Andrew McCutchen Needs to be Extended

I’ve talked about the Andrew McCutchen extension topic pretty much ever since I started this site, but with the recent signing of Justin Upton, I felt the need to bring up the topic again.  I’ve always mentioned Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun as examples of what the Pirates should do with McCutchen.  Longoria was brought up in April 2008, and extended a week later in a deal that could keep him in Tampa Bay through his first two free agent years at about $5 M per year on average.  Braun was brought up in late May 2007, and was extended a year later to a eight year deal that bought out two of his free agent years, all for a yearly average of $5.3 M.

It might be optimistic to place McCutchen in the same category as Braun and Longoria, but those are the best examples of young players who were brought up to save a year of service time, only to be extended in deals that would buy out two of their free agent years.  I think we all can agree that an average annual salary of around $5 M for Braun or Longoria is a steal, especially since neither player is slated to go over the $12 M mark, unless they reach certain incentives.

Then we’ve got Justin Upton.  Upton made his debut in the majors in 2007 at the age of 19, which was probably too early, but that’s another topic.  He had a breakout season in 2009 at the age of 21, hitting for a .300/.366/.532 line, with 26 homers in 526 at-bats.  His Baseball Reference page compares him to Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cabrera, Andruw Jones, and a guy named Hank Aaron as similar batters through the age of 21.  Again, it might be optimistic to compare McCutchen with Upton, but we can certainly compare Upton’s contract extension with the extensions Braun and Longoria signed.

Upton just signed a six year deal which buys out his first two free agent years, just like Braun and Longoria.  The difference is that Upton signed closer to his arbitration years, and as a result, he received $6.25 M more than Braun and Longoria, and $8.3 M per year.  A breakdown of the three contracts:

You’ll notice a trend by looking at the accrued service time.  Longoria has the most favorable contract by far.  The Rays signed him to an extension immediately, and as a result they’re not locked in to the high price years in arbitration year 3 through free agent year 2.  They also didn’t have to give him a bonus up front.

Milwaukee waited about a year before they signed Braun.  In that time, Braun put up a .324/.370/.634 line with 34 homers in 451 at-bats during his rookie campaign, and followed that up with a .286/.316/.560 line with 10 homers in 168 at-bats before signing his extension in 2008.  His contract is more player friendly than Longoria’s, as Braun has all eight years guaranteed, including the two free agent years, plus a $2.3 M bonus up front.

Then there’s Upton, who signed a year before he was set to hit arbitration.  Not only did Upton receive a guaranteed contract, including his free agent years, which are priced at over $14 M per year, but he also received a $1.25 M signing bonus.  Upton receives more money than Braun and Longoria, despite having 2-3 fewer years on his deal, and all of that money is guaranteed.

So what does this mean for the Pirates and McCutchen?  Simply put, the longer the Pirates wait, the higher the price will be to sign their young center fielder.  McCutchen is long past the Evan Longoria stage, but he could still fit in to the Ryan Braun category.  I’m not saying McCutchen should get the exact contract Braun received, but if the Pirates signed McCutchen to an eight year deal with an average of $5.34 M per year, I wouldn’t mind.

The thing the Pirates need to watch out for is McCutchen entering Upton territory.  If they wait until after the 2010 season, or until sometime during the 2011 season, they could be looking at Justin Upton prices. That’s important because McCutchen’s first two free agent years are 2016 and 2017.  The 2016 season will also be the final year of arbitration for Pedro Alvarez, which is when the heaviest lifting will occur.  It would be easier to keep McCutchen and Alvarez if McCutchen was making something in the $10-12 M range, like Braun, rather than the $15 M range, like Upton.

If there’s anyone the Pirates need to pursue a long term deal with, it’s McCutchen.  He’s not represented by Scott Boras, unlike Pedro Alvarez, which means his agent wouldn’t be against such a deal out of principle.  He’s young, set to enter his free agent years at the age of 29, which means a deal like Braun’s would keep him here through the age of 30.  He’s athletic, so it’s not likely that he’d be slow and breaking down at the age of 30, as he still would be in his prime.  This is also speculation, but McCutchen’s attitude makes him seem like a team player, and a guy who would be willing to accept a deal to be the face of the franchise for years to come.

If there’s one thing I want this season, besides the Pirates to surprisingly emerge as contenders, it’s an Andrew McCutchen extension.  If McCutchen gets off to a hot start, I’d like to see this happen sooner, rather than later.  The longer the Pirates wait, the more they’re going to end up paying.

UPDATE: After posting this, I checked the PPG to find that the lead story is about extending McCutchen in light of Upton’s extension.  A few quotes from that article:

“Signing a player through his arbitration years or even free-agency years is a process that we think makes sense for the Pirates, and we’ll continue to evaluate those on a case-by-case basis,” team president Frank Coonelly said Sunday. “Andrew certainly is that type of player, and the question is timing. From the club’s perspective, the earlier you go, the more risk you take on.”

What Coonelly says here is true.  Let’s say Ryan Braun has a career ending injury on Opening Day 2010.  The Brewers would still be on the hook for $40.5 M over the next five seasons, even if Braun doesn’t play another game.  On the flip side of that, getting Braun for $5.3 M a year for eight years is a steal.  So if Braun doesn’t get injured, Milwaukee makes out big time in the deal.  It’s all a risk/reward factor.  There’s a high financial risk involved, but at the same time, if things go right, you’re looking at a possible financial reward in the long run.

I can understand the Pirates wanting to see more of McCutchen before extending him.  That’s what the Brewers did with Braun, and Braun had much better numbers in his rookie year than McCutchen.  However, as I said before, I feel McCutchen needs to be signed this year if he continues putting up numbers similar to his 2009 campaign.

Even if that time comes, it surely will be met with no small amount of skepticism in Pittsburgh: Management identified outfielder Nate McLouth as one of its core players early last year in signing him to a multiyear extension, then traded him by the summer. The reaction, in the clubhouse and in the public, was blistering.

“There’s no question that the McLouth trade, more than any other, had an effect in the clubhouse in terms of players trying to have an understanding about their future with the organization,” Coonelly said. “We can never say never, but I will say again that the days of us needing to move players in order to get multiple players in return to rebuild the system, thos

e are over.”

The whole time I was writing this post, I was thinking “the critics are going to point to Nate McLouth”.  I don’t think you can compare McLouth and McCutchen.  McLouth was signed to a deal that spanned a few years in which the Pirates had several outfield prospects (Nyjer Morgan, McCutchen, Jose Tabata), and were looking to reload the system.  The Pirates also had a replacement for McLouth in McCutchen.  Trading McLouth doesn’t hurt the team.  Trading McCutchen would be a huge loss, and is something I don’t see happening, unless we eventually got the same production from someone like Starling Marte or Robbie Grossman, all while seeing the other two outfield spots covered by talented players.

McCutchen smiled Sunday when asked if he thought about an extension when hearing of Upton’s.

“Not really,” he replied. “In order to get that, you need to do what you need to do here on the field. Justin’s played two full seasons, and he’s coming off a great season. He was offered that contract based off what he did. That’s something you think about after that. Of course, hey, it would be cool to have something like that. At the same time, it’s about focusing on helping the team win this season.”

It doesn’t really confirm my theory that McCutchen is a team player and would be open to being the face of the franchise for several years, but it’s nice to see quotes like that.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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