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A case for Andrew McCutchen

The longtime division rival makes sense for the St. Louis Cardinals.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, Andrew McCutchen is the greatest Pittsburgh Pirates player of my lifetime, and he is certainly the most beloved. Only three Pirates have accumulated more WAR with the franchise in what I like to dub the “has a photo in color on Baseball Reference” era: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Barry Bonds. The Pirates went over two decades without making the postseason, but in 2013, Andrew McCutchen helped lead them to October with his MVP-winning campaign. Few active players can compete with McCutchen’s ubiquity on the Pirates.

The center fielder has spent nine years in Pittsburgh, but his club-friendly extension is set to expire following the 2018 season (earlier this month, the Pirates exercised their $14.5 million option on McCutchen for next season), and it is looking increasingly unlikely that McCutchen will be back in black and yellow in 2019.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have arguably the bleakest outlook of any team in the National League Central. The Chicago Cubs are, until they are dethroned, the standard-bearers, and have the cost-controlled talent to contend for at least another several years. The Milwaukee Brewers have a collection of intriguing young players which competed for the division in 2017, a year ahead of schedule. The St. Louis Cardinals were an above-average team even in a down year and have a cavalcade of young arms. And the Cincinnati Reds, while the worst team in the division at the MLB level, have at least begun the rebuilding process, trading off most of their non-Joey Votto stars for prospects. The Pirates, however, probably aren’t good enough to make a playoff run in 2018, but have been building towards short-term aspirations for years.

The Pittsburgh Pirates should trade Andrew McCutchen. And the St. Louis Cardinals should be among the first teams inquiring about him.

The Pirates showed a hesitance to trade with the Cardinals late last season, and as a result gave away reliever Juan Nicasio for nothing, while the Philadelphia Phillies claimed him off waivers and then traded him for something. Admittedly, the strategy of not trading with a division opponent has never made sense to me—in theory, a team is never trying to “help” a rival but rather make their own roster better (and usually in turn makes their opponent’s worse), and if a front office has faith in its own abilities, it should prefer to trade within its own division because it can also hurt a rival—but I suppose last September suggests Pirates general manager Neal Huntington believes in it at least somewhat. But trades between the two teams have happened, most recently in 2000 (Jason Christiansen for Jack Wilson) and prominently in the 1980s (Tony Pena for Andy Van Slyke; John Tudor for George Hendrick), which makes this all seem plausible.

It should first be clarified for those who have not followed the last few years of Andrew McCutchen’s career closely—he is no longer an MVP-caliber player. During his MVP season in 2013, McCutchen posted a .912 OPS, good for a 156 wRC+ over 674 plate appearances; additionally, he stole 27 bases and was above-average defensively by Ultimate Zone Rating, saving 6.9 runs above average in center field.

Meanwhile, in 2017, McCutchen had a wRC+ of 122—good, solidly above-average, but far removed from his peak. He stole eleven bases and was caught five times, in what was actually McCutchen’s first above-average base running season since 2014 (in 2016 he was particularly dreadful running, converting just six of his thirteen steal attempts). Defensively, McCutchen rebounded a little bit from a disastrous 2016 (oh, 2016 was also Cutch’s worst offensive season, as well) but was still below-average in center field, a position he only regained (he started the year in right field) because of a Starling Marte suspension for use of a banned substance.

While McCutchen is no longer a superstar, he remains very good. He was worth 3.7 FanGraphs WAR in 2017, 64th in MLB and tops on the Pirates. His 122 wRC+ came in a season during which McCutchen had a .305 batting average on balls in play, not an especially outlandish figure but solidly below his career norms.

The weakest part of Cutch’s game has long been his defense—his performance by zone-based metrics was once shaky despite a good reputation (in 2012, a season in which Michael Bourn had the 8th best center field season since UZR was invented, McCutchen won a Gold Glove while below-average by UZR), but as he has grown older, his defense has become an outright liability. But for the Cardinals, McCutchen could move to right field on a permanent basis, as the incumbent outfield already includes two players, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler, who have played center field.

Is a 122 wRC+ good enough for right field? Yes. Is it a substantial improvement over current Cardinals options? Not necessarily. But McCutchen provides tremendous offensive upside based on his track record. And in 2017, McCutchen managed to be a solidly above-average hitter despite an abysmal start to the season, one which looked initially like a continuation of his 2016 struggles. But from June onward, McCutchen triple-slashed .308/.394/.528, good for a wRC+ of 141.

Because he only has a year remaining on his contract and because his salary of $14.5 million is acceptable for a player of his caliber but not immaterial to a team’s budget, the cost of acquiring McCutchen should be relatively manageable. Steamer projects McCutchen for 3.2 WAR, which would put his open-market dollars-per-WAR salary at around $26 million, for a surplus value of $11.5 million.

This expected value could be sent to Pittsburgh in the form of a cost-controlled outfielder who would be made redundant in 2018 by McCutchen’s presence (Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty) and a non-elite pitching prospect (think Dakota Hudson, maybe even Austin Gomber). The closest example to this type of acquisition in recent memory for the Cardinals is Jason Heyward, who like McCutchen had one year of club control remaining but who was both a better player and had a lower salary.

All trades have some inherent risk, and this one is no different—McCutchen could turn back into 2016 form, or a departed outfielder or pitcher could become a worthwhile MLB player making at or near league minimum. But the downside is still relatively minor—if McCutchen is legitimately bad, the Cardinals are out $14.5 million. Not ideal, of course, but hardly a franchise-crippler.

But if the Cardinals acquire Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins and he is bad (or, more likely, his somewhat dubious injury past resurfaces), the Cardinals could be on the hook for $295 million (or possibly less, but at the cost of prospects). If the Cardinals were to sign J.D. Martinez, a relative late-bloomer offensively who is a liability defensively and on the bases, and he can’t maintain the extremely high offensive performance necessary to survive the fact that he’d essentially be a designated hitter in a league which doesn’t use the designated hitter, they would be on the hook for over $100 million (and over $200 million if Scott Boras gets his way).

Sure, it’s not my money nor your money, but if we are to assume the Cardinals would be willing to spend significant money on Stanton or Martinez, it is safe to assume they have the ability to spend it on different players as well. And if the Cardinals were to avoid the risky propositions of trading for Stanton or signing Martinez, instead opting for the moderate payroll increase of adding Andrew McCutchen, they would have flexibility to continue to add players while still having potentially fantastic production from the right field position.