Teams have gotten pretty good about handling trade rumors. The teams themselves don’t operate any differently, but whenever any big name is discussed, you just about always hear the team isn’t shopping him. Rather, the front office will frequently indicate it’s open to anything. “Listening to offers,” as if there’s any other way. Big names still get traded as often as ever, but teams try to reduce anxiety in the meantime. They don’t want people stressing out until or unless there’s something worth stressing over.
The Andrew McCutchen offers have taken on a different feel. At first, it felt like, all right, maybe the Pirates would be open to trading him. But Wednesday, reports emerged that the Pirates are the ones being aggressive. I don’t know if that’s coming from the Pirates organization or somewhere(s) else, but this is pretty unusual. Pair that with the news that Austin Meadows will be playing an outfield corner and you definitely get the sense McCutchen’s days with the Pirates are numbered.
As Ken Rosenthal and others have written, it looks more likely than ever that McCutchen’s going to be dealt. If it happens, it would hardly be a shock to see it happen before the end of next week’s winter meetings. McCutchen is still to be considered a premium outfielder, so any number of teams would love to pick him up. After examining the landscape, though, I don’t see a better fit than the Nationals.
Just to get this part out of the way — the Pirates are under no obligation to actually make a trade here. McCutchen has two more years of control, and the Pirates ought to be competitive. At the same time, it would be possible for the Pirates to trade McCutchen and stay competitive enough. Given how the organization is, it always needs to be balancing the long-term needs against the short-term needs. McCutchen almost certainly isn’t sticking around after 2018. It probably wouldn’t be worth the Pirates’ investment. Selling McCutchen now wouldn’t mean they’re giving up; it would just be an acknowledgment of the Pirates’ reality. Fans can recover from faces of franchises going away, as tough as it can be to imagine. Sometimes it’s even for the best for a player to go somewhere else as he gets deeper into his 30s. That way the best memories mostly stay intact.
All right. Here’s where the Pirates are: They have a decent roster. Potential wild-card roster. Meadows is close, and just about ready to join Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. McCutchen still has high value, and if the Pirates are going to be honest, they’re nowhere close to the Cubs. The division is practically out of reach. It wouldn’t be a bad time to shift a little bit to the future. McCutchen could fit on a lot of other rosters, although he’s voiced a desire to stay in center field. The Nationals would present the fewest obstacles, and they have plenty of fitting talent they could trade.
Sure, the Blue Jays would like McCutchen, but their prospect ranks are thinner, and they already have Kevin Pillar. The Rangers need a center fielder, but they want better defense, and they’re not moving Rougned Odor or Nomar Mazara. It’s possible the Astros make some sense, even as they’re running out of room for new position players. I don’t mean to suggest the Nationals are the only fit. They’re just the best and easiest fit. They want a center fielder so they can move Trea Turner back to shortstop. They have money, and they have youth. They’re ready to win immediately, and they don’t share the Pirates’ division. It’s no coincidence the two teams spoke in the middle of last summer. There was interest then, and there is interest today.
It comes down, of course, to finding the right players to exchange. That’s effectively a pointless sentence, but the Nationals have a lot they could offer. McCutchen is under contract for a year and $14 million, with a $14.5-million club option after that. Before last year, he was one of the best players in the National League. There’s no ignoring what happened in 2016, but you have to assume McCutchen is due for a massive bounceback. He should be better at the plate, and he should be better in the field, even if he’s never going to win another Gold Glove. Teams aren’t interested in McCutchen because of his lousy 2016 WAR. They’re interested because they figure he’s a lot better than that.
From the Nationals’ perspective, Trea Turner is off-limits. Giving him up for McCutchen would be nonsensical. But then you get to turn to the farm, and that’s where you get the trio of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Victor Robles. Any one of those players ought to be enough to lead a return package for Pittsburgh. That would be a matter of their preference. Any of the three would be a delightful addition.
Lopez is the quick riser, a soon-to-be-23-year-old righty who generated a strikeout an inning in his first time in the majors. He worked his fastball comfortably into the mid-90s. Giolito has long generated a lot more hype. Some people continue to believe Giolito is the best pitching prospect in the game, although his hype has mostly exceeded his performances. His stock is down somewhat, but his power profile could be perfect with Ray Searage. And then there’s Robles. Unlike the other two, Robles is a position player, so that makes him more reliable. But he’s also 19 years old and the furthest from the majors, so that makes him less reliable. Nevertheless, scouts almost unanimously love him, and there are few young outfield prospects with higher ceilings. Given Polanco, Marte, and Meadows, the Pirates would be able to wait him out.
So the Nationals could lead with a big-league-ready starter, or with a tremendously exciting teenage outfielder. From there, you work out the details. Is there enough interest from other teams to make the Nationals punt with a legitimate second piece? If enough teams are trying to buy low on McCutchen, the Pirates won’t really be selling low afterall, so maybe Pittsburgh gets some kind of big leaguer back too; maybe Michael Taylor heads back to Pittsburgh to give them a placeholder until Meadows is ready?
I can’t guarantee the Pirates would be satisfied. I can’t guarantee the Nationals would be satisfied. I don’t know their own internal evaluations of the players involved, and maybe something more would have to be added. At least, I think there’s a fit here. The Pirates have what the Nationals might want. The Nationals have what the Pirates should want. It’s conceivable that the Pirates could lose McCutchen but gain a couple of players making contributions as soon as next season. Decisions like this are never easy, but a McCutchen decision will have to be made sometime. Don’t be surprised if it’s the Nationals who win the sweepstakes, and don’t be surprised if the players the Pirates get back help keep them hanging around the borders of contention for years to come.