Can Pittsburgh Trade the Resurgent Andrew McCutchen?
Life comes at you fast.
Just last month, I wrote about how Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen had yet to turn his career around after a down 2016 season. Through a month-and-a-half of baseball, McCutchen was batting .220/.289/.400 on May 19, with a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .299 and weighted runs created (wRC+) of 84.
Folks, those are bad numbers, especially for a guy who routinely posted a wRC+ in the 140s and 150s, and was generally considered a perennial MVP candidate. Now 30-years-old, the worry was whether McCutchen's decline had begun much sooner than anyone anticipated.
Happily for Cutch and Pirates fans, it appears he has bounced back after getting lowered to sixth in the Bucco batting order. Since May 24, McCutchen is batting .391/.469/.696 with 5 home runs, 4 doubles and a triple in 81 plate appearances. His wOBA is a much more robust .479 and his wRC+ is 203 over that stretch.
This is the old Andrew McCutchen.
On Tuesday, he went deep twice against the Colorado Rockies, showing the kind of bat speed we saw from McCutchen in his 20s, and we also saw a gifted athlete who almost pulled off a baserunning miracle.
As McCutchen struggled last year, he admitted that he allowed his slump to fester, affecting every other aspect of his game as well. It's sometimes easy to forget this game is played by human beings whose attitudes and mental state can have just as big an effect on their play as injuries or what the opposing pitcher/defense is trying to do.
There are a couple factors at play here. As evidenced by the two home runs he hit against the Rockies, McCutchen has begun to the pull the ball with more regularity in June, 53.9% of the time this month. Last month it was 45.8%. And his line drive percentage has jumped from 19.3% in May to 23.1% this month.
McCutchen's trade value may have taken a little bit of a hit over the winter, so the Pirates now look smart for waiting to deal him...if they are still considering that option.
Cutch is a relatively inexpensive outfielder, one who can play center (he currently is manning center due to the 80-game suspension being served by Starling Marte) but is better served handling a corner outfield spot. He's slated to earn $14 million this year, and the Pirates hold a $14.5 million option on him for next season. And even though the NL Central is surprisingly wide open this year, the Pirates are still 30-36 and could move the face of their franchise at the trade deadline sometime next month.
Of course, while there are a couple potential suitors, it may be a tight fit, as most contenders don't have a burning need to add another outfielder at the moment.
The Cleveland Indians, who have had Bradley Zimmer starting a number of games in center this season, would be a good option, as would the St. Louis Cardinals, who are desperate for any kind of offensive upgrade anywhere in their outfielder. Of course, it's fair to wonder if the Pirates would trade their best player to a bitter division rival. The Washington Nationals were rumored to have interest in McCutchen in the off-season but instead traded for Adam Eaton. But while Eaton is out for the year with an injury, the Nationals' top priority is dealing for a top-end closer and other bullpen help.
It might be tough for Pittsburgh to find a suitor for McCutchen, which means the team will have to make a decision this off-season whether to let him go or exercise his team option and try to move him at next year's deadline.
Obviously, the Pirates are hoping their star center fielder's resurgence is for real, and that it will last. But at least the old Andrew McCutchen has finally re-emerged as a force in the National League.