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From All-Star to adieu: Why Pirates would trade Andrew McCutchen

One of the most intriguing subplots this offseason is whether the Pittsburgh Pirates will trade five-time All-Star and 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. It’s rare for a team to trade a player who has won an MVP award for that franchise, but not unprecedented. In recent years, for example, the Minnesota Twins traded Justin Morneau and the Seattle Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki.

Those two, however, were past their prime and both teams were facing rebuilding situations. McCutchen is just 30 years old, and though he had a poor 2016, he finished fifth in the MVP balloting in 2015. The Pirates fell under .500 in 2016, but they made the playoffs the previous three seasons and certainly will have postseason aspirations for 2017.

The small-market Pirates have no room for sentimentality, however, and McCutchen is signed for 2017 at $14 million with a $14.75 million team option for 2018, a contract that certainly isn’t prohibitive to blocking a trade. Prospect Austin Meadows is close to the majors, although he could use half a season in Triple-A. As Keith Law wrote the other day, the Pirates have “at least signaled to potential buyers that they’re willing to discuss a McCutchen deal.”

The difficult thing is determining who McCutchen is at this point in his career. He hit .256/.336/.430, good for an OPS+ of 103, making him about a league-average hitter, a huge decline from a 157 OPS+ he posted from 2012 to 2015.

I wrote back in August that McCutchen’s decline for a hitter of his caliber at age 29 is historically unprecedented. Superstar hitters are superstars precisely because they don’t collapse at such a relatively young age.

Was he injured? He did have a thumb injury in June, leaving a game on June 22 in the sixth inning after it flared. At the time, he downplayed it and said, “It’s something I’ve been dealing with for a while,” although he had been using a thumb guard and icing “the heck out of it.”

He had his worst month of the season in June, hitting .202/.255/.322, but still failed to hit .300 in any other month. His average exit velocity essentially hovered just above league average throughout the season, with no obvious “he got injured here” data point.

Less murky is his play in center field, which deteriorated significantly in 2016. He was credited with minus-28 defensive runs saved, the worst total of any player at any position. Given that McCutchen’s defensive metrics have been below average for several seasons, it’s impossible to sugarcoat these numbers. He’s no longer a center fielder, and even if the Pirates keep him, he’s likely destined for left field with Starling Marte moving over to center.

With that in mind, any team looking to acquire McCutchen will certainly view him as a corner outfielder who can play center in a pinch. Here are the 10 teams with the worst wOBA production from their corner positions in 2016: Mets, Padres, Astros, A’s, Braves, Dodgers, Royals, Yankees, Angels and Phillies. That’s a starting point for potential trade partners. Here’s a list of teams that were the worst against left-handed pitching: Astros, Marlins, Yankees, Giants, Reds, A’s, Orioles, Braves, Phillies and Dodgers.

There are six teams on both lists: Astros, A’s, Yankees, Braves, Dodgers and Phillies.

I think we can rule out the A’s for obvious reasons, and the Braves are locked in with Matt Kemp and Nick Markakis in the corners. The Yankees could certainly use better lineup balance, and they have Aaron Judge ready for a chance in right field. Conceivably, they could look to trade Brett Gardner and then acquire McCutchen to play left, but it seems like they want to get younger with any moves they make.

The Phillies certainly need outfield help and have plenty of room on the payroll, but they’re still transitioning from rebuilder to contender and are more likely to spend their money in free agency in a year or two.

The Astros and Dodgers, however, are possible fits. The Astros did claim Norichika Aoki on waivers from the Mariners, so they might already have him penciled in for left field. Plus, while the Astros didn’t hit lefties that well, their lineup already leans right-handed.

The Dodgers certainly need a right-handed bat. They could slide Howie Kendrick back to second base to replace Chase Utley and trade for McCutchen to play left field. This analysis also suggests that Dodgers have more money to spend this offseason than any other team, so picking up McCutchen’s salary wouldn’t be a problem.

The Giants are another possibility. Angel Pagan is a free agent, they need a left fielder and they struggled against lefties. Their farm system isn’t highly rated, and the Pirates might ask for infielder Christian Arroyo.

Two teams that didn’t show up on either list above are the Mariners and Blue Jays. The Mariners need a left fielder after cutting Aoki (and Franklin Gutierrez is a free agent) and their lineup leans left-handed, aside from Nelson Cruz. Their outfield defense wasn’t good in 2016, however, so they’d be betting on McCutchen being OK as a left fielder. In need of starting pitchers, the Pirates would want Taijuan Walker or James Paxton. Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders are both free agents, opening up two outfield slots in Toronto if they don’t re-sign those guys. The Jays and Pirates made a deal for Francisco Liriano, so these front offices have swung trades before.

What will the Pirates end up doing? We don’t know what they know about McCutchen’s health, but my guess is they’d rather trade him a year too early rather than a year too late. It won’t be an easy thing to do, of course. He’s a fan favorite and one of the best ambassadors for the game on any team. This, however, is what small-market teams have to do: They churn talent and have to turn veterans into usable younger players. I think McCutchen will get traded (and I’ll bet on the Dodgers).