief prospect who could be a late-inning complement to Rivero. They also got a good hitting outfielder who has some tools on the bases and on defense in the outfield, and who has more power potential than he’s shown so far in games.
If you remove the fact that this is Andrew McCutchen — one of the best players in Pirates’ history and the face of the franchise — and you just look at the values, then this deal isn’t a bad one.
But those emotions cloud everything. So even with the logic in play, and the attempts to remove the feelings, it’s hard to shake that feeling that no return would have been good enough for Andrew McCutchen.
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.