The McCutchen Trade: Three truths and three myths

In the wake of an incredible amount of fan unrest seen after the Pittsburgh Pirates traded away Andrew McCutchen, it feels like a good time to go over three truths and three myths about the unpopular trade.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans are unhappy.

And really, who can blame them after they had a front-row seat to their club sending away a franchise icon in Andrew McCutchen. While the off-the-field debate still rages, the on-the-field debate will likely last much longer. Both will be sure to last well into 2018, and even beyond. The dust is not even beginning to settle, but while we wait, let’s review three myths alongside three truths about this trade.

Truth #1: The market for Andrew McCutchen was not what what Pittsburgh Pirates fans think it was.

Fans might not want to hear this, much less accept it, but the simple truth is that the market for someone of McCutchen’s ilk that many fans envision is simply out of touch with reality.

Don’t just take it from us.

Heyman’s point is sound, and well taken before even beginning to consider McCutchen’s dropoff in defense, how his home run stroke will play over 81 games in AT&T Park, and the long stretches of subpar play that McCutchen is prone to. He is certainly capable of putting together a 3-4 win season, but at this point in his career he is equally likely to post anywhere from a 1.5-3 win season as well.

All of that adds up to a subpar market around a former MVP. Surprising on the surface; not so much of a surprise when you really think about it.

Myth #1: This was a salary dump

The Pittsburgh Pirates are sending $2.5 million to the Giants to help facilitate this deal. That alone should be enough to dispel the “salary dump” notion floating out there. If you need more convincing, ask yourself why the club would walk away from trade discussion over the 2016 Hot Stove season, or at the 2017 trade deadline. If the main motivations in dealing McCutchen were financial, the team would have taken the opportunity to shed that salary much sooner.

Truth #2: The Pittsburgh Pirates were not going to compete for a World Series crown in 2018

Though Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington would tell you otherwise prior to deciding to take a different tract, this club was not going to compete for a World Series championship. Either with Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen or without them.

Though the team is loaded with young talent already in the majors — Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell chief among them — as well as in the minor leagues, the simple truth is the talent gap between the Pirates and other National League teams — many of which took tangible steps to improve their clubs on paper — is still significant. Pittsburgh is hoping that a year of development coupled with the right key free agent signings open up a new window beginning in 2019.

That may or may not happen. But that is the hope.

Myth #2: Neal Huntington, Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly do not want to win

Hear me out.

With the high-profile roles that Huntington, Nutting and Coonelly find themselves in, there is no question that they would want to win, if only to make their lives easier. Or, if you like this idea a bit more, if only to make more money in the case of Nutting.

Nothing cures fan unrest like a winning product. And, nothing creates more profit like a winning product. Despite an infusion of $50 million from the sale of BAMTech and despite revenue sharing, the Pittsburgh Pirates absolutely live and die on attendance, and nothing will affect attendance like a disengaged fan base. We previously thought that apathy might be the cause of that disconnect, but it may be anger that finally drives the wedge between fan and baseball club.

No matter the cause, fans jumping ship from the …Pirates’ ship is a bad thing for all involved. When you drown out the other noise and consider this trio’s motivations, surely winning to maximize profits is at the very top.

Truth #3: Yes, Huntington could have done a bit better

We’re going to lump the Gerrit Cole trade in here a bit, but, yes, it is possible that Huntington might have done a bit better in terms of impact talent coming back to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The main crux of the argument is this: if the Pirates knew that trading both Cole and McCutchen were likely (and there is no reason to believe that it was anything other than likely), then the two trades could have worked in tandem to bring about a better overall package of talent.

Think of it as one mega-trade. Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Jason Martin, Bryan Reynolds and Kyle Crick for Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole.

Does that sound like a blockbuster to you? Perhaps in size, but just for fun, let’s envision this trade:

Clint Frazier, [Insert lower-level Yankees prospect here], Reynolds and Crick for McCutchen and Cole.

Better? Perhaps marginally, depending on your valuation of Frazier. An equal argument could be made that Moran could have just as much impact as Frazier, and Musgrove and Feliz’s contributions to the bullpen over the next five years or so would have an equal impact on run prevention.

So, yes, Huntington might have gotten a singular piece that would have created a much more immediate impact, but — remember Truth # 2 — the club was not going to compete in 2018, so taking a longer-view might have actually been a better play.

Myth #3: McCutchen could have been extended

Sorry to end on a dour note, but there is also no chance the Pittsburgh Pirates could have extended Andrew McCutchen. And, as many believe, nor should they have.

Not only would McCutchen have been able to command a salary similar to his current contract — even with diminished defensive production and a now-streaky bat — but doing so would have hamstrung the Pirates in building a team around him. Whether you blame the current economic workings of Major League Baseball, or a risk-adverse front office, extending McCutchen was never in the cards.

McCutchen’s departure will sting the Pittsburgh Pirates fan base for quite some time. As it should. But as more time passes, fans might be able to see a bit more truth among the hyperbole.

Photo credit – Daniel Decker 

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)