Most recaps this year will involve many players. Some will involve only one player at the major league level, but will look at other players for the future. When it comes to center field, there is only one player to focus on from the present to the future. That’s Andrew McCutchen, who looked like an MVP in 2013, and is under team control through the 2018 season.
In 2012, McCutchen had an amazing season, putting up a 6.8 WAR. Many expected those numbers to be unsustainable in 2013. Instead, McCutchen was more valuable in 2013, with an 8.2 WAR. That was the best mark in the National League and the second best in baseball. His .911 OPS was ranked 10th in all of baseball, and sixth of all qualified players in the National League. He was one of eight players in baseball with 20+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases this year.
McCutchen was a true MVP candidate this year, and will likely win the award. He actually saw his offensive numbers drop. His average was down ten points from 2012, although his OPS was up four points, which was a result of a higher walk rate (11.6% compared to 10.4%). His strikeout rate dropped to 15%, down from 19.6% last year. His slugging percentage was down from .553 to .508, with his isolated power dropping from .226 to .190.
The offense dropped slightly, but McCutchen was a more valuable player in 2013 than he was in 2012. The reason for this was his improved defense. McCutchen won the Gold Glove in 2012, but he won in a manner that a lot of players win Gold Glove awards: he had good offensive numbers. McCutchen’s defensive metrics were poor last year, with a -8.6 UZR/150. This year he had much better numbers, with an 8.4 UZR/150. So even though his offense dropped slightly, McCutchen more than made up for that with defensive improvements.
McCutchen will almost certainly win the NL MVP award, which is something he deserves. He could be a candidate for the NL Gold Glove again, although once again there were better defensive options. Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, Juan Lagares, A.J. Pollock, Chris Denorfia, and teammate Starling Marte were all considerably better defenders than McCutchen this year. McCutchen could be helped by his time in center field, but Gomez and Pollock should still be ahead of him. His offense could help him once again, as it would raise his profile, even though that’s not how defensive awards should work. The difference between 2012 and 2013 is that if McCutchen wins the award this year, you could at least make an argument that he was a strong defender and somewhat worthy of the award.
The 2013 season was another amazing year for McCutchen. Prior to the 2012 season he signed a six-year, $51.5 M extension, which could be worth $65 M over seven years. McCutchen has already been worth that, providing $71.7 M in value over the last two seasons. He’s got up to five years left on his deal, which could make his extension one of the most team-friendly deals of all time.
McCutchen is around for five more years, so there’s not a big need to look at any future players. The Pirates have plenty of outfield prospects, including a few center field prospects in the lower levels like Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, and Michael De La Cruz. Those guys could be ready by the time McCutchen is getting close to the end of his deal, and that might spark a conversation about what to do with the outfield at that point. But there are way too many variables and that is way too far off to speculate what could possibly happen several years down the road.
Instead, the better use of the future section would be to look at the future of the outfield with McCutchen. In 2014 the Pirates should see Gregory Polanco arrive in the majors. That will give the Pirates three center fielders in the outfield, and you could argue that McCutchen is the worst defender of the three. He did put up good defensive numbers this year, but UZR is stronger with multiple years of data. In his career he has a -2.8 UZR/150. One big issue in center field is that he has a weaker arm than Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco. McCutchen has range and speed, but so do the other two.
It might be hard to move the star of the team out of center field for two younger players, so the Pirates need to hope that McCutchen’s 2013 defensive numbers will repeat going forward.
McCutchen should continue putting up strong numbers going forward. There are many that argue a player can’t continue to be a 6-8 win player over the long-haul, but there have been exceptions to this rule. Albert Pujols, for example, was a 7+ win player for eight years in a row from 2003-2010. Having multiple seasons at that level is something that only comes when you’re one of the best in the game. I think you could make a strong argument that McCutchen is one of the best players in the game. He also just turned 27 years old, so he’s in the prime of his career for the next few years. He shouldn’t be expected to regress any time soon. Players who have this kind of repeated success are the exception, but everything about McCutchen suggests that he could be the type of player who is the exception to the rule.
One good thing for the Pirates is that they are building a stronger team that isn’t going to be carried by McCutchen. In 2012, McCutchen was carrying the offense. In 2013 the Pirates added Starling Marte to the mix. They also added Jordy Mercer, who should provide more offense from the shortstop position. In 2014 they should add another offensive piece in Polanco. Then there’s Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, who have both provided good numbers from their positions. With more offensive weapons, the Pirates will have to rely less on McCutchen to carry the team. It will also make things easier on McCutchen, since opposing teams will find it harder to pitch around him with better hitters surrounding him in the lineup.
While other positions will have a focus on specific prospects going forward, the only focus in center field is Andrew McCutchen, and whether he can continue to emerge as one of the best players in the game.