The Pirates plan to actively shop center fielder Andrew McCutchen and may trade him before next season when his earnings jump to $14.2 million.
It makes sense.
McCutchen is 29. He had career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He is declining in the field and on the base paths.
McCutchen has a year left on his deal, plus a $14.5 million club option for 2018. That’s decent contract control. McCutchen has only had one bad season, so the Pirates would get solid return in a trade. They would likely get prospects and a legit big-leaguer while opening up payroll space within the context of their budget.
But fans shouldn’t want the Pirates to trade McCutchen.
The Pirates wouldn’t take money saved by swapping McCutchen and re-invest it in payroll. Ownership would keep it, and cut spending. Attendance went down by a quarter-million this year. That’s just the excuse the Pirates need.
Starling Marte moves to center field. Josh Bell is a full-time outfielder once again. John Jaso and David Freese platoon at first base.
But, despite obvious financial gain, the Pirates shouldn’t swap McCutchen.
Pirates ticket-buyers may finally be figuring out the club’s priorities, as evidenced by the aforementioned drop in customers.
A quarter-mil is a cataclysmic decline given that the Pirates earned a postseason spot each of the last three seasons and were mathematically in the wild-card hunt until very late in September. During this season’s latter stages, turnstile count at PNC Park appeared to be lagging well behind tickets sold.
The Pirates’ first priority is maximizing profit. If winning helps do that, it’s a happy accident, and the organization does try to compete -- while never exceeding a self-imposed budget that seems too low given that owner Bob Nutting is a billionaire.
For the Pirates, one key to maximizing profit is maintaining the ruse that competing is a first concern and that winning isn’t far away.
That illusion is starting to dissipate.
J.A. Happ, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano all left within eight months. All five were key components of a team that won 98 games last year, but just 78 this year. Every single one is on a playoff team. Their departures brought back zilch in terms of talent that could significantly help upon arrival. The players that replaced them were lesser.
Going from 98 victories to 78 is something that just shouldn’t happen. The primary reason it did was because the organization allowed it.
Pirates fans are dumb, but maybe not that dumb. Perhaps they’re finally allowing themselves to peek behind the curtain.
Even if a good deal is made to send McCutchen packing, fans would see it as the Pirates trading their best player to avoid paying him what would be the biggest wage in club history. A salary dump.
Cutch is popular. A legit star. Trading McCutchen would be a bad PR move, especially by a team that sells tickets based largely on shrewd marketing and media manipulation.
McCutchen isn’t yet 30. He’s only had one poor season. What McCutchen earns is what players of his caliber get. If he has another lousy season, his trade value drops. But it’s not reasonable to expect another bad performance unless something has gone wrong that he can’t fix. Is there any evidence to suggest that?
If the Pirates ditch McCutchen, they’re acknowledging that a window has closed, while hoping you don’t notice that they slammed it shut.
Forget the fans. What about the clubhouse?
The Pirates played uninspired, sloppy, inconsistent baseball down the stretch. If the players felt the organization quit on the season by swapping Melancon and Liriano at the trade deadline, that wouldn’t be surprising.
Melancon was closing as well as ever. Liriano was struggling, but teammates hadn’t lost faith. Neither departure was likely received well.
There is no real upside to trading McCutchen. We’ll learn that when it happens.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).