Why an Andrew McCutchen Deal Would Be Impossible
Earlier we heard a rumor from Keith Law that the Pittsburgh Pirates would listen on center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Since that report came out, we’ve heard from Dejan Kovacevic that the Pirates aren’t trading McCutchen and have no intention of doing so. Law’s report never said the team was shopping McCutchen, just that he isn’t untouchable for the right deal, which is an approach the Pirates should take with any player.
Even if the team wanted to trade McCutchen, I think any attempt at a deal would be impossible. I reviewed McCutchen’s trade value in July, but now would be a good time as any to update the value, taking the entire 2011 season in to account.
NOTE: The purpose here is to show what Andrew McCutchen’s value is during his control years, using projected values (calculated as [(WAR*$5 M) - Salary]) and Victor Wang’s research on prospect values. It is not to suggest that the Pirates are trading McCutchen, or that they’ve received any specific offers for McCutchen.
Explanation: McCutchen finished with a 5.7 WAR in 2011. Considering his age, it might be conservative to keep him at a 5.7 WAR for the next few years, especially when he saw a jump of two wins this past year. I went a little bit more conservatively with his salaries this time around. Last time I went for an $11 M a year average, although that might have been high. It’s hard to get an idea on what McCutchen’s price would be, since there aren’t many comparable players who have gone to arbitration each year. This amount is a bit more than what Justin Upton received in his extension (by almost $6 M total). I didn’t include any draft pick values. McCutchen would be a guy who would return a draft pick under the new CBA (teams are required to tender an offer of about $12 M or more), but I’m not sure that the draft pick would have the same value with the new slotting system in effect, so I left that part out completely.
What He’s Worth: An $88.6 M trade value is a lot. We talk about Joel Hanrahan possibly getting a big return, and he’s only worth $20 M. One of the best starting pitchers on the market, Gio Gonzalez, is worth $31.5 M over four years. The $88.6 M is a testament to McCutchen’s skill level, and the value he comes at as a star player who is making the league minimum for one more year, and an arbitration price for three more years. On the open market, McCutchen would easily receive $20 M a year, possibly even getting a Carl Crawford type deal.
The high value is why any attempt at a McCutchen trade would be impossible. According to Victor Wang’s research, a top 10 hitting prospect is worth $36.5 M. A team would need two top 10 hitting prospects, and even then they’d need to throw in an additional $15-16M in trade value to make up the difference. In other words, it would take two of the best hitting prospects in the game, plus a top 51-100 hitting or pitching prospect to get a deal done. No team has that in their farm system.
I looked over Baseball America’s mid-season top 50 list to get an idea of what it would take for other teams to land McCutchen. The following list is just to give an idea of McCutchen’s value. It isn’t to suggest that those teams would make these offers, or that the Pirates would accept these offers.
The Blue Jays had the highest prospect value of all teams at $83.3 M. That prospect value came from Brett Lawrie, Travis d’Arnaud, and Anthony Gose. Those three prospects wouldn’t be enough for McCutchen. The Blue Jays would also have to throw in a Grade B hitting prospect to complete the deal.
New York Yankees
The Yankees were next up with $68.3 M, coming from Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances. Even with those three, who ranked in the top 26 of BA’s mid-season rankings, the Yankees would need $20.3 M in additional value. That’s another top 50 pitching prospect and a Grade B hitter.
The Rays have $66.1 M in prospects, made up of Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, and Hak-Ju Lee. Even with these prospects, it would take $22.5 M in additional prospects, meaning another top 11-50 hitting prospect.
The Rangers are in a similar situation as the Rays, with a $66.1 M value, coming from Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, and Leonys Martin. Like Tampa Bay, the Rangers would need $22.5 M in additional value.
The Value of Prospects
There’s a reason McCutchen’s value is so high. He has good results at the plate. He hits for some power. He has strong defense. He’s fast. He’s young, and might not even be at his peak performance yet. He’s got four years of control. He’s extremely cheap during those four years in comparison to what he would cost on the open market. There were 19 hitters in the majors who finished with a WAR higher than McCutchen’s in 2011. Only 7 pitchers finished with a higher WAR. That puts McCutchen as the 27th best player in the league in 2011, and that performance came at the age of 24.
We’ve reached a point where prospects are treated with an unprecedented value. I wouldn’t say prospects are over-valued, but I think teams realize now more than ever the importance of building from within. That’s why you see so many top prospects listed as untouchables, even from teams who don’t need to build through prospects like the Yankees. There’s also the tendency to look at prospects in a way that projects them as guaranteed future big leaguers, without taking in to consideration that there isn’t such a thing as a “can’t miss” prospect.
This creates a problem with any Andrew McCutchen trade. It makes no sense for the Pirates to trade for one impact player. They already have an impact player in McCutchen. It might not even make sense to trade him for two impact players. Odds are that one of them might not live up to his potential, putting the Pirates back in the situation where they’re giving up an impact player for the potential of getting just one impact player. Once you get beyond two top prospects, you’re going to have a hard time not only finding teams who can pay the price, but finding teams who will pay the price.
Take the Rays in the example above. If there’s one team that knows the value of prospects, it’s the Rays. They don’t trade prospects for big league players. They trade big league players for prospects. They’re also good enough at developing and identifying talent that they usually have a replacement ready to take over who is as good, or better than the guy who was leaving. A deal involving Matt Moore, Desmond Jennings, Hak-Ju Lee and two other prospects would be fair value for McCutchen, but the Rays would never take it. Their approach is to keep those prospects, hope that Jennings becomes a player who is similar to McCutchen, hope that Moore becomes one of the top pitchers in the game, and hope for the best from their other prospects. The Rays would be more likely to deal James Shields than Matt Moore this off-season. That’s just how they operate, and it totally works.
Then there’s the Toronto example. Lawrie, d’Arnaud, and Gose would be fair value for McCutchen. But Toronto probably sees Lawrie alone as fair value for McCutchen (and depending on how much credit you give his 150 at-bat sample in 2011, they might be right). Rather than trading a guy who put up a .953 OPS, a guy who profiles as their catcher of the future, and a top outfield prospect, the Blue Jays would probably be inclined to take their chances on all three players, just like the Rays.
The reason you won’t find any team willing to make a deal for McCutchen is the same reason why the Pirates would probably accept one of the above deals if they were actually offered. Andrew McCutchen is good, but there’s far more upside in the group of prospects it would take to land McCutchen. The only way you could find a potential deal is if you had a team with a ton of prospects and young talent that was just one piece away from competing. I’m not sure that hypothetical example currently exists in baseball, and if it does, that team might be more inclined to go with their own guys, rather than selling the farm for the missing piece.
Put the Pirates in the same position. Let’s say they had the chance to get another Andrew McCutchen, but it would take Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Luis Heredia, Starling Marte, and Josh Bell. Would you gut the farm system for four years of one star player? Or would you hope that those five players produce two top of the rotation starters and one above average outfield prospect, in a best case scenario?
It doesn’t really matter whether the Pirates listen to offers, or whether they’d even consider moving McCutchen. Even if they were willing to listen, and even if they would trade McCutchen, it’s unlikely that there’s a team out there who would pay proper value to make a deal happen.
This all highlights the fact that he number one priority for the Pirates needs to be extending McCutchen. Not only is he their best player, but he’s one of the best players in the league. The number that gets thrown around a lot when talking about a possible extension is six years and $51.25 M. That amount is thrown around because that’s what Justin Upton received. If McCutchen received the same deal, he’d bring over $120 M in value at a 5.7 WAR each year. A six year deal would buy out two free agent years. McCutchen would probably get a Carl Crawford type deal if he keeps up this pace, which would make his free agent years worth $20 M each. That alone almost makes a six year extension seem like a value. We don’t know if this is an amount McCutchen would go for, but if his price is anywhere in that range, the Pirates should go for it.