By Jared Lankes
A lot of the talk around the Pirates fan base recently has been surrounding the idea that the Pirates should extend Andrew McCutchen rather than trading him this month. There seems to be a lot more people entertaining the idea of extending the face of the franchise. I can see why considering all he’s done and all he’s meant for a franchise that desperately needed a star like that. However, times change, players get older, and situations come up that change things.
That’s where the Pirates are with McCutchen. The 30-year-old face of the Pirates struggled with the worst prolonged stretch of his career over the past season and a half prior to just tearing apart the league in June, capturing player of the month honors. This has suddenly created a different situation. For some, they think this means he’s totally back and will never, ever be bad again as long as he plays. For others, including myself, I see it as a sad inevitability that his departure in a trade this month is just over the horizon because his trade value will never be higher, and an extension is just not worth it no matter which angle you look at.
But just why do I think an extension for the star outfielder of the Pirates is so unfavorable. I mean, it’s easy to see that he is still “the guy” here, and his contributions off the field combined with what he has done on the field are greatly under-appreciated. Well, the answer lies within a handful of reasons as to why I think an extension of McCutchen would be a mistake.
The first reason is circumstance. You look at where the Pirates are headed as a club, and it’s not one that is getting older and letting themselves rot away. It’s instead continually injecting young guys into the mix, and that’ll happen again once top outfield prospect Austin Meadows joins the fray. When that occurs, there will be no outfield spots because the Pirates would like to stay younger by going with a returning Marte and a hopefully resurgent Polanco ready to show up. Combined this with the other potential young outfield options such as Jose Osuna, Adam Frazier, and even Jordan Luplow soon, the Pirates have a healthy amount of options to continually plug in if needed. The aging McCutchen doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance for a team that is trying to go more youthful.
Going off of that, another reason why he shouldn’t be extended is age. There is a definite correlation between age and declining play for most players. Some lucky players escape this but not too many. There’s little reason to think McCutchen will be immune to this either. The main reason for this is that we have already seen McCutchen’s play fall off a bit, even at age 29 and 30. Knowing that, I don’t know if I could put my trust in his play not falling off even further once he reaches age 32, 33, and up. His defense has been deteriorating for years and he hadn’t exactly tore it up at the plate for the better part of a season and a half before his historic June. I couldn’t extend major commitment of a long-term deal or the dollar amount it’d take to extend him knowing he’s been good only 1 or 2 months since 2015 and his defense has fallen well below average.
The last reason is the contract in and of itself. To extend McCutchen long-term at his age, he would probably want a deal that’s four years at least. Additionally, given the state of the MLB, he would almost undoubtedly not be willing to take a team-friendly deal again. So, the minimum you’d be looking at is probably 4 years/$72M ($18M/year) with the maximum being about 4 years/$88M ($22M/year). Also, his 10/5 rights would be activated within the timeframe of the contract, so he would essentially have no-trade protection throughout the contract as well, Given the probable further decline he will experience sooner rather than later, giving a guy like that about $20M a year (about 1/5 of the team’s payroll) with his 10/5 no-trade rights activated would be a very risky move, especially for a small market team that can’t absorb big blows.
Whether he’s good or not throughout the deal, it’d will probably cripple the organization regardless because that’s still a major chunk of payroll going to one player. Take the Reds for instance with Joey Votto. Votto, even though he’s a great player, takes up a major chunk of the Reds payroll, which has limited the amount of money they have to spend to build around him, which is why they’ve been rebuilding for awhile as Votto continues to rot on a bad team. And Votto has no-trade rights, so the Reds getting out from under that deal seems unlikely, if not impossible. Pirates could face similar challenges if they extend McCutchen, even if he remains good throughout the deal, and if he is an average player or worse, the organization wouldn’t be able to recover for awhile.
I know what McCutchen has meant to this team and the city, and I thank him with all my heart. However, given the reality of how the MLB is, there’s just no real benefit to extending him. Organizational transitions have to happen to keep the team operating in a favorable way, and this is especially true for small market teams who cannot risk making even the tiniest of mistakes, let alone major ones. So, not extending McCutchen and probably trading him isn’t a fault of the Pirates or the front office not caring enough. It’s simply just how the MLB is in this day and age.
In the end, don’t expect an extension of McCutchen or for the Pirates to even consider such a thing. It’s just too risky of a move to make for any team, let alone the Pirates. The Pirates have already extracted the best years of Andrew McCutchen’s career, and he won’t be getting better from here. In fact, it’s likely to be a steady decline for him from here. The best move is not to overpay to keep him and avoid the situation where we have to watch he and the team around him rot away to nothing in a couple years while the organization is handcuffed and nearly powerless to fix it.