Why Are the Pirates Considering Trading Andrew McCutchen?
The 2013 National League MVP suffered career lows in batting average (.256), on-base percentage (.336), slugging percentage (.430), OPS (.766), OPS+ (103), wRC+ (106), runs, hits, doubles, and stolen bases. And he was barely above a replacement-level player in 2016, his numbers cratering compared to what he's done over the course of his career.
In fact, according to his Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement total (rWAR), he actually was below replacement-level last season.
And now it seems clear that, as the Pirates stare down the barrel of living in a division with the Chicago Cubs and realize their window of opportunity may almost be shut, the traditionally cash-strapped organization may decide to deal McCutchen this winter in order to resupply, get younger and infuse the organization with more talent.
Obstacles to a Deal
Of course, if Pittsburgh dealt McCutchen now, they'd be selling low. His 10.2% walk rate was below his career average (11.8%), and his strikeout rate of 21.2% was far higher than his career average (17.8%). His isolated power was also lower than his career norm, and his defense, which metrics have pinned as either slightly above average or slightly below average, depending on the season, went into the tank last year.
Among qualified MLB center fielders, McCutchen ranked 16th out of 16 in fWAR last year, and he was 24th out of 27 center fielders with at least 400 plate appearances. His -28 defensive runs saved were far and away the worst among qualified center fielders (Marcell Ozuna was the next closest at -12).
Scouts said he didn't play with his typical "edge" and that his "body language wasn't the same." And while he did have a hand injury that hindered him at the start of the season, the team denied that a lingering knee issue was the root of his problems.
At 29 years old, McCutchen appeared to already be showing his age, and the worry is the decline has come earlier than expected. Clearly, his value has never been lower.
Why Teams Want Him
Given all those negative numbers, why are so many teams trying to snag him? The Seattle Mariners reportedly asked the Pirates about him this week, and general manager Neil Huntington said after the GM meetings that many teams were asking about their centerfielder.
First, McCutchen is cheap. He's under team control for two more years and is owed only $14 million this year with a team option of $14.75 million for 2018. He's also presumably in the prime of his career, just 30 years old.. And teams may think they can buy low on McCutchen if Pittsburgh is not sold on his ability to rebound and is desperate to deal him now rather than have questions hanging over their heads about an extension for McCutchen during the regular season.
And when you break down the numbers, McCutchen actually seemed to look more like his old self late in the year.
From August 5th to the end of the season, McCutchen hit .284/.381/.471 with 9 homers, 24 runs and 36 RBI's in 244 plate appearances, good for a wRC+ of 131. His strikeout rate was just 14.8%, and his OPS was a solid .852.
Who Wants Him?
As previously mentioned, the Mariners are interested, and teams looking for a less expensive option in the outfield would certainly line up if the prospect price was right. The Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants could all have varying degrees of interest. All need outfield help and would have the prospects to make a deal work.
The smart money says the Pirates hold on to McCutchen through the winter and wait to see if his hot last two months carry over into the 2017 regular season. If it does, they can ask a lot more for him at next July's trade deadline or make a playoff push in 2017.
But if Pittsburgh gets blown away with an offer now, don't be surprised to see baseball's forgotten superstar on the move.