Unbalanced Trade Deadline Series: Andrew McCutchen

It might be time for the Pirates to trade their longtime star, so here is a look at what might go down this month

Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

On May 17, baseball analyst Mike Axisa sent out this tweet regarding longtime Pirates star Andrew McCutchen:

Indeed, McCutchen has suffered quite the fall in the past year and a half after being one of the best all-around players in the game. According to Wins Above Replacement, which holistically measures how many wins an individual player produces for his team above a replacement level AAA minor leaguer, McCutchen was third in all of baseball in the five-year period of 2011–2015:

via FanGraphs

There he is, sandwiched between four future no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famers. Not only that, but his five-year peak was more productive than the primes of the two legends below him, so to see him struggle the way he has since then is shocking. However, Mr. Axisa recently sent out this tweet as a follow up to the first one I showed you:

So where do we stand now with McCutchen? Is this legit? A permanently declined player having an abnormally good month? These are questions that people around the league would like answered because the Pirates are likely to consider selling at the trading deadline, and McCutchen has been a prime trade candidate for the past year. Remember, before the Nationals acquired Adam Eaton to play center field for them, they nearly pulled the trigger on McCutchen after his down year for a package of Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, and an unknown third player — in other words, nearly the same offer that was accepted by the White Sox for Eaton.

It’s important to note that McCutchen suffered from playing through a thumb injury all of last year (apparently, it had been nagging him in 2015 as well). There arguably isn’t a more important factor in performance for a position player in baseball than the state of his hands, so it’s possible we can pin some of the blame on his injury.

via FanGraphs

It’s not obvious who the real Andrew McCutchen is right now. Although the most recent sample size in this chart is only about two months worth of data, it resembles the McCutchen we are most familiar with; the McCutchen who was one of the best players in the sport. It makes sense that a nagging injury in his thumb would affect his rhythm and plate discipline, not to mention his ability to hit the ball hard. At the same time, this most recent run by McCutchen exceeds the performance of his peak enough for us to be suspicious that this isn’t a complete return to power. His exit velocity and walk rates are back up but still represent a modest decline from 2015, one that makes much more sense considering his age.

From this, I do not believe that McCutchen is going to produce a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, a stat that encapsulates offensive value) higher than the 140 range he was in prior to his struggles in the past year, but I have faith that McCutchen isn’t in for an Andruw Jones decline either. To this point, ZiPS projections have him pegged for a 128 wRC+ for the rest of the season. The other (and more difficult) side to cover with McCutchen is his defense.

Once considered an average defensive center fielder, McCutchen had a major decline in that regard as well. He posted a -18.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR, a metric designed to encapsulate overall defensive runs above average) in 2016, the worst in all of baseball. To their credit, the Pirates swapped McCutchen to right field at the beginning of this season with Starling Marte, but Marte has since been suspended for PED use, putting McCutchen back in center. This season, McCutchen has produced a -5.5 UZR rating in center, which is similarly bad as last year on a rate-basis. UZR takes over a year to normalize, so while we can say McCutchen is probably not a center fielder anymore, it’s harder to determine how he would transition to a corner outfield spot. In a month’s worth of data, he delivered a .2 UZR rating, which translates to about +3 defensive runs saved over the course of a season. For our purposes today, it’s best we consider him an average corner outfielder.

Using ZiPS projections and a standard aging curve, we can project how much value a team acquiring McCutchen can expect to get this summer:

There are a few teams that would be interested in acquiring McCutchen through 2018. To create prospect packages, I use prospect valuations created by The Point of Pittsburgh based on each prospect’s place in the Baseball America Top 100. We begin with the team that nearly traded for McCutchen last winter, only to acquire the now injured Adam Eaton:

Washington Nationals

Clearly, top prospect Victor Robles would not go to Pittsburgh in an Andrew McCutchen deal, but they do have a promising starting pitcher named Erick Fedde that would be an appropriate centerpiece. McCutchen carries about $30 million in surplus value, and Fedde is valued at $16.5, so the deal would have to be filled out with depth from Washington’s top 30. Another possibility is outfielder Juan Soto ($20.6 million), who has received a lot of praise from evaluators around the game.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are going to be major players in many rumors this month, and this is no exception. Adrian Gonzalez might no longer be a starting first baseman on a contending team, and acquiring McCutchen would allow them to keep him in a corner outfield spot while moving rookie phenom Cody Bellinger to first full time. RHP Walker Buehler ($39 million) and OF Alex Verdugo ($38.2 million) are probably not on the table in a McCutchen deal, but either would be a great get for Pittsburgh. Otherwise, a package centered around or a combination of RHP Yadier Alvarez ($16.5 million) and 2B Willie Calhoun ($22.4 million) would be fair value for McCutchen.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are the most unique team on this list. They are the defending World Champions in the middle of a serious championship hangover. Only one of their outfielders has produced even 1 WAR (Jason Heyward, with exactly one). Their best available prospect is RHP Dylan Cease ($15.6 million), which isn’t exactly exciting for Pittsburgh. A package for McCutchen would have be a little creative and use young major league assets. Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ are good bets to stay in Chicago, but Albert Almora Jr. would bring a young, athletic outfielder to Pittsburgh in exchange for McCutchen.

Cleveland Indians

The leaders of the AL Central are doing well with their combination of Michael Brantley, Bradley Zimmer, and Lonnie Chisenhall. Fellow Unbalanced writer Owen McGrattan expressed faith in Chisenhall’s offensive production in a recent article, but he also recently suffered a right calf injury. With Zimmer being a rookie and Brantley also being an injury concern, it’s possible they look to make an upgrade for their title window. RHP Triston McKenzie ($39 million) would be a dream swap for Pittsburgh, but a difficult concession for Cleveland to make. With catcher of the future Francisco Mejia ($62 million) and now starting centerfielder Zimmer ($38.2 million) most likely being off limits, the only other possibility for a deal to consummate would be centered around first baseman Bobby Bradley ($20.6 million) and other prospects from Cleveland’s reserves.

Where do you think Andrew McCutchen is going to land? What are the odds he is traded this month? How do you feel about these prospect packages, and do you have one of your own? Tweet us your answers @ltheunbalancedl and be sure to keep following our Unbalanced Trade Deadline Series!