Earlier this off season it was reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be "quietly shopping" Andrew McCutchen this winter. At the time this seemed like nothing more than a click bait headline. Then this past week it comes out that the Mariners reached out to Pittsburgh with serious interest in the former MVP. Now this doesn't mean Cutch is getting traded soon. But it's definitely more likely than it was a month ago, which begs the question of whether or not the Pirates should be willing to deal their 30-year-old superstar coming off the worst season of his career?
The initial reason Pittsburgh would even consider trading McCutchen is his contract. Currently he has just one guaranteed year left on his deal, for next season at $14 million. He then has a club option for 2018 at $14.5 million. Even at his 2016 performance level that's a no brainer for the team to pick up. So basically he has two years left at an affordable rate. The Pirates have been competitive for the past half decade, but aren't exactly in position to give him a long term deal once this one expires. Even though he would be 32 it's unlikely the Pirates re sign him after this contract, barring his willingness to take a home town discount.
So that gives the Pirates a few options. They can trade him now coming off a down season but with a full two years left on his deal, keep him for the entirety of the remaining contract, or trade him down the road if the team falls out of contention by the trade deadline. The problem with trading a superstar like McCutchen, especially with two full years left at a reasonable rate, is that the team with the star is always going to overvalue them because of past performance.
That past performance saw McCutchen be regarded as a top five player in baseball as recently at this time a year ago. In a four year stretch from 2012-2015 McCutchen batted a wildly impressive .313/.404/.523 with an average of 25 homers and 19 stolen bases. He finished in the top five in MVP voting in each of those seasons, including a first place finish in 2013. He also won four silver sluggers and a gold glove during the span.
This made his 2016 come seemingly out of nowhere. His triple slash line fell to .256/.336/.430, which isn't terrible for an up the middle defender but it fell way short of the standard he had set for himself. The 24 homers were nice but Cutch saw his strikeout rate increase, walk rate decrease, and for the first time in his career was caught stealing more often than he succeeded. Despite the down year there remains some reason for optimism. From 2012-15 McCutchen had a .355 batting average on balls in play. That number fell to .297 in 2016. It makes sense for a BABIP to fall as a player ages but it's reasonable to expect he got a little unlucky this year in that department, though it doesn't explain the downward trending walk and strikeout rates.
Given the fact that it was just one "bad" season it seems likely the Pirates hold on to their star unless they are completely blown away. If they struggle in 2017 they could likely get a similar package of prospects come the trade deadline that they would have gotten this winter, especially if they find a desperate enough trading partner. More concerning perhaps even than the offensive woes McCutchen experienced this past season are the defensive ones. The advanced metrics suggest he lost a step this year and the Pirates have discussed moving him to right field. He has said he doesn't need to leave center field. That kind of discord is why a trade, though unlikely this off-season, remains possible.