2010 Position Recap: Center Field

McCutchen held down the center field job all season.

The Pirates didn’t have many positions that were locked down from the start of the 2010 season, but center field was one of them.  Andrew McCutchen started the year in center field for his first full season in the majors, and he didn’t disappoint.  After hitting for a .286/.365/.471 line in 433 at-bats as a rookie, McCutchen followed up with a .286/.365/.449 line in 570 at-bats during his first full season.  McCutchen saw a dip in power, but was still one of the top players at his position.

Out of 27 qualifying center fielders, McCutchen ranked sixth this year in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, and 11th in slugging.  Out of 149 qualified hitters at every position, McCutchen ranked 39th in batting average, 34th in on-base percentage, and 63rd in slugging.

Those numbers are impressive when you consider two things: McCutchen just completed his first full season in the majors, and he just turned 24 on Sunday.  McCutchen is still fairly new to the majors, and isn’t anywhere close to his prime.  He’s a player who can see a lot of improvement in the future, potentially being a star player.

McCutchen Analysis

The guy I often compare McCutchen to is Carl Crawford.  The Tampa Bay Rays are led by the big bat of Evan Longoria, but Carl Crawford plays a very important role in their offense, arguably just as important as Longoria.  McCutchen won’t be the power hitter that Pedro Alvarez projects to be, but he could be the Carl Crawford of the Pirates’ lineup.  In fact, he might already be the Carl Crawford of the lineup.

McCutchen has a .286/.365/.459 line in 1003 at-bats in his young career, at the ages of 22-23.  When Crawford was 22-23, he combined for a .298/.331/.460 line in 1270 at-bats.  Crawford hit for a better average, but McCutchen got on base a lot more, gaining the edge.  Crawford had one advantage: he had 889 at-bats under his belt before those two seasons.

Crawford had a strong year this year, with a .307/.356/.495 line, which is a career best for him.  Prior to this season, Crawford had an OPS of .830, .820, .718, and .816 in the four years leading up to 2010 (ages 24-27).  McCutchen is already at those levels at the age of 22 and 23.  It wouldn’t take much to get from where McCutchen is now to where Crawford was in 2010.  McCutchen’s career line is .286/.365/.459.  In a 600 at-bat season with those ratios, McCutchen would need just 13 additional hits to reach a .307 average.  That’s one additional hit every other week.  Looking at the rate of doubles, triples, and homers to hits for McCutchen, we can assume that those extra 13 hits would net 21 additional bases, bringing his slugging up to .498.  His OBP, which is already strong, would also jump.

That would just be McCutchen being a .300, 15-20 HR, 35-40 doubles  and 5-6 triples per season guy, which he is already close to.  What if he took a big jump.  Could Cutch be a true superstar?  Could he be a 25+ home run guy, with 40-45 doubles a year, and an average above .300?  That might put him closer to the Hanley Ramirez level.  That may seem optimistic, but McCutchen just hit 16 homers with 35 doubles in his first full season in the majors, at the age of 23.  Would it be out of the question to anticipate a jump to superstar numbers as he gets closer to his prime and gets more experience in the majors?

The Future

Right now McCutchen is under team control through the 2015 season.  He becomes arbitration eligible after the 2012 season.  Basically, the Pirates have their center field position locked down for the next five seasons, at the least.  But what about beyond that?  Could the Pirates extend McCutchen, buying out control of a few free agent years in exchange for guaranteed money?

A lot of people want to see Cutch extended yesterday, similar to the contracts that Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun received.  Longoria signed a week after he arrived in the majors, with a contract that gave the Rays control over what would have been his first two free agent years.  Braun signed an eight year deal during his first full season, buying out his first two free agent years.  If those players stay healthy, the Rays and Brewers will have signed two of the most team friendly contracts.  However, those deals don’t necessarily reflect the situation with McCutchen.

A long term deal is tricky.  A team has one of two choices.  They can hand out the long term deal, and assume a lot of financial risk should the player get injured.  They can also choose to wait until the player gets closer to arbitration, paying more for the long term deal, but assuming less risk.

The player also has one of two choices.  He can accept a long term deal early, playing it safe by taking the guaranteed money should an injury arise.  He could also take the risk of suffering an injury, and hold out until closer to arbitration, getting a bigger guaranteed contract in the process.  Of course, there’s another option for either side, and that’s no deal at all.

The problem is that only one side can play it safe, and one side has to take on risk for the deal to go through.  The side taking on risk usually gets a financial gain: the team gets a friendly contract by signing the player early, or the player gets a bigger contract by signing later.  Who takes on the risk, and how much risk does the party take on?  Does the team buy out the free agent years with options, or do they go the Braun route and simply buy out the years?  Does a player like McCutchen negotiate a deal based on his current level of play, or does he hope he can make the jump to the next level and get a bigger payday.

As I said, it’s very tricky, and that’s why you don’t see a lot of long term deals like Longoria and Braun.  Longoria and Braun are the exception, not the rule.  Usually you see players extended closer to their arbitration years, or even right when the arbitration years begin.  Longoria and Braun are also much different than McCutchen, and I don’t mean on a talent level.  Longoria and Braun are pretty low risk when it comes to injuries.  On the other hand, McCutchen is an all out player.  He runs full speed, he slides, he dives, he crashes in to walls, he slides head first in to bases, he sprints trying to stretch a double in to a triple or trying to score from first, he steals bases, and he goes Air Cutch in to home plate after a walk off homer.  All of that makes him an exciting player who is fun to watch, and probably drives the desire to see him extended, but at the same time it makes him a bigger injury risk than Braun or Longoria.  We’ve already seen him suffer a few minor injuries this season from his all-out play, so it doesn’t take much to imagine a situation where he could suffer a major injury due to that same level of intensity.

I’m not saying that the Pirates shouldn’t extend McCutchen this early.  They definitely could, and I would be extremely happy with the move.  However, there seems to be the feeling that the Pirates need to extend McCutchen right away, like Longoria and Braun, as if the window will close after this off-season.  That’s not true.  Longoria and Braun are the exception, and McCutchen is a much bigger injury risk than either player.  A McCutchen extension would be great, but at the same time it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Pirates waited until McCutchen got closer to his arbitration years.  That actually would be more routine than the Longoria/Braun path.  The timing of it all just depends on how much risk either side is willing to take on.  The Pirates have two more seasons and three off-seasons until McCutchen is arbitration eligible.  Ideally the Pirates will extend his team control beyond the current five years during that time period, but that’s not necessarily a move that has to happen right away.

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The Pirates are way too cheap to buy out any of McCutchen’s FA years. Instead they will sign a contract with him for his arbitration years that will be basically what he would get in arbitration for the first couple of years and then back end load all of the money for his last year of arbitration. He will then be salary dumped before any of the heavy lifting starts.

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