The Pittsburgh Pirates announced they traded one of the best outfielders in franchise history Monday, sending Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates received pitcher Kyle Crick, minor league outfielder Bryan Reynolds and $500,000 in international bonus pool space. Reynolds is considered the fourth-best prospect in the Giants’ system.
In addition, the Pirates will pay $2.5 million of McCutchen’s $14.5 million salary in 2018, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
The move is bound to be unpopular with a segment of Pittsburgh’s fanbase. No player was more synonymous with the Pirates’ turnaround a few years ago than McCutchen.
In his first three years with the team, Pittsburgh averaged 98 losses a season. Slowly but surely, the Pirates improved, and McCutchen played a key role as they reached the postseason three straight years from 2013 to 2015.
On one hand, it’s a shame McCutchen won’t begin and end his career with the same team—something that is increasingly rare in modern sports. On the other hand, the time to trade him was now if the franchise was ever going to let him go.
This isn’t remotely the same as when Pittsburgh let Barry Bonds walk following the 1992 season, which is the last time the Pirates lost a hitter as historically good as McCutchen.
Bonds’ departure is a clear demarcation point in the Pirates’ history. They made the National League Championship Series in each of Bonds’ last three years in Pittsburgh. In the 20 years after his departure, the team failed to make the postseason.
Bonds was in the prime of his career and coming off an MVP season when he signed with the San Francisco Giants.
McCutchen, on the other hand, turned 31 in October and has shown a slight decline from when he was a regular contender for National League MVP—winning the award in 2013. After a poor 2016, he rebounded in 2017 with a .279/.363/.486 slash line, 28 home runs and 88 RBI.
Were the Pirates still a contending team, they likely would’ve held on to McCutchen. Instead, they won 78 games in 2016 and 75 games in 2017. McCutchen’s contributions in 2018 likely weren’t going to make much of a difference for Pittsburgh in terms of returning to the postseason.
In addition, McCutchen only has one year left on his current contract after the Pirates exercised his $14.5 million option for 2018. Meeting McCutchen’s asking price in free agency would put a big strain on Pittsburgh’s payroll, which is to say nothing about whether re-signing an aging outfielder during a rebuilding period is a sensible use of the team’s resources.
Rather than watch McCutchen leave at the end of the year and receive nothing in return, the Pirates got back some pieces that can strengthen their farm system.
The inevitable promotion of Austin Meadows will help soften the blow of losing McCutchen for fans in Pittsburgh. Meadows, the No. 9 pick in the 2013 draft, batted .250 with four home runs, 36 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 72 Triple-A games in 2017.
The 22-year-old is the 17th-best prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com, and will become one of the faces of the new era of Pirates baseball.
As for the Giants, Jarrett Parker’s power in the minor leagues didn’t translate to MLB when he was given the opportunity to play in the big leagues for long stretches over the past two seasons. Parker would’ve been a liability offensively for a team with playoff aspirations such as San Francisco.
In that respect, McCutchen is a big upgrade.
The one question is whether McCutchen will improve the Giants defense, which was an issue with Denard Span.
McCutchen has been a center fielder for almost the entirety of his MLB career, and his defense has slipped in recent years. After struggling to patrol the gaps at PNC Park, he’ll have an even harder time guarding the spacious outfield at AT&T Park.
McCutchen’s contributions at the plate should outweigh his poor defense, which makes this trade a logical move for a Giants team that is aiming for big improvement in 2018.
By Joseph Zucker