Starting Nine: Should the Pirates consider trading face of the franchise McCutchen?
Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday:
1. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told ESPN this week that trading Andrew McCutchen is “not on the club’s radar.” Still, such situations and positions can change. And perhaps the most likely eventual scenario — and the optimum strategy — is for the Pirates to trade McCutchen at some point and recoup assets they could use to build upon their next core.
2. The Pirates have a cheaper outfield alternative in prospect Austin Meadows, who last week was promoted to Triple-A. While it’s asking a lot of Meadows to be a superstar like McCutchen has been, Meadows figures to be a competent major leaguer and will be ready before McCutchen’s contract is up.
3. Before the Pirates can consider a trade, McCutchen needs to prove he is healthy and must become productive so the team can maximize its return. A big offensive game Saturday was a start in the right direction.
The dilemma for the Pirates is that the longer they wait — if they ultimately wish to move the face of the franchise — the more trade value McCutchen loses. Each day that passes means McCutchen is closer to free agency (the Pirates hold a 2018 club option), and the aging curve is not kind to center fielders. He turns 30 in October.
4. What undoubtedly is true is McCutchen’s peak trade value has passed. In March, writing for Sports Illustrated, Jonah Keri ranked McCutchen as having the game’s 10th-highest trade value, down from second a year earlier. (Trade value includes age, contract, projected future value and current production.)
Last July, Fangraphs.com ranked McCutchen as having the ninth-highest trade value, down seven spots from the No. 2 position in the summer of 2014.
The questions are: How much has his value fallen, and how much value can he rebuild in the coming weeks or second half of the season? McCutchen is on pace for the worst full season of his career.
5. It is another Pirates star who was the subject of a recent phone call, according to a Boston Herald report: Gerrit Cole. The newspaper reported the Boston Red Sox have called several teams about young, star-level pitchers. While there is a price for every player, and while Cole is in his last pre-arbitration season, he seems unlikely to be dealt.
For starters, he still will be relatively cheap next season and could provide a tremendous amount of surplus value, and he’s only 25. He also would be extremely difficult to replace, and a top of the rotation featuring Cole, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow from 2017-19 could be the foundation of more postseason appearances.
6. If the Pirates continue to flounder, Mark Melancon and David Freese are obvious trade candidates because they will be free agents after the season. Perhaps Matt Joyce has value to clubs as a bench bat. The more interesting question is whether the Pirates hold or sell players they control for 2017. Next season Tony Watson, Francisco Liriano and John Jaso will be in the final year of club control.
7. The club’s decision to move Juan Nicasio to the bullpen makes sense because of his inconsistent performance. He could have begun the season in the bullpen if not for a sensational spring.
Nicasio’s skill set is more suited for the bullpen. He’s at times a one-pitch pitcher, trusting only his fastball. His velocity also played up in the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen at the end of last season, averaging 96.5 mph, and he enjoyed the most extended success of his career.
8. Moving Nicasio suggests Taillon is with the team for an extended stay, and the move also opens an opportunity for a look at prospects Chad Kuhl and Glasnow.
Kuhl will get the first opportunity — he was at PNC Park on Friday afternoon in a No. 39 jersey — because of his superior command, but Glasnow has the most upside of all the young arms. He has allowed just five hits in his last 28 innings.
9. While the Pirates’ chances to play meaningful baseball seem more likely in 2017 than this season after a difficult June schedule, ESPN’s Buster Olney notes 34 of the club’s 73 second-half games are against the Brewers, Reds and Phillies.