The change in rhythm was welcome for McCutchen, who is on pace to record career lows in practically every offensive category this season. With the Pirates rapidly falling out of playoff contention at the half way point of the season, Pittsburgh sports fans who once clamored for the Pirates to sign McCutchen for the rest of his career are now singing the lyrics to a different Adele song: “Nevermind, I’ll just find someone like you.”
It’s almost impossible to quantify the impact that McCutchen has had on the Pirates franchise. While posting MVP-caliber numbers, McCutchen has been the figurehead of a Pirates team that broke a 20-season losing streak. He is the league’s most prominent African American player, the Willie Mays to Mike Trout’s Mickey Mantle.
But now that McCutchen is nearing the end of the remarkably team-friendly six-year, $51 million contract that extends through next season with an option for 2018, the Pirates are forced to deal with the prospect of life without their star. And it appears that McCutchen’s last days in Pittsburgh might come sooner than most people expected.
Trade deadline talks seem to come earlier and earlier each season. When a team is winning, pundits endlessly discuss who a team can acquire to improve their club. When a team is losing, it’s the opposite. June was the worst month the Pirates in the past three seasons. They are impossibly far behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs and in danger of slipping out of the playoff race before it really even gets started.
Rumors about the Pirates selling their top asset have become so common that Neal Huntington has had to chime in and say that the team is not interested in dealing their centerfielder during the season. McCutchen himself has had to answer critics.
“That’s just the business side,” McCutchen said of the trade rumors. “I can’t control any of that. I haven’t really thought about it.”
McCutchen’s relatively unproductive season has not necessarily ruined his trade value. If this is McCutchen at his worst, he is still an above average major league baseball player. But what his prolonged 2016 slump has proven is that the Pirates would be okay without him.
Starling Marte, who is signed through 2020 at a discounted rate that makes him one of the most valuable assets in baseball, has arguably eclipsed McCutchen as the team’s best outfielder. Marte has a knack for utilizing his speed to turn dribblers into infield singles and singles into doubles. If McCutchen were not McCutchen, Marte—last season’s N.L. Gold Glove leftfielder—would be getting the lion’s share of reps in center.
Twenty-four year old Gregory Polanco, also signed to a long, team-friendly deal, has shown tremendous growth in rightfield and has been the Pirates’ best hitter throughout the season. The 6-5, 230-pound lefty has developed remarkable plate discipline to compliment a long, powerful swing. If Polanco continues to trend upward, he might soon become the most polished gem in the Pirates talent-rich outfield.
The best argument against trading McCutchen this season is that the Pirates do not have anybody to replace him. Not often is Willie Mays traded for Mickey Mantle.
The Pirates, however, have one of the best minor league systems in baseball and most of that talent is on the brink of contributing in the major leagues. Pitchers Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl have already started to cut their teeth against big league hitters. Hard-throwing stud Tyler Glasnow should follow in short order. Josh Bell, a natural outfielder who was converted into a first baseman, has maintained an on base plus slugging percentage of over .900 through a season and a half of Triple-A baseball.
And, of course, there’s centerfielder Austin Meadows, the most promising position player in the team’s system. Meadows hit .311/.365/.611 at Double-A Altoona this season, and was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-June. The ninth-pick in the 2013 draft still has work to do, but when a 21-year old is promoted to Triple-A, it’s likely only a matter of time before he moves up to the majors.
So that brings us back to Andrew McCutchen. The 29-year old entered the season with high hopes after he recovered from a knee injury that bugged him for the majority of last season. This year, Pittsburgh’s franchise player battled with a swollen right thumb that has forced him to adjust how he holds his bat. McCutchen has played at least 146 games in all six of his full major league seasons and has been one of the most durable superstars in the sport, so injury problems are, at most, a small concern for the Pirates.
But all of those small concerns—the strength of the outfield, a strong farm system and his lack of production in 2016—combine to make it clear that McCutchen is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for the future. Factor in $28.5 million due to him over the next two seasons and he will likely be on the trading block soon – if not this July, then in the winter where an extraordinarily weak free agent market will allow the Bucs to hike up the price of their prized outfielder. The elite prospects that McCutchen is likely to command in trade, combined with the ascension of Meadows, might make it impossible for the Pirates to pass up.
McCutchen is the best Pirates player since Barry Bonds and it will hurt immensely to watch him ply his craft with another organization. But Huntington proved with the Neil Walker trade that he would not let sentimentality get in the way of what he thinks are good business decisions.
McCutchen has said that he wants to be in Pittsburgh until he retires but, like the subject of one of Adele’s many soul-crushing songs of heartbreak, his time in this relationship might be running short. Cutch might just be chasing pavements.