SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants and Pirates nearly pulled off a trade in July when Bobby Evans sought a closer and zeroed in on Mark Melancon. Ultimately, Pirates GM Neil Huntington shipped Melancon to Washington D.C., but the two teams could be connected again as the winter meetings approach.
Pittsburgh’s star outfielder, Andrew McCutchen, is reportedly available — very available. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Huntington and the Pirates are calling potential suitors, with the Nationals, Rangers and Mariners listed as teams that have discussed a McCutchen deal.
At first glance, it’s remarkable that this point has even been reached. This is nearly the equivalent of the Giants putting Buster Posey on the market. McCutchen, drafted 11th overall in 2005, has spent the better part of a decade as the face of a franchise that has gone from the cellar to perennial contention. He’s a a five-time All-Star and won the National League’s MVP award in 2014.
McCutchen has helped revitalize the Pirates, but they’re still the Pirates, and they’re still constrained by a strict budget. Pittsburgh has two outfield building blocks in Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, with prospect Austin Meadows on the way. They reportedly are set on moving McCutchen.
It’s not a question of if Evans will end up on the other end of one of those phone calls. The Giants always do their due diligence, and they could use help in the outfield. The question is should the Giants seriously pursue McCutchen, and if they do, can they actually get him? Here are the pros and cons …
Pro: I mean, he’s Andrew McCutchen. Even with a “down year” in 2016, he leads all NL players in WAR (28.6 per FanGraphs) over the past five seasons. He’s a .292 career hitter with a .381 on-base percentage and six consecutive 20-homer seasons. McCutchen’s OPS dropped more than 100 points last season, but he still hit 24 homers, seven more than any Giant. In theory, McCutchen would add a very dangerous right-handed bat to a team that’s ready to win now.
Con: Is he still THAT version of Andrew McCutchen? The drop off in 2016 was steep in certain respects. McCutchen’s .336 OBP was a career-low by nearly 30 points. His slugging percentage has dipped more than 100 points over the past two seasons. He stole just six bases in 13 attempts. Most concerning: McCutchen’s fielding metrics fell off a cliff. The former Gold Glove winner was worth negative 28 defensive runs saved per FanGraphs. By comparison, Angel Pagan posted a negative 20 in 2015 and got moved to left. The Giants could acquire McCutchen to play left, but it’s unclear how he would react to switching positions given that every defensive inning of his career has been spent in center. Was 2016 a fluke or the beginning of a slide?
Pro: Let’s say he is amendable to moving … McCutchen would balance a lineup that leans to the left, and there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be an above average defender in left field. He has one guaranteed year left on his deal at a very affordable $14 million, with a $14.5 million club option for 2018. The front office could basically sit back for two years, as every starting position player but Eduardo Nunez would be under team control through the 2018 season.
Con: The fit is an imperfect one in a number of ways. Let’s start with what it would take to actually get McCutchen. The Giants didn't offer enough to get Melancon, and a McCutchen deal would surely center around top prospects Christian Arroyo or Tyler Beede, plus other players. Joe Panik’s name might come up, too. The Pirates are reportedly asking the Nationals for minor league outfielder Victor Robles, who is a better prospect than any player the Giants have. So any potential deal would clean out a system that’s thin after trades for Nunez, Will Smith and Matt Moore.
The financial cost is not insignificant. The Giants don’t have that much wiggle room in their budget, and a new closer will be expensive. Add a $14 million hitter and you’re looking at about $45 million for an outfield made up of three players on the wrong side of 30. For months, the Giants have signaled that they’re more comfortable giving the open playing time to young players like Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker, who would be hopelessly blocked by a trade for McCutchen.
Conclusion: If a trade does happen, it will be a crushing blow to Pirates fans. To save some face, the organization will need to get an elite player or two in return, and as always in these situations, other teams have much more to offer than the Giants. Robles, for instance, was the No. 33 prospect in the minors last season, per Baseball America.
Even if the Giants are interested, they won’t win a bidding war. But they don’t have to. The focus has been on fixing the ninth inning, not left field, and the guess here is that it remains that way.