Pittsburgh Pirates: Deal Andrew McCutchen now or later?

The former MVP is still in trade rumors, but would it do the Pirates well to wait until July to deal their cornerstone?

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(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

It’s been a painfully slow winter in Major League Baseball. The Hot Stove seems to be stuck in neutral. Yes, there have been some big names moving like Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton, but at post time the biggest free agent signing to date this offseason has been Carlos Santana’s three-year, $60m deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

One player whose name has only tangentially been involved in offseason rumors this season is Andrew McCutchen. The poster boy for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ climb out of two decades of futility to three straight playoff berths may be nearing the end of his story in the Steel City. The airwaves aren’t as saturated with trade rumors as they were a year ago, but MLB Network’s Jon Morosi said on Wednesday that it’s generally known he’s available.

As Spring Training looms less than two months away and the Pirates’ window of contention slips away, general manager Neal Huntington has a decision to make: if he’s going to trade McCutchen, is he better off doing so before the season, or should he wait until midseason to pull the trigger on a deal?

Early decision

There are some compelling reasons to trade McCutchen sooner rather than later. The biggest one pertains to performance.

McCutchen’s performance has dropped somewhat from his MVP heyday. In 2016—his age 29 season—his numbers totally cratered. He went from a .292/.408/.488 slash line in 2015 to a .256/.336/.430 in ’16, with steep drops in RBI (96 to 79) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.36 to 2.07).

Last season saw a rebound. He didn’t get back to his career years, but he posted a very solid .279/.363/.486 slash with 28 homers, 88 RBI and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.59.

The question that will be on the mind of most GMs interested in acquiring the outfielder is simple: which Cutch is the real one?

McCutchen generated considerable trade buzz even after his down year, so this rebound only increases his value. But how long will that bump last?

Having turned 31 shortly after the end of last season, there’s little place for his numbers to go but down. Add to that his diminishing value as a fielder, especially after posting a -4.6 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2017, and his value may never be higher than it is right now. If last year’s rebound turns out to be an outlier in a downward trend, by the middle of the season Huntington won’t get nearly as much in return as he would if he moved him now. That he’s a free agent after the season adds a ticking clock to the equation. How much will a team be willing to pay for a potential rental if they will not get a full season out of him?

Waiting game

But there are a few points in favor of playing the long game.

On the one hand, the slow pace of the offseason is an indicator that the demand in the market isn’t altogether high. If a guy like J. D. Martinez has had to wait this long to get serious contract offers without a team having to give up any top prospects, how many teams will part with promising youngsters for a guy like McCutchen? Given the incredible quality of next year’s free agent class, some potential destination teams may be hoarding money for a run at a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

It might be a better idea to wait until closer to the trade deadline. At that point, four months of attrition will have opened holes in the rosters of contending teams. In the middle of a playoff race, those teams will probably be more desperate—and more likely to part with good prospects for McCutchen’s services.

Even if McCutchen’s numbers fall off again, it may not diminish the market for him amid a pennant chase. Yu Darvish was 6-9 with a 4.01 ERA at the deadline last year when the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for him, and the Texas Rangers still got a top prospect in Willie Calhoun. So long as he’s not skirting the Mendoza line, Cutch will attract plenty of interest.

Final word?

The arguments on either side of this question are fairly even but at the end of the day, which is more compelling?

All things considered, probably the latter. The desperation and pressure of a pennant race push GMs to do things they wouldn’t in the offseason. Even if McCutchen’s numbers decline again, he’ll generate plenty of demand on the market as teams look to paper over the cracks that develop over a season. If Huntington is patient, he’ll probably get more than he will if he deals his star now.

Of course, there’s always the possibility he gets an offer he can’t refuse between now and spring training. But in the absence of that, patience will be the key.