There was a common question about the Pirates after they were buyers at this year’s trade deadline: “Why did they trade Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen?”
The question came from outside of Pittsburgh more than it came from inside Pittsburgh. It mostly revolved around the confusion over the idea that the Pirates traded away two big names before the season, then said they felt they would be contenders, then became contenders, and finally made a big splash at the deadline to get two of the biggest names on the market.
This question is complicated, because it ignores some realities that existed at the time the Cole and McCutchen trades were made, and factors in things that we know now, which weren’t realized at the time.
The best way to break it all down and answer the question about Cole and McCutchen is to start off by looking at each trade individually. I’m only going to look at one of these per day, since my breakdown for each deal will be long, and I don’t want to throw a 3,000+ word article at you.
The Andrew McCutchen Trade
We’ll start with McCutchen, because I feel that’s the easiest to break down. The biggest backlash to that deal came from the emotional side, and based on the results, the emotional side should be the only factor that would still have people upset.
On the performance side, McCutchen has been declining in value over the last few years. He had seen prolonged slumps in each of 2016 and 2017, with a 1.1 fWAR in 2016 and a 3.6 fWAR in 2017. The latter was a nice improvement, but far from the 6, 7, and 8 WAR seasons he had from 2012-2015. There was a chance that McCutchen could be a productive player, but that wasn’t guaranteed, and it was pretty much guaranteed that he was no longer going to be an impact guy.
The trade value for McCutchen was dropping by the year. The best time to trade him, in hindsight, would have been after the 2015 season. The Pirates discussed a deal with the Nationals after the 2016 season, but the Nationals ultimately went with Adam Eaton for a similar package as the guys rumored to be available for a McCutchen deal. Eaton, by the way, was coming off a 5.8 WAR season, but has been worth 1.0 WAR combined the last two years, after missing a lot of playing time in the process, and failing to repeat his previous power numbers and defensive value.
But back to McCutchen. The Pirates traded him to the Giants in exchange for Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds. Crick was a former top prospect who was recently turned into a reliever. Reynolds was one of the best prospects available from the Giants at the time, although their system wasn’t one of the better ones in baseball.
Still, the Pirates received two younger guys with upside, and one guy who entered their top ten prospects, which is a good return for a declining veteran player who was owed $14 M over one season.
The return for McCutchen was never going to be enough value to match the name and the past production he had in Pittsburgh. But when you strip away the emotional attachments, he was a guy who couldn’t be counted on to lead the team on the field, especially while taking up about 15% of the team payroll, and with no guarantee that he would ever give the team a return when he left.
So the answer to why the team traded McCutchen is simple. Even if they were trying to contend, you could make an argument that they were better off moving on from him, and that their chances of contending was actually stronger without McCutchen.
That turned out to be true. Kyle Crick has been looking like a solid late inning reliever with five more years of control remaining, at a time when relievers like that with years of control are worth a lot on the trade market. Reynolds has shown some power, even with hamate surgery, and looks like a guy who could be a starting outfielder in the majors one day.
To replace McCutchen, the Pirates added Corey Dickerson, who has been a 2.2 WAR player so far this year, and at less than half the cost. Meanwhile, McCutchen has been worth a 1.3 WAR with the Giants.
Skeptics will say that the Pirates lucked into getting Dickerson, and that they only were able to get an outfield upgrade because the Rays decided to DFA him so late in the process. But that ignores the reality of the MLB offseason, and a lot of details that kill this theory.
First, the reality of the offseason was that it was slow. In previous offseasons, a lot of the big moves take place surrounding the winter meetings, and the rest of the big moves happen in the following weeks, with a lot wrapping up by the end of December. Any moves in January were the leftovers, and moves in February before or at the start of Spring Training were almost unheard of. If this was a normal offseason, then Dickerson being added on February 22nd would be a lucky and unexpected late get for the Pirates.
But this was not a normal offseason.
This offseason was slow, to the point where the big moves happened in late January, and a lot of the leftover transactions were finally being completed in February, even in the opening weeks of Spring Training. The Pirates traded McCutchen on January 15th, and got Dickerson a month later. But in between that time, there were rumors that they were trying to get Brandon Nimmo as a replacement from the Mets. There were rumors that the Mets declined to include him in a deal for McCutchen, and rumors in late January and early February that the Pirates would have dealt Josh Harrison for Nimmo.
That addition would have worked out just as well, as Nimmo has a 2.7 WAR this year.
The Rays, meanwhile, had been shopping Dickerson all offseason with no success, and finally DFAd him at the start of camp, with the Pirates stepping in and making the trade on February 22nd. The timing of this came when a lot of moves were starting to take place, and I say starting only because there were moves and additions all across baseball that were made up until the middle of March (the Mets, for example, filled their rotation need around the same time as the Dickerson trade, and didn’t get a second base option, with their former second baseman Neil Walker being signed by the Yankees in the second week of March).
I digressed from McCutchen there, but it’s important to point all of this out, because it was part of the plan. The Pirates intended to trade McCutchen and look for an outfield replacement, as shown by the rumors that they tried to get Nimmo in return for McCutchen, tried to get Nimmo for Harrison a few weeks after the McCutchen trade, and eventually got Dickerson. That was the plan, and the idea that they just got lucky by getting Dickerson so late ignores the slow moving offseason and all of the other late additions that teams around the league made.
It’s easy to see why the Pirates traded McCutchen. He was declining and becoming unreliable with his performance, would have cost a lot of money, and they could have received a return for him while replacing him with someone who could be an upgrade at a much cheaper cost.
And the move worked. At this point, I’m not sure you could deal McCutchen for Crick. The Giants tried dealing McCutchen at the deadline, but he stuck around. They probably aren’t getting any compensation for him, as a one-year, $18+ M deal would be too risky. Meanwhile, the Pirates got Crick and Reynolds, and replaced McCutchen with Dickerson, with all of those transactions working out to make the team better this year, and in years to come.
The Gerrit Cole trade is a different story. You can see why the trade was made at the time, but that’s more due to a flaw in the organization’s approach with pitchers at the time. I’ve discussed that a lot this year, but will get into that more tomorrow when I break down the Cole trade, and why the Pirates made it when they still expected to be contenders this year.