Friday, October 14, 2011

Pellas on the Pirates: The Case for Trading (Gulp!) Andrew McCutchen

No, wait! Hear me out! Put the pitchforks and torches down....that's it.....deep breaths, everybody. I'm here tonight, with Pirates Nation in front of me and PNC Park in the background, to discuss a course of action that might---might---possibly make sense for the Pirates at this point in time. That course of action is: trading Andrew McCutchen.

Before you have me keelhauled, consider these points: first and most importantly, it appears that he doesn’t want to be here long term. Not really. Why’s that, you ask? Well, according to at least one voice in the blogosphere, the much-maligned (often rightly, but not in this case) Pirates front office actually tried to emulate the Rays’ early career, pre-emptive, big-but-not-obscene-money signing of Evan Longoria when the team suits offered Andrew a long term deal of his own---and this not once, but twice.

Both times, Andrew said no. Before you respond by saying, “What’s so unusual about that? Players and their agents do that sort of thing all the time”, consider the examples of two other current major leaguers: the Angels’ Jared Weaver and our own Jose Tabata.

Weaver, one of the best starting pitchers in the American League, ignored the, ahem, “advice” of his agent, Scot Beelze-Boras, and signed a 6 year contract extension for about $85 million. His reasons? One, he was happy in Anaheim and wanted to put the distraction of contract negotiations behind him so he could get back to playing ball. Two, as he himself put it, “If I can’t live the rest of my life on $85 million, I’m pretty stupid”.

In other words, how much does any one man need….really? Once you factor in taxes and living expenses, both of which are going to be considerably higher in the large markets Andrew is presumably eying once his time in Pittsburgh is done, is a few million more or even $10 or $20 million more in another city really going to make that much difference to a player’s bottom line?

I don’t think so, yet Andrew has said no. Twice.

And now Tabata. While no one disputes the fact that Jose is not the elite or near-elite talent that Andrew is, nevertheless he’s pretty good. Tabata, like Weaver, told his agent(s) to jump in the lake and signed an early career contract extension that made him a multimillionaire while also giving him the opportunity to play right field in Pittsburgh ---like his longtime role model, Roberto Clemente

Certainly Tabata is no Clemente. But there is no doubt---zero---that he can really hit (just not with a lot of home runs) and really play defense and even steal some bases. With him, it’s all a question of whether he can stay healthy. If he’s on the field, he’s hitting and he’s catching everything in the vicinity, it’s that simple.

But the most important factor with him is this: he wants to be here. Obviously. So he got a deal done, and done quickly. Not so McCutchen. Why not?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Andrew is waiting to see what will happen with the current rebuilding plan before he commits to staying in town past the maximum six years the Pirates can retain him before he hits the open market as a free agent. You only live once, Andrew is a big market talent, and maybe he wants the experience of being in the national spotlight to look back upon as he bounces his grandchildren on his knees. Okay. I get that.

But it only returns us to the first point: he doesn’t, or at least apparently doesn’t, want to be here, in Pittsburgh , long term. At minimum, he’s given no indication that that is what he wants to do.

Well, okay. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that Andrew wants to bolt for the brighter lights and bigger stage once his six year stay in Pittsburgh is over. Or even sooner than that, if the right scenario were to present itself. If…IF…that’s true, it makes sense to deal him now or in the next off season at the latest. That’s because he’ll be all the more valuable in a down economy as a trading chip who combines elite or near-elite talent with a salary that is not yet in the stratospheric locale that it will reach soon enough.

In other words, right now, and for the next year or two, he will be just about the most bang for the buck any team could possibly have in its starting outfield. There might be a handful of better ballplayers around the majors, but few if any play as well as Andrew does for the money he makes. Therefore, his potential value in trade is never going to be as high as it is now and for the next year or two. After that, his salary will zoom climb, even over his last couple of Pirates seasons if he spends the full six years in black and gold.

In other words, there’s more than one way to maximize the asset that is Andrew McCutchen. Hanging onto him for six years as the reluctant centerpiece of the current rebuilding project, all the while making long term, multimillion dollar offer after fruitless offer, is not the only road down which the team can travel.

Trading him alone or with other major and/or minor league Pirates in a blockbuster deal that would net 2 or 3 or 4 players in return, in some combination of productive, current major leaguers and top prospects, should definitely not be out of the question for the Pirates. Of course, trusting Neal Huntington to be the man who would pull the trigger on such a trade is….well, it would be interesting, let’s put it that way.

The GM who has proven more than capable of making very astute junkheap pickups like Garrett Jones is the same one who evidently either can’t be bothered with the most basic medical due diligence (Iwamura, Hart, Ascanio, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, Matt Diaz) or else is knowingly gambling on players who are already hurt before they ever get here.

We’re talking about the guy who gave former National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez to the Giants in exchange for a fading A-ball pitcher with diminished velocity. We’re talking about the guy who is hoping against hope that Bryan Morris will prove to be some modicum of return for Jason Bay, because everyone else the Pirates got in exchange for Bay long ago washed out of Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River.

On the other hand, this is also the guy who made excellent trades with the Yankees and the Dodgers and turned the likes of Octavio Dotel, Xavier Nady, and Damaso Marte into Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and others.

Andrew McCutchen, without question, is a very good major league baseball player. But he is not great. Definitely not. Want proof? In terms of his raw athletic tools, he is no worse than a righthanded batting version of Carl Crawford. Another player from the recent past who was quite similar to Andrew was Marquis Grissom.

But despite being in the same class as those two and other fleet-footed types in terms of pure foot speed, McCutchen is not a good base stealer. In fact, he’s barely average. And he is a significantly lesser player in terms of his base thievery than a guy with his speed ought to be. Even in an era of baseball dominated by sabermetric thinking - which postulates that it is better to steal smaller numbers of bases at an 80% or better success rate than to force the action in higher risk situations - even with all that, any player with McCutchen’s blazing speed should be logging 40 or more swipes every season.

Andrew’s career high of 33, set last season, is a respectable total but nowhere close to what he is capable of doing. And those 33 steals came with 10 caught stealing. This year his total regressed to 23, with another 10 caught stealing. His success rate over the past two seasons combined is a middling 74%, though it is higher for his career thanks to his 22 for 27 effort as a rookie. But the rather surprising downward trend in his steals leads us to our final point.

When I watch Andrew McCutchen, I see a player who, while definitely, indisputably, and consistently pretty good since the very start of his career, is also a guy who’s just not getting much better as he approaches what should be his peak seasons. This is very odd, especially for a guy with his talent, but it is not without precedent in major league history.

Fred Lynn, the old Boston Red Sox standby, rarely approached and never exceeded his incredible rookie season despite a long and productive career. Andrew’s rookie season, which did not begin until June of that year, did not approach the heights that Lynn reached, but he still posted a .286 average average with 12 home runs and 22 steals. This year his average sank to .259, though this was offset to some extent by his career-high 23 home runs.

As mentioned above, his steals also fell off this year from 33 to 23, and he had the worst success rate of his career, just under 70%. Now, maybe he’s still a young guy who’s “adjusting to the adjustments” and he’ll put it all together next year or the year after. But maybe not. Maybe he’s as good as he’ll ever be, right now, in which case it would be better to get another team to overpay for his potential, especially if by overpaying they strengthen our lineup at 2 or 3 or 4 positions.

I can already see some of you picking up your pitchforks again, and I can already hear the hue and cry that will certainly be the result of this piece. And if McCutchen had already said and done the things that would indicate he really, truly wants to be in Pittsburgh for the long haul, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But he hasn’t. And if trading him would actually make this team stronger, overall, from top to bottom, it’s something the “best management team in sports” should strongly consider.

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