As the Pirate-less October/November has continues, many questions still remain surrounding star center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Will the perennial MVP candidate be in the opening day lineup for the Pirates next season or will he be strapping on his batting gloves for a new team in 2017?
And if he does suit up for Pittsburgh next year will he be in center field, a position he has held down since being called up in 2009? According to the Trib’s Rob Biertempfel, it looks like the front office of the Pirates will be shopping the 2013 NL MVP this off-season. With top prospect Austin Meadows looking like he will be ready for the Major Leagues by mid-season, the outfield at the Major League level is getting crowded fairly fast and not everyone can stay.
Knowing Meadows isn’t quite ready for the big stage yet, lets take a look at the options for the Pirates if they need to replace McCutchen next season.
Free Agent Targets
The front office for the Pirates does not have to look very far for free agent targets they could pursue should they need to replace McCutchen. All they have to do is look at two key contributors from the 2016 Pirates who will hit free agency this off-season in Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez.
Joyce, who’s main position is in the outfield, appeared in 140 games for the Pirates in 2016 hitting .242 with 13 home runs. Primarily seeing time in the corner outfield positions, Joyce had career highs in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage in his first season with the Pirates.
Re-signing Joyce would be a cost efficient move as well as it would give the Pirates the every day outfielder they desperately would need.
Rodriquez re-signed with the Pirates following the 2015 season on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million and greatly outperformed the contract. The utility player exploded for career highs in games played, average, on-base percentage, slugging and on-base plus slugging. The second-year Pirate appeared in games at all three outfield positions.
Being versatile is a major factor in playing time for Clint Hurdle and Rodriguez used it to his advantage often appearing late in games as a defensive replacement at first base.
Looking outside of the organization, it would not be logical to sign a big name outfielder with Meadows waiting in the wings.
Brandon Moss could be a rather expensive one-and-done type player for the Pirates but his body of work over his career would give a veteran presence in the outfield and also some key depth at first base. Moss has struggled the past few seasons hitting .225 in 2016 and .226 in 2015, but the outfielder/first baseman could benefit from a change of scenery following his stint with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Norichika Aoki, who played for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, would be a quality option for the Pirates to pursue as the outfielder is the definition of consistent at the plate even with bouncing between the National and American League.
Aoki doesn’t hit for much power, but has batted .285, .287, .283 in his last three seasons two of which came while playing in the American League. Having a consistent bat in the line up would provide big dividends for a Pirates line up that struggled mightily at times this season.
Another option worth pursuing for the Pirates could be Austin Jackson who played for the Chicago White Sox in 2016. Jackson had a breakthrough season in 2012 when he hit .300 with the Detroit Tigers, but has struggled with inconsistency ever since.
Jackson is only 29-years-old and primed for a bounce-back season if he can stay healthy. With Jackson coming off a season in which he played 54 games, the Pirates could be able to get the right-handed hitting outfielder on the cheap and provide the right situation for a bounce-back season.
The replacement for Andrew McCutchen would only serve as a stop-gap until Meadows was able to contribute everyday at the Major League level.
Internally, the Pirates do have a few options with the players under contract for the 2017 season but not very many.
Moving Josh Bell back to the outfield for a season would be a best case scenario as it allows for the infield to stay largely in tact and get more playing time for David Freese and John Jaso. Bell back to the outfield would mean Starling Marte would bump over to his natural center field position and Gregory Polanco would move over to left field.
Having Marte and Polanco in center and left field respectively would give the Pirates a great deal of speed and arm strength something McCutchen has lacked since becoming an every-day starter.
Another option available for the Pirates would be to move Josh Harrison into more of a utility role utilizing him in right field and at second base. A potential platoon partner for Harrison would be John Jaso, who started off 2016 hot with the bat, but eventually fizzled out as the season went on. Adam Frazier would provide a quality partner to Harrison as well so long as the second-year player can replicate his successes from 2016, a year in which he hit .301 in 66 games for the Pirates and appeared in at least one game at every defensive position other than shortstop and catcher.
Harrison has had the majority of his success come as a utility type player, moving around the diamond and with the potential of losing the aforementioned Rodriquez to free agency. Partnering with either Frazier or Jaso would give the Pirates a multitude of options in the infield based on who’s playing well or vice versa.
It’s not an if, but when the Pirates decide to move Andrew McCutchen as the center fielder is due $14 million in 2017. McCutchen’s contract does have a team option available for the 2018 season at a price tag of $14.75 million should the team decide to keep the former All-Star beyond the upcoming season.
Meadows being on the cusp of the Major Leagues creates a log jam with the team whenever he gets called up to the Majors as the outfield can only hold three players and Polanco and Marte aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Moving McCutchen would give the Pirates an opportunity to get a quality return on a player who helped change the culture of the franchise and turn the team into a perennial playoff-caliber team.