Until the 2016 season, Andrew McCutchen was considered a superstar, and given his part in the Pirates resurgence from their 21 consecutive losing seasons, he was one of the most important players in baseball. This is reflected in McCutchen finishing in the Top 5 in National League MVP voting for four consecutive seasons with him winning the award in 2013.
In his career, McCutchen is a .292/.381/.487 hitter who averages 24 homers and 87 RBI. With that type of production from a center fielder, the two years $18.75 million remaining on his contract is an absolute bargain. Arguably, this should make him the most untouchable player in baseball. That should go double when you consider the Pirates are a team that should compete for a playoff spot next year. Despite all of that, the Pirates have let it be known they are willing to trade McCutchen for the right price this offseason. What happened?
For starters, the 29 year old McCutchen had the worst year of his career in 2016. In 153 games, he hit .256/.336/.430 with 24 homers and 79 RBI. For a player that averaged a 6.4 WAR from 2011-2015, McCutchen’s -0.7 WAR in 2016 was startling.
One major reason for the drop-off was McCutchen’s WAR and value was mostly driven by his bat. In reality, aside from 2013, McCutchen has never been a decent center fielder. In his eight year career, he has averaged a -7 DRS and a -5.9 UZR in center. Over the last three years, those numbers were even worse with him averaging a -16 DRS and a -11.3 UZR in center. Last season was the nadir with his -28 DRS and -18.7 UZR. Overall, these numbers don’t just suggest, they scream McCutchen belongs in a corner outfield position.
Now, it has been suggested McCutchen is being positioned too shallow in center, and that has had an impact on his defensive metrics. As a point of reference, the Chicago Cubs moved Dexter Fowler deeper in center field in 2016, and the results were notable. Fowler went from a -12 DRS and a -1.8 UZR in 2015 to a 1 DRS and 1.0 UZR in 2016.
While one year defensive metrics are typically unreliable, the results at least suggest there is room for improvement for McCutchen as a center fielder. The question is whether re-positioning him in center is enough, especially with McCutchen having previously dealt with knee issues that affected him at the plate and the field.
There may also be a reasonable explanation for his struggles at the plate last season. While unsubstantiated elsewhere, Pirates blog Rum Bunter suggested McCutchen was dealing with a wrist injury in the beginning of the season. Not knowing when it happened, it is at least plausible McCutchen was dealing with an issue whether it was the wrist, his knees, or some other undisclosed injury.
Up until July 31st, McCutchen was hitting .241/.311/.408 with 15 homers and 43 RBI. After taking a few days off in the beginning of August, McCutchen seemed to return to the form we’ve expected from him. From August 5th to the end of the season, he hit .284/.381/.471 with nine homers and 36 RBI.
If you look at the end of the season you see some legitimate hope he could bounce back to the MVP level player he has been for most of his career. Still with knee and other issues, do you gamble on a 30 year old player regaining his superstar form, or do you gamble on your own prospects?
With Rob Biertempfel of Trib Live reporting the Pirates asked the Nationals for Lucas Giolito, who was part of the Adam Eaton trade, and Victor Robles in exchange for McCutchen, you know the price to obtain McCutchen is going to be steep. A comparable offer for the Mets would be Steven Matz and Michael Conforto, which is a price the Mets may not be willing to pay.
Nor should they. Ultimately, the litmus test is whether you are willing to gamble six years of Conforto for two of McCutchen. Do you believe that Conforto can similarly rebound from his wrist injury in the same way McCutchen did in August? Do you believe the McCutchen can improve defensively at 30 years old? Do you believe McCutchen would be better suited to center field than either Conforto or Curtis Granderson?
Even if you believe in McCutchen, are you willing to include a potential front line starting pitcher and possibly other pieces to find out if you’re right? That’s the dilemma in trading for McCutchen. If you’re right, you could have an MVP player that could help the Mets win a World Series. If you’re wrong, you’ve given up a huge part of your future for something you already had in Granderson, Conforto, or even Juan Lagares.