On Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants agreed to a trade that would send former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh to San Francisco.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 15, 2018
The return for the Pirates is not immediately known, but one thing is clear following the deal: Pittsburgh is rebuilding. Again.
After a down 2016, McCutchen rebounded to put together a strong (though not otherworldly) 2017 season, hitting .279/.363/.486 with 28 home runs. McCutchen made five straight NL All-Star teams from 2011-15, won four straight Silver Sluggers, and finished in the top five in NL MVP voting from 2012-15, winning the award in 2013 as the Pirates finished above .500 and made the Postseason for the first time since 1992.
But after three playoff berths in a row from 2013-15 (two of which ended in one and done fashion), the Pirates came back to the back over the last two seasons, finishing below .500 and out of the playoff hunt. The Pirates took their first step towards rebuilding over the weekend by trading Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros (for a return that underwhelmed most pundits), and have taken the next step by trading McCutchen, the face of their franchise.
Cole and McCutchen were the two best Pirates players in terms of fWAR from 2017. Without McCutchen, fans are looking at an offense led by Josh Harrison, David Freese, and the perennially disappointing outfield duo of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Without Cole, just one Pirates starter had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last season (Ivan Nova), and no starter (not even Cole) had an ERA under 4.00 in 2017.
The next step for Pittsburgh should be easy – keep the rebuild flowing along. Marte and Polanco probably won’t be dealt, partly because of the crowded outfield market remaining this winter, and partly because they can be controlled into the next decade (Marte through 2021, Polanco through 2023). McCutchen was a free agent after 2018, so trading him now and getting *something* back made the most sense. Infielders Jordy Mercer and Sean Rodriguez are also free agents after 2018, and could be desirable pieces on the trade market – even if neither would bring much of a return. The same is true for reliever Daniel Hudson, who was in high demand last winter on the free agent market.
Harrison can be controlled through 2020, and at 30-years old, he likely won’t be part of the next great Pirates team. David Freese can be a Pirate through 2019, and at 34, he’s even older than Harrison. Catcher Francisco Cervelli will be 32 in March, and his numbers (and health) have gotten worse in each of his three seasons in Pittsburgh – he’s owed $22 million over the next two years. Nova had a great two months with the Pirates in 2016, got a below market deal from the club following the season, and was somewhat disappointing last year – so why not look into moving the 31-year old before his contract expires in two seasons?
Trading Cole and McCutchen within days of each other has to feel like a pair of punches to the gut for Pirates fans, but deep down, even they’d acknowledge they were the right moves. This team lost 87 games a year ago, finishing 17 games back of the NL Central crown and 12 back of the NL’s second Wild Card berth. A whole lot would have needed to go right for Pittsburgh in 2018 for them to break back into the playoff hunt, and given the relative strength of the top three teams in both the NL Central and NL West, it’s not likely that would have happened – and the team would have watched McCutchen walk without getting anything in return.
The Pirates can’t just stop after trading Cole and McCutchen. As constructed, this is maybe a 70 or so win team – and that’s not where you want to be as a franchise. Pittsburgh doesn’t get anything from playing guys like Freese or Cervelli next year. They need to fully commit to this rebuild, and prepare for the next decade of Pirates baseball.