The pitching staff, led by ace Gerrit Cole, was going to be one of the best in the National League. The bullpen, featuring All-Star closer Mark Melancon and top-notch set-up men Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, was supposedly another strong suit, as well.
But above all, this team was going to center around its offense, led by superstar center fielder, Andrew McCutchen. Surely there was no way McCutchen and the rest of the Pirates’ bats, including Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison, would falter.
Instead, the offense did just that. Many players had subpar seasons at the plate, but perhaps nobody was as underwhelming as McCutchen, who batted a career-low .256 with a .336 on-base percentage. Additionally, McCutchen struggled playing center field, and many baseball experts have come to the conclusion that Marte, who has traditionally played left field, is better suited for the position.
All of this has boiled over into two big questions: Should the Pirates trade McCutchen, now 30 years old, while he still has some value? And, if so, is highly touted prospect Austin Meadows ready to fill McCutchen’s shoes?
Meadows has rocketed up the Pirates’ minor-league system since being drafted by the team in 2013. In Double-A Altoona to start the 2016 season, Meadows hit .311 with a .365 on-base percentage, six home runs and 23 RBI. He was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis midway through the year and struggled, hitting .214 with a .297 on-base clip. Yet, Pirates executives and baseball scouts see plenty in Meadows moving forward.
“Austin has matured a ton since becoming a Pirate,” said Larry Broadway, Pirates’ director of minor league operations. “Obviously, he has moved through the system rather quickly.”
Joe Sheehan, a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated, said he thinks Meadows still needs some time in the minors, especially after what he saw from the young center fielder there last season.
“I don’t think he’s ready just yet,” Sheehan said. “Maybe in the second half of 2017 you might take a look at him, but he did struggle at Triple-A this year. The plate discipline got away from him a little bit, he certainly didn’t hit for any average at all.
“He dominated Double-A, and he unquestionably deserved the promotion he got, but I think he needs to have success at Triple-A first.”
Meadows probably wasn’t on the minds of most Pirates fans when the season began. However, given that the season didn’t go as planned – the Pirates missed the postseason for the first time since 2012 – and McCutchen was one of the main reasons for it, the pressure is on the front office to make a decision about the Pirates’ franchise player.
Sheehan believes the biggest shortcoming McCutchen possesses the rest of his career is his ability to play center field.
“When you look at not just the defensive numbers, but you observe McCutchen, you look at the rest of the speed parts of his game, you see a player that does not seem physically fit to play center field anymore,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do with a player who has been the face of the franchise, but the biggest advantage you get with Meadows is defensively.”
Broadway mentioned that Meadows is versatile defensively, something he has been working on in the minors.
“Austin has played both the corner and center field at a high level this year,” he said, “and we will continue to get him prepared in such a way as long as he is in the minor leagues, so that he can be prepared to help the major league team when he is called to do so.”
Even if Meadows isn’t ready yet, rumors are already swirling about McCutchen potentially being dealt even as soon as this winter. In fact, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported earlier this month that the Pirates had discussed trading McCutchen as part of their exchange that sent Melancon to the Washington Nationals in July. The McCutchen aspect of the deal ultimately fell through.
McCutchen’s current contract runs through 2017 with a club option for the 2018 season and a $1 million buyout.
“It’s easier to make a trade like this in the offseason when you can basically trade with everybody as opposed to in-season, you’re looking at contenders who might want them to give up a player,” Sheehan said. “You’re essentially trading two full seasons, so it’s likely that 2018 option will be picked up. If they were declined to pick it up, the team trading for McCutchen would get the benefit of giving him a qualifying offer and possibly getting a first-round draft pick in 2018. So there are a lot of reasons to do it in the offseason, but with the Pirates trying to contend in 2017, maybe you don’t do it for that reason.”
Pirates fans hope that 2016 was merely a blip on the radar for McCutchen, an off year for the 2013 NL MVP. However, if the longtime Pirates’ star fails to deliver once again in 2017, a groomed replacement is waiting in the wings.
“Our focus right now is getting [Meadows] as prepared for 2017 as possible,” Broadway said. “He is taking ownership of his development this offseason and is committed to some things that will help him maximize this offseason to be the best prepared he can be for 2017 and beyond.”