Saturday, January 28, 2012

McCutch: Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

One of the hot sidebars at the end of the season was whether the Bucs and Andrew McCutchen could work out a deal that would keep McCutch a Pirate past his arbitration years. He missed out on Super Two status this season, so 2012 is his last year of minimum wage before arb kicks in.

After 420 games in a Pittsburgh uniform, the 24 year old has put up a line of .276/51/199 with 78 stolen bases, 255 runs scored, an OPS of +123 and a WAR of 12.4. The WAR is a little on the low side, as the Pirates' oddball outfield alignment under JR and Gary Varsho netted him a -0.7 defensive score during his first two go-arounds, improving to +0.7 in 2011 under Clint Hurdle's more conventional set-up.

The parameters for a contract, if a deal is made in the coming weeks, would be for six years (2012-2017) if it were to hold any value for the Pirates. There's not much team incentive to strike an agreement if a couple of years of free agency aren't included except for some cost certainty.

Imperfect but useful comparables for a contract are out there. Justin Upton and Jay Bruce both signed deals that bought out their first two free-agency years with an approximately $51M price tag. They went about it slightly different ways. Upton's deal is backloaded so that he gets $14M+ during his walk years, while Bruce spread his money out more evenly over the six seasons and included a team option. But the overall pot of money remained about the same in both cases. 

The Pirate FO has been fairly mum about the whole affair, as has the McCutchen posse. No terms, either for length or salary, have become public except for the posing, so we're left to sort through the deals like Upton's and Bruce's as the gold standard. What are the sides looking for?

For the Pirates, a long-term contract with McCutch would allow them to plan on a core that should begin to come together in 2014-15, with the big if - if Jameson Taillon and Gerritt Cole end up being all that. Losing McCutch, who would be in his prime production years, would take some of the shine off that apple. PR-wise, it would just reinforce the fan feeling that All-Star performance in Pittsburgh leads to a plane ticket and another batch of prospects.

Then again, that may be just the road that management intends to walk down. In the Tampa model, once players hit their high-payroll seasons, they're moved to accumulate more talent for their system. If that's the Pittsburgh plan, they have no bigger stocking-stuffer than McCutch.

And, of course, without the threat of arbitration, the FO may be content to sit on another year of McCutch's services on the cheap. We feel that's a short-sighted view, even if it does keep Bob Nutting's CPAs happy.

On McCutchen's end, it's just a matter of weighing security against uncertainty. Six years is a long time to commit to one organization, especially one with a track record like the Pirates. And when he hits the free market in 2016, he's sure to be looking at $15M and probably more given his durability, tools and performance to date. It could be that's when he'll look for the security blanket of a long term contract.

But what he has to consider is that he is under team control for four of those six seasons. Will he and his adviser (he's represented by Steve Hammond, whose other big-time client is Adam Wainwright) opt to cede those two FA years at a discount for long-term protection against slumps, injuries, and the vagaries of arbitration or go for the brass ring? It's hard to tell; Hammond doesn't have enough work with elite clients to hazard a guess.

It comes down to this: a template is in place for both sides to use as a starting point. Whether either side wants to accept that blueprint as common ground is the question. Heck, we don't even know that they're talking to each other. This much is certain - the longer the Pirates wait to lock down McCutch, the more difficult and expensive reaching an acceptable deal becomes, and the closer the center fielder gets to his walk/trade season.

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