McCutchen has been a franchise cornerstone for almost a decade, guiding the team to three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013-15. Furthermore, he was the key component to getting the Pirates back on the baseball map after 20 years of losing. The former first-round draft pick finished in the top five in National League MVP voting for five consecutive seasons, winning once.
However, a disappointing 2016 campaign for McCutchen and the team has changed the narrative.
Even though the Pirates didn't deal their All-Star this past offseason, his future with team remains a major question. The former Gold Glove center fielder has been moved to right field, and the possibility of him being dealt -- either this season or next offseason -- remains very much a possibility.
McCutchen is now 30 years old, and he is coming off an average offensive season and a poor defensive one. Austin Meadows, the young minor leaguer, is waiting in the wings to replace McCutchen whenever he is no longer around. Meadows will get the majority of the playing time in spring training over the next two weeks while McCutchen, and fellow outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, play in the World Baseball Classic. Meadows' performance this spring and early this season in Triple-A could play a major part in the team's decision regarding McCutchen's future.
If McCutchen is eventually dealt, it would not be the first time a Pirates star has been shipped away as part of a potential rebuild. Players like Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Joel Hanrahan are just some of the recent Pirates mainstays who were traded for younger, more promising players.
But a lot of these trades didn’t pan out well for Pittsburgh. Some prospects never panned out, or some got traded again and realized their potential elsewhere. This has fans wondering if McCutchen, the best player the Pirates have seen in two decades, could be dealt away for next to nothing.
“There’s no one reason why a group of trades could go poorly,” said Joe Sheehan, a writer for Sports Illustrated. “It could be that talent evaluation. Andy LaRoche is somebody who I was an enormous fan of when he was a Dodgers prospect, and he didn’t pan out.”
Sheehan mentioned LaRoche, who was acquired in the Bay trade in 2008, as well as Brandon Moss, who was part of that same three-team deal, as players who the Pirates couldn’t cash in on. Moss has gone on to enjoy success at the major-league level with the Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals, while LaRoche is currently playing in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.
“I wouldn’t say the Pirates are bad at developing their own talent,” Sheehan said. “Each deal has to be evaluated on its merits. It goes to show that trading for prospects is a flawed thing. This was also during the peak time of teams holding onto prospects. It was a harder job to trade for prospects at a time like that.”
Sheehan added that if McCutchen were to be traded soon, other teams around the league may be more willing to make a move and part with top prospects than they would have been seven or eight years ago, when the Pirates were conducting their massive rebuild effort.
“If Neal [Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager] is looking to trade Andrew McCutchen now, he’s doing it in an environment that is somewhat more willing to trade prospects than it was two or three years ago.”
Jonathan Mayo, of MLB.com, seems to echo Sheehan’s sentiments. Mayo said that trading an established star like McCutchen for prospects is always a gamble.
“Any time you trade an established big-leaguer for prospects, there’s a certain rolling-of-the-dice aspect to it,” Mayo said. “You do your due diligence, you collect as many scouting reports, as much data as you can on the players, but I think there may be times where you miss. You have to be willing to roll the dice, especially in a market like this [Pittsburgh]. You can’t be gun-shy because one didn’t work out.”
Huntington and the rest of the Pirates’ front office has been adamant about the use of advanced analytics to develop and scout players. Mayo said this attitude has helped the Pirates with trades, even more so now than it did a few years ago.
“I think as time has passed, of course, there has been a lot more data and analytics,” he said. “I think that, especially with this front office, they probably feel a little more comfortable and confident in making some of those trades.”
There were multiple reports back in early December suggesting that the Pirates were in serious talks to deal McCutchen to the Washington Nationals. Those never panned out, and Mayo thinks they weren’t as serious as some might have thought at the time.
“I honestly believe that they were not actively shopping him,” Mayo said, “that they were answering the phone.”
McCutchen has one guaranteed year remaining on his current contract. After that, the Pirates have an option year with him, and then he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2019. There’s no doubt he had an off year in 2016, but it remains to be seen if this is the start of his decline or if he can bounce back come springtime.
“I think the window will open back up if he has a bounce-back year,” Mayo said. “He still has another year left, and he won’t be coming off the first down year in his career. The value will still be there.”
“I think he’s basically a three-win player,” Sheehan said of McCutchen’s wins above replacement (WAR). “That’s what I would project him as. I don’t expect him to be an MVP. I’m not paying an MVP price for him. But I definitely think there’s some bounce-back there.”