Keith Law set the Yinzernet on fire this afternoon by suggesting that the Pirates would consider trading Andrew McCutchen if they get an offer that blows them away. He didn’t say that the Pirates were shopping McCutchen or hoping to trade him or anything like that. He said that they’d do what any team in their situation would do with an elite young player that has a ticking arbitration clock without an extension: they’d listen to offers and probably reject 99.9% of them.
Still, the reaction to Law’s blurb was pretty predictable: some Pirate fans were angry on the assumption that it’s already time to start selling to the highest bidder, some were scared, some shrugged it off the way I have on the assumption that the Pirates are probably at least a couple years away from realistically looking to shop him at the very earliest. Tim is right in pointing out that in order to trade McCutchen at this point in his career, the Pirates would have to more or less go to one of baseball’s best minor league systems and name their top five prospects for it to be a fair deal. The sorts of GMs that get those types of prospect stashes aren’t the sorts of GMs that trade them away.
The summary of the summary here is that the Pirates aren’t shopping Andrew McCutchen. They’re not going to trade him this winter because they almost certainly can’t get fair value for him short of Alex Anthopolous or Josh Friedman losing their minds. They’re willing to listen because sometimes GMs lose their minds and so long as you’re a 90-loss team, you can’t afford to ignore anything. This is not news to anyone that follows the Pirates, but most people don’t follow the Pirates and so it’s being trumped up like big news.
Even the mention of trading Andrew McCutchen gets my gears turning about the future of the Pirates, though, and so what I’m wondering right now is this: should the Pirates be shopping Andrew McCutchen this winter or in the nearish future?
I know, right? But let’s walk through this.
Try to imagine the Pirates being good in 2012. OK, now try to imagine it without the following words and/or phrases: “miracle” and “if Pedro Alvarez pulls things together.” Now try to imagine it. It’s not very easy. Try to imagine the Pirates being good in 2013. Now, try it again without the two key phrases. A little more likely, perhaps, but still not easy. If we go to 2014, things get downright plausible even without Alvarez: Cole and maybe even Taillon should be up, Starling Marte should be up and adapted to big league pitching, maybe even a little more help will be on the way at that point. There are still things that need to come together, but on November 28th, 2011 it doesn’t seem ridiculous to suggest that the Pirates could be contenders in 2014. This is not idea, but I guess it’s progress.
Andrew McCutchen will be a free agent after the 2015 season. The problem with that isn’t that it’s so near that the Pirates’ inability to extend him to this point should be panic-inducing; it’s that it’s awfully hard to think that the Pirates will contend with what they currently have in their system before 2014, at which point the Pirates will have to be seriously considering what to do with McCutchen if they haven’t signed him to an extension by that point.
So I guess what I’m thinking is this: if the Pirates can’t extend McCutchen and they’re going to be trading him in 2014 or 2015 and they’re probably not going to be contending before about that point anyway, why not trade him now or next season or after next season? They’d get a heck of a whole lot more post-2015 support out of a McCutchen trade that netted someone three years of Andrew McCutchen instead of a trade that gives someone half of that at the most.
This is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking, of course. The Pirates kind-of-sort-of contended in 2011 with basically no Pedro Alvarez or Jose Tabata and a Neil Walker season that left things to be desired. If the Pirates can cobble some pitching together in the next month or so and have some young players make progress and Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder leave the division … anything is technically possible. It’s not likely by any means, I don’t think, but it is possible. It’s not possible without Andrew McCutchen.
The Pirates have had 19 consecutive losing seasons and this management group has had four of them now; it’s not really fair of them to ask the fans to concede 20 and 21 well before either of those seasons start, no matter how long of a shot things are at this point. If the right offer were to come along in the next 16 months, though, the Pirates would be awfully hard-pressed to ignore it.