Neal Huntington has made a lot of good moves in his time as the General Manager. This past off-season he signed two of the biggest values on the free agent market when he brought in Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. He traded for A.J. Burnett the previous off-season, getting the starter for next to nothing in prospects and at a reduced price. He’s drafted well, and those drafts are starting to produce results in the majors. But perhaps his best move of all involved a player who was already in the organization.
Prior to the 2012 season, Huntington extended Andrew McCutchen under a six-year, $51.5 M deal. The deal came with an option year for $14.5 M in 2018 with a $1 M buyout, which gives the deal a maximum value of seven years and $66 M. There are also performance bonuses involved. For example, McCutchen won the MVP award tonight, which comes with a $125,000 bonus. He also receives $25,000 for each All-Star, Gold Glove, and World Series MVP selection. He’s sure to earn more awards, and possibly more MVP awards. But even with all of those awards, McCutchen’s deal looks like one of the best values in baseball.
The timing of the McCutchen extension couldn’t have been better. Here are the numbers before the extension, followed by the numbers since the extension.
Pre-Extension: .276/.365/.458, 30.88 AB/HR in 1824 PA
Post-Extension: .322/.402/.531, 22.62 AB/HR in 1347 PA
McCutchen took off in the year after his extension. He posted a .953 OPS, with 31 homers in 593 at-bats, also leading the league in hits with 194. He finished third in the MVP voting, while being named an All-Star, winning a Gold Glove, and winning a Silver Slugger. There were questions after last season about whether McCutchen could follow up with another good season. His offensive numbers dropped in 2013, but his .911 OPS and 21 homers in 583 at-bats were still great. His defensive numbers also improved, and he posted an 8.2 WAR, which was up from his 6.8 WAR in 2012. As far as value goes, he has been worth $71.7 M in surplus value in the last two years, which pays for his entire extension, including the 2018 option.
Now the question is whether McCutchen can keep this up going forward. He’s had three years in a row with a WAR over 5.0, and the last two years he has averaged 7.5 WAR per season. To put that in perspective, only five players in the game this year had a WAR of 7.5 or greater. Only eight players had a WAR of 6.8 or higher, which was his 2012 mark. The idea is that players can’t perform at this level every year. It’s definitely rare for a player to achieve this mark so often. Consider the following players from 2000-2013 who have had multiple seasons with a 6.8 WAR or greater.
Albert Pujols – He achieved this for nine seasons, including eight years in a row from 2003-2010.
Alex Rodriguez – He had six qualifying years, including four in a row from 2000-2003.
Barry Bonds – He had five years in a row from 2000-2004.
Chase Utley – He had five years in a row from 2005-2009.
Those are the only four players who achieved 6.8+ WAR for more than three years in that time span. There were other players who had multiple seasons. Listing those players by the number of years:
3 Years – Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Todd Helton
2 Years – Andrew McCutchen, Andruw Jones, Bret Boone, Chipper Jones, Grady Sizemore, Hanley Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Jeff Kent, Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman
There have been a lot of people who played at this elite level for only 2-3 seasons. That’s not to say those players were bad players after their numbers faded. Pretty much all of the guys mentioned above are great players. There are some who got there due to steroids, and that includes the list of four up above.
Basically what this tells us is that McCutchen could repeat this performance going forward. However, to do so, he would need to perform like one of the best in the game over the long-term. So is McCutchen capable of being one of the best players in the game over the long-term?
One thing that could give McCutchen plenty of value is his defense. He saw some improvements this year defensively. Throughout his career he has been up and down, with a career UZR/150 of -2.8. That’s not great, but McCutchen actually plays a hard position. Albert Pujols, for example, played first base, and most of his results were with the bat. So McCutchen doesn’t have to hit as well as Pujols did to provide the same overall value.
There’s also speed to consider, which is a huge part of McCutchen’s game. He has some base running issues, but he’s provided positive base running value each year. His speed also leads to extra bases, with 38 doubles and five triples in 2013. McCutchen has home run power, and has enough for at least 20 homers a year. But the speed and the extra bases will always boost his power numbers, bridging the gap between McCutchen and some of the elite power hitters.
The speed and the defense will help McCutchen maintain a high value, but what will really help is the patience at the plate. McCutchen posted a 15% strikeout rate and an 11.6% walk rate in 2013. Both numbers are close to his career numbers. In 2013 the average strikeout rate in baseball was 19.9% and the average walk rate was 7.9%. McCutchen is above average in both regards. That combination will keep him from going into constant slumps. He’ll still have some down months. We saw that this year in April when he posted a .731 OPS. However, his OPS was above .800 the rest of the year, and was .994 or better the final three months of the season. McCutchen might slump on occasion, but when he’s not slumping the performance is going to be great.
Can McCutchen be one of the best players in the game over the long haul? That remains to be seen. He definitely has the tools for it. If he plays defense like he did this year, then he’ll have speed, defense, home run power, extra base power, value on the bases, and most importantly a great approach that avoids slumps. That’s the perfect recipe for a few more $125,000 bonuses at the end of the year, and it will only make his extension look even more valuable than it already looks.
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