I’ll be honest; ever since Rob Biertempfel’s report last week that the Pirates were working on an extension with Andrew McCutchen and that McCutchen was looking for a deal in the neighborhood of the deals received by Justin Upton and Jay Bruce, I’ve been expecting a deal to get done. I understand the need to negotiate, but if the Pirates had let a deal go unsigned with McCutchen making reasonable demands I would’ve been pretty upset and angry.
Still, when I saw the tweets start coming across at midnight last night that the Pirates and McCutchen had actually agreed to a deal, I got a jolt of electricity that I’m completely unaccustomed to as a Pirate fan. Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates best player and most valuable asset and now, the Pirates can keep him in Pittsburgh until 2018. Having a minor league system full of prospects is an important thing for the Pirates; having Andrew McCutchen signed into his free agency years is huge. Prospects are an unknown quantity, McCutchen has almost three years of good-to-great big league performance under his belt. In every year, he’s improved a different part of his game. He’s only 25. He’s undoubtedly the Pirates’ best asset and now they have him locked up.
One of my favorite aspects of this deal is the commitment that it requires from both sides. That seems like an obvious statement when we’re talking about 6-7 years for the player and $51.5-$66 million for the team, but I mean on an even deeper level. The Pirates have been saying since even before McCutchen arrived in 2009 that they were going to be willing to break out the checkbook when the young players on the team warranted it. There was no real reason to not believe them — they’ve certainly kept their word when it comes to spending on the draft and spending internationally — but there was also no evidence to back them up. McCutchen is the first real star that this management team has had from the beginning of his career, the first real test of the promise to pay to keep young players in Pittsburgh beyond their league-mandated six years. When it came down to it, the Pirates could’ve tried to use McCutchen’s age relative to Bruce and Upton to negotiate him down. They didn’t. They came through.
It’s easy to say that this deal is a no-brainer for the Pirates, but let’s not pretend like the club isn’t assuming some kind of risk here. The last young player the Pirates signed to a long extension into free agency years was Jason Kendall in the winter of 2000. It’s easy to say with hindsight that it was an awful deal and the Pirates should’ve known better and it was just another example of Cam Bonifay being awful at his job, but that wasn’t the truth in 2000. When Kendall signed, he was heading into his 27-year old season and in his five big league seasons he hit .314/.402/.456. The most similar player to him through the age of 26, according to Baseball-Reference, was Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane. He was a legitimate hitting machine and he was a catcher. Obviously catchers have durability problems and the Pirates failed to acknowledge that, but Kendall’s long descent down into mediocrity and beyond has clouded everyone’s memory of his early years. From 1998-2000, Kendall slugged .479 and was on a 39 double/15 homer per 162 games pace. He was a much more complete hitter than the punch-and-judy leadoff guy that we all remember from 2001-2004 or the absolute void of offense everyone else remembers from Oakland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kansas City. Shortly after Kendall signed his extension, he tore a ligament in his thumb, tried to play through it, and was never the same offensive player ever again. His extension is remembered as one of the worst deals in team history, and it exists as a cautionary tale for small market teams everywhere about locking up too much money in any one player.
The same thing could happen here. A large portion of McCutchen’s value is tied up in him being a center fielder, but if everything goes according to plan he probably won’t be a center fielder starting in 2013 or 2014 because Starling Marte will have moved him over to left field. That’s fine; his bat has enough pop and he’s well-rounded enough that it can play in any outfield position. We’ve already established that having a good glove in left is a necessity for the Pirates in PNC Park. Carl Crawford (particularly in his time with the Rays, of course) is a great example of a guy with traditional “center field” skills that has plenty of value as a left fielder. Even if the risk is small, there’s still a chance that his power doesn’t develop the way it seems like it’s going to at this point and the Pirates end up with less than they’ve bargained for in a key offensive position. It’s obviously a risk I think is worth taking, but it’s a risk for the Pirates nonetheless.
On McCutchen’s side, he’s now almost certainly assured that if he becomes a legitimate superstar (something that’s probably as likely as not at this point) that he won’t hit the free agent market until after his 31-year old season. That means he gets one big contract and that there’s a chance it’ll be a Jason Bay big contract instead of a Carl Crawford big contract. Obviously McCutchen will still be far richer than most of us could ever be in our wildest dreams (heck, he’ll probably make more money in his career than most of us will in ours combined), but he is making a sacrifice to — as far as he can tell today — remain a Pirate for nine years instead of six. By all rights, he could’ve asked for more money than Bruce and Upton got (he’s been better through his first 2+ years than either of them were), but he didn’t. Obviously he gets some assurances out of the deal (he’s now a rich man, no matter what happens, even if he has a career-altering disaster), but it’s hard to see the terms of this deal and not conclude that McCutchen wants to be a Pirate. Think of all of the Roy Oswalts out there that have dismissed the thought of being a Pirate out of hand and now consider that a guy with his whole career ahead of him is choosing to stay with the Pirates for longer than he has to. The only reason that happens is if he thinks there’s a reason for him to stay.
Part of the reason I’m excited today is purely selfish. I love watching Andrew McCutchen play more than any player on the Pirates since pre-injury Jason Kendall. Seeing him fly around the bases or close a huge gap on a fly ball or stick his foot in the bucket and yank a home run into the left field bleachers with one swing and drive a ball into the right-center cap with another, these are all things that make me catch my breath when they happen in a game and they’re all rolled into one player. If Andrew McCutchen played for another team, he’d be one of the guys in the league that I actively seek out to see play in person, in the same way that my dad would always make sure to get Expos tickets from his season ticket draft in the early days of PNC Park just because we both wanted to see Vlad Guerrero play. As a Pirate fan, we have more time to watch him today than we did yesterday. In itself, that’s a great thing.
When the Pirates traded Nate McLouth in 2009 to make room for McCutchen, one of the things that was said ad nauseum both on this site and elsewhere was that it was a deal the Pirates had to make because the next Pirate playoff team was going to have Andrew McCutchen on it, but it wouldn’t have Nate McLouth. As time has moved on and the front office’s rebuilding plan has taken some detours, I was starting to wonder if that would be true. With Gerrit Cole not arriving until sometime in 2013, at the earliest, and Jameson Taillon probably being either on the same schedule or behind a year, I started to wonder if hoping the Pirates would be a true contender before McCutchen hit free agency was a realistic dream. Now, the window will stay open for a little longer. Now, we know that the front office is willing to put their money with their mouth is beyond the draft.
It’s true that this is the sort of thing that the Pirates have to do to stay competitive, but that doesn’t make this sort of extension an uncertainty. The Pirates and McCutchen made it happen, though, and now it’s time to focus on what’s important: making sure that Andrew McCutchen sees the playoffs in a Pirate uniform.