Speculation has it that the Pirates are looking to trade Andrew McCutchen, and the Blue Jays have been named as a potential trade partner. Should they be interested?
If the Pirates had offered Andrew McCutchen for trade one year ago, the potential suitors would have been lined up. Cutch had just put up a .292/.401/.488 batting line, good for a 146 wRC+. His WAR of 5.8 was 12th best in baseball. And this was a down year – Cutch’s WAR was 6.8 in 2014 and 8.4 (second only to some fish in Anaheim) in 2013.
Boy, what a difference a year makes.
Cutch’s 2016 wRC+ of 106 and UZR/150 of -23 (!) were both the lowest of his career. His 2016 has been described as disastrous and he is described as looking as if he aged five years in one season. As a result, the package that it might take to convince Pittsburgh to trade him has declined dramatically. As one NL executive put it,
"They’ll get something but it won’t be the type of deal where you can go a long way toward rebuilding your roster. You’re not going to get a superstar-like package for a guy who might not be a superstar anymore."
Which bring us to the Jays. Toronto has been speculated to be a possible fit for Cutch, for multiple reasons:
Cutch has one year left on his current contract, at a reasonable $14 million, and a team option for 2018 at $14.5m ($1m buyout). Cutch could fill the Jays’ need for a corner outfielder until Pompey or Alford are ready, or until a longer-term solution could be found. And if he had a terrible 2017, the Jays could decline the club option, limiting their amount at risk.
For most of his career, Cutch has been a below-average defensive centre fielder. This has got progressively worse, with a UZR/150 of -14 in 2014, -6 in 2015 and -23 in 2016. It is pretty clear that he is no longer a viable option at that position. He might, however, be substantially better at a less demanding corner outfield position. Consider the case of Adam Eaton, who went from a -11 UZR/150 in CF in 2015 to a +26 in RF in 2016. Moving Cutch to a corner OF position would not be a major hardship for the Jays, as they already have a middlin’ fair player at the CF position.
Cutch was in the top-5 in NL MVP voting every year from 2012-15. If he could regain even a portion of that magic, he would be an enormous bargain at $14 million.
But there are negatives associated with a Cutch signing as well.
The elephant on the table is of course his 2016 season and his 0.7 WAR. The reason that the Pirates will likely not get an elite haul for him is because that season does not appear to be a blip. A team trading for him is assuming the risk that they get another below-average season.
The second issue is the skills fit. The Jays are looking for more young, fast, left-handed hitters with above-average defence and multiple years of team control. Cutch is a 30-year-old, right-handed batter with below-average baserunning (over the last two years) and wildly below average defence in CF (though, as noted above, a move to a corner might help)
The third issue is the price. Some writers have estimated that, after the Morales and Gurriel Jr. signings, the Jays have about $30 million left to play with. But the Jays still have needs in the outfield, at first base, and in the bullpen (and a 6th and 7th starter would not hurt either!). So the team will have to make tough choices. Assuming that MLBTR’s estimate of a 4/$64m contract for Dexter Fowler is correct, he and Cutch will have similar salary costs. Assuming that the Jays can not afford both players, which player would you prioritize? Cutch clearly has higher upside, but Fowler checks more boxes and carries lower risk. And Fowler only costs a lost draft pick, as opposed to the multiple prospects that might be required to close a McCutchen deal.
The bottom line
For fans like me, who have watched McCutchen over the years, the thought of him in Blue Jays blue brings an automatic smile. But the Jays need to make decisions based on players’ expected contributions in the future, not what they have done in the past (see Bautista, Jose). In my view, there are options which better fit the Jays’ needs that Cutch (see Fowler, Dexter) – but if those options prove unavailable, Cutch could (at the right price) be a very attractive fallback option.