It’s the end of an era in Pittsburgh. Two days after the Pirates dealt staff ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros for a package of prospects, the team made an even bigger move on Monday afternoon, sending former NL MVP and face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen to the Giants in exchange for two minor leaguers: pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. With that, the Pirates have become the latest of the National League’s tankers—a dispiritingly large group that threatens to turn a good chunk of the Senior Circuit into a punching bag for the league’s contenders. As for the Giants, adding McCutchen continues their hell-or-high-water attempt at digging out of last year’s 98-loss catastrophe, but while his arrival fills a need, it may not be enough to get them back into contention.
The 31-year-old McCutchen is as much a Pittsburgh staple as Primanti Bros., the Terrible Towel and Iron City beer. The No. 11 pick of the 2005 draft out of a Florida high school, McCutchen has spent his entire nine-year career in Pirates black-and-gold, emerging as one of the game’s transcendent talents along the way. His apex came in 2013, when he won the MVP award by hitting .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 84 RBIs, 27 stolen bases, a 157 OPS+ and 8.1 Wins Above Replacement—that last one a career high. He was an instrumental part of the first Pirates team to make the postseason in 21 years, as the once moribund Buccos won 94 games and beat the Reds in the NL wild-card game. But Pittsburgh couldn’t get past long-time rival St. Louis in the Division Series, and though the Pirates ripped off 88- and 98-win seasons in ’14 and ’15, respectively, they were dropped both times in the wild-card game and haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
As Pittsburgh’s fortunes fell, so did McCutchen’s production. His 2014 and ’15 seasons were both stellar, but ’16 saw a sharp decline in his overall numbers, as he posted full-season lows in all three slash stats, OPS+ (104), and stolen bases (six, with seven times caught stealing). His defense, too, fell completely apart, as he stumbled to a horrific -28 Defensive Runs Saved in centerfield. All of that added up to -0.7 WAR on the year—third worst among all hitters with 450 or more plate appearances on the season. He rebounded in 2017, hitting .279/.363/.486 with a 121 OPS+ and 2.5 WAR, but his days as a superstar look to be over.
So, too, are the Pirates’ days as contenders; after falling to 78 wins in 2016 and 75 last year, Pittsburgh has begun the teardown. And while there’ll be plenty of young Pirates fans crying tonight over the loss of their childhood superstar, moving McCutchen—a free agent at season’s end—was fait accompli once the front office decided to ship Cole to Houston.
Whether the Pirates should be rebuilding is another question entirely. Certainly they would have been hard-pressed to challenge the Cubs, Cardinals or rising Brewers in the NL Central this year. But the return for Cole felt light, and McCutchen’s trade didn’t bring back any true blue-chippers either. Crick is a 25-year-old former first-rounder with a big fastball, but his control problems mean he’s likely no more than a future reliever. Reynolds, San Francisco’s top pick in the 2016 draft, is the better get as a switch-hitting college bat with plus speed and contact, but he needs to work on his plate discipline, and his stock will suffer if he can’t stick in centerfield. Debate all you want whether or not gutting the roster is the right move for the Pirates, but neither of these trades inspires much confidence that the next great Pittsburgh team is anywhere near existence, and they won’t make fans currently schlepping their Cole and McCutchen jerseys to Goodwill feel any better either.
It’s hard not to feel like this is more about the money for the Pirates, who between Cole and McCutchen have cut $21.5 million from their books in 48 hours. Pittsburgh has never been a big spender—its 2016 payroll of $109 million was fifth-lowest in baseball and nearly $50 million below the league average. But while the Pirates are nowhere near the Yankees or Dodgers in terms of financial power, they also don’t have onerous long-term deals on the roster—and they have a $50 million infusion of cash headed their way (as do the other 29 teams) as a result of MLB’s sale of BAMTech, the league’s streaming video service, to Disney last August. Between that and their cut of the league’s revenue sharing, the money should be there if Pittsburgh wanted to spend it.
Nor was this a Pirates team with no hope going forward. McCutchen may have been a goner next winter, but Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and top prospect Adam Frazier are as enviable a core as any with which to build a contender both in the present and the future. It would’ve been tricky to navigate, but there was a path to Pittsburgh winning in 2018 and beyond if the team committed to spending where needed.
Instead, the Pirates will tear it down, with veterans Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer strong bets to be moved in the next month or so. In doing so, Pittsburgh will join the Marlins, Braves, Phillies, Reds, and Padres in turning nearly half of the NL into a competition-free joke—a morass of 60-to-75-win teams choosing to aim for a distant horizon of success over investing money into fielding a contending squad. It’s a shame for both Pirates fans and the league as a whole that this is the current state of baseball, increasingly divided into super-contenders and bottom-feeders with no one in between. Bottoming out can pay dividends, as the Cubs and Astros have proven, but it’s still a risky move that threatens to plunge the Pirates back into their pre-McCutchen irrelevance.
The Giants, meanwhile, will try to crawl out of that uninspiring group of bummers—not that they really had much choice either way. A total disaster in 2017, San Francisco’s options this winter were limited. The team’s payroll was already strapped, with $191 million spent last year for a last-place finish and $150 million already committed to 2018 before a single player had been signed. Ordinarily, losing damn near 100 games is a sign that it’s time to blow it all up. But the Giants are relatively bereft of the players you move in a fire sale; their roster is primarily composed of aging veterans earning superstar dollars and Madison Bumgarner making peanuts. Bumgarner and Buster Posey aside, there is virtually no one the Giants could move to start a rebuild and get back the top prospects needed to improve an anemic farm system.
As such, trading for McCutchen is the way forward. He’s an easier piece to add than Evan Longoria, who still has five years and $86 million to go on his deal. With only one year and $14.75 million left on his contract, McCutchen isn’t much of a cost outlay. And even with his powers diminished, he should provide a gigantic boost to an outfield unit that was absolutely wretched in 2017; Giants outfielders posted a.685 OPS last year, dead last in the league.
Where McCutchen will play in that outfield, though, remains to be seen. After his disastrous 2016, the plan was to move the former Gold Glover out of centerfield and into right, with Marte taking his place. But the latter’s PED suspension scuttled that idea, and while McCutchen wasn’t great, he was passable enough that San Francisco could stick with him. The potential problem is AT&T Park’s cavernous outfield—404 feet to the left-center gap, an absurd 421 feet to right-center. Covering that much ground is a tall task for even the game’s best centerfielders; it’ll be a brutal test for McCutchen, who’ll turn 32 in October and whose range is already slipping.
No matter what McCutchen does offensively or whether he’s in center or left, though, he’ll be an upgrade over the likes of Gorkys Hernandez and Jarrett Parker. But like Longoria, while he’s an improvement, he’s a limited one who doesn’t help an old team get any younger.
Like the Pirates, the Giants faced a tricky and dangerous road back to contention in 2018. San Fransciso has chosen to walk it, embracing the Fyre Festival founder mentality of “Let’s just do it and be legends.” By acquiring McCutchen, the Giants have gone all in, but there’s no guarantee that even the former MVP at his best has enough to turn them into contenders—especially with the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies all blocking their way in the NL West.
Then again, what else could the Giants have done? Besides, maybe history will be on their side once more. A little over 25 years ago, San Francisco made an offseason splash by acquiring another former MVP who wore No. 22 from the Pirates. His name was Barry Bonds. Pirates fans will have to hope that this won’t be déjà vu.