The Pirates and Nationals connected on a notable July trade that sent Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh to D.C. in exchange for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn, but Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that a second blockbuster between the two sides was also discussed at length. Pittsburgh and Washington talked about a potential trade that would’ve sent Andrew McCutchen to the Nationals according to Rosenthal, though the deal apparently crumbled because there were too many moving parts at play. He adds that top prospect Victor Robles was one Pirates target in the deal.
It’s unlikely that the talks are picked back up due to the fact that there’s a gap between how the Pirates view McCutchen and how the Nats view him, Rosenthal continues, though serious trade discussions involving the 2013 NL MVP do at least indicate that the Bucs could be open to moving him this winter.
McCutchen turned in what was far and away the worst season of his career in 2016, taking notable steps backwards in terms of his offense, defense and baserunning. The 30-year-old’s .256/.336/.430 batting line still checked in a bit above the league average, per park-adjusted metrics like wRC+ and OPS+, but McCutchen had batted at least .292 with an OBP of at least .400 in each of the four prior seasons. Meanwhile, he stole a career-low six bases and was caught seven times. And in center field, the once premium defender turned in awful Defensive Runs Saved (-28) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-18.7) marks, though Rosenthal hears that the Pirates believe his poor ratings are due to the fact that McCutchen was positioned too shallow for much of the season (a problem that Dexter Fowler recently cited when discussing his own defensive improvements).
It’s not entirely clear if the Pirates will look to move McCutchen this winter or if they’ll just opportunistically listen to offers, though the team does have a near-MLB-ready replacement in the form of top prospect Austin Meadows. But even if they don’t, ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that his defensive shortcomings in 2016 could spell the end of his time in center field (Twitter link). Per Olney, the Bucs are considering a new outfield alignment that would feature Gregory Polanco in left field, Starling Marte in center field and McCutchen in right field.
If the Pirates do look to move McCutchen, though, there are undoubtedly a number of teams that would line up to take a chance on him returning to his previous heights. He’s owed a reasonable $14MM next year and also has a $14.5MM club option on his contract, which comes with a $1MM buyout. Even on the heels of a down season for McCutchen, the opportunity to acquire someone of his ceiling and owe him just a $15MM guarantee over one year (with a reasonably priced option for a second season) is intriguing for any club in need of outfield help. However, the challenge, as is the case when inquiring on any star-level player coming off a down season, will be agreeing on a price point. The Pirates almost certainly would value McCutchen at a very high level, but interested parties may be reluctant to pay a premium price for a 30-year-old that could be entering into a decline phase.
That disparity is highlighted by the package reported by Rosenthal; Robles currently ranks as the No. 10 prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com, but Rosenthal notes that the Pirates weren’t keen on trading McCutchen for only one outfield prospect that has yet to play above Class-A. That’s certainly understandable, as it’s not uncommon at all for toolsy young outfielders to flame out, and being left with nothing to show for trading the face of the franchise would be a disastrous outcome.