Recently, news broke that there were talks of the Seattle Mariners acquiring Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen. A five-time All-Star and former NL MVP, McCutchen has apparently had a lot of interest in the past few months. The Washington Nationals also inquired about him recently. And when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was asked about the future of McCutchen staying in Pittsburgh, his answer was a simple, “I’ll take it one day at a time.”
All signs point to the star center fielder potentially getting traded this offseason. Could the Tigers pull off a deal?
Who is he?
McCutchen was the 11th overall pick in the 2005 MLB amateur draft. He made an immediate impact after he was called up to the major leagues in 2009, hitting .286/.365/.471 and finishing fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting. In his eight-year career, McCutchen has made the NL All-Star team five times, won four Silver Slugger awards, and finished in the top five in MVP voting four times between 2011 and 2015, including his 2013 NL MVP Award. He even has a Gold Glove to his name. All this hardware shows that he is one of the top centerfielders in the game today this side of Mike Trout.
Oh, and his career numbers look outstanding too.
Why should we care?
One of the first things general manager Al Avila did this offseason was to trade away Cameron Maybin and his $9 million option for 2017. This created a big void in center field for the Tigers. McCutchen will only be 30 years old in 2017 and, as mentioned above, has been one of the best center fielders in the game throughout his career. From 2011 to 2015, he hit .302/.396/.509, averaging 25 home runs, 90 RBI, and 20 stolen bases per year. His 152 wRC+ and 33.3 fWAR during that span are second among center fielders only to Mike Trout. This type of production would fit in nicely in the Tigers’ lineup, batting between Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera.
However, his 2016 season took a dip in his usual production, and the Tigers might have a chance to buy somewhat low on a superstar. Fortunately, everything about his 2016 season looks like a fluke.
On the surface, it appears that McCutchen has experienced some unfortunate BABIP luck in 2016. When McCutchen was garnering MVP votes, his BABIP was regularly in the .350s. Looking at his batted ball numbers, there is nothing to indicate why his BABIP was so low in 2016. His line drive rate (22.5 percent) and opposite field hit rate (21.8 percent) are right in line with his career numbers (21.1 and 21.9 percent respectively). A bounce-back season is highly likely in McCutchen’s case.
Why should we stay away?
For whatever reason, some players fall off a cliff never to recover. Therefore, there is risk in buying low on a player. One thing to consider is Andrew McCutchen’s knee injury in 2015 that got him off to a slow start, with a .194 batting average in April. While his overall 2015 season looked like vintage McCutchen (.292/.401/.488, 146 wRC+), one has to wonder if this is a recurring injury that effected him in 2016 and will continue in future years.
This knee injury could also be the reason for his noticeable downward trend in his stolen bases. Once a steady 25-steal player, McCutchen has swiped 18, 11 and six bases over the last three seasons, respectively. In fact, his overall baserunning has gone south. Over his first six seasons, McCutchen added about 24 runs on his baserunning alone according to FanGraphs’ BsR stat (an average of four runs per year). However, in 2015 he was below zero for the first time of his career (-1.1). In 2016, he was even worse at -3 BsR.
Then there’s the defense. McCutchen had the worst advance metric defensive ratings for centerfielders in 2016, at -28 defensive runs saved (DRS) and a -18.7 ultimate zone rating (UZR). While again, this could be a fluke (defense stats are notoriously unstable), he has had negative rating in each of the last three years, combined for a -49 DRS/-34 UZR compared to just a bit below average of -5 DRS/-13.2 UZR over his first five years. Part of it may be due to playing too shallow, but it also might be time to move him to a corner outfield position. This doesn’t align with Detroit’s current interests, and would significantly hurt his overall value.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Most likely not. Despite his low numbers in 2016, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is still asking for a lot in return for McCutchen. In the deal with the Nationals, he asked for Victor Robles, Baseball America’s No. 33 overall prospect prior to the 2016 season. The Tigers simply do not have that caliber of a prospect in their organization to offer. Therefore, they would have to be creative, such as trading outfielder J.D. Martinez. That would seem like a lateral move, and McCutchen has an extra year of club control remaining with a team option for 2018. The Tigers need a center fielder, but a fit between Pittsburgh and Detroit doesn’t seem to be there.