What can Andrew McCutchen do this season?
A .274 average, 19 homers, 65 RBIs, 100 runs, 28 steals.
That's what we project for Andrew McCutchen in 2010, and honestly, I think it's very accurate. Well, I suppose the runs and steals could be a tad high, but it's at least reasonable to expect that from the 2009 call-up.
But here's the real question: Is that ninth-round material in a 10-team league? I mean, he obviously hasn't yet had the season we've projected above; we're just speculating he will. With that in mind, is he worth being taken over Michael Young (fresh off a .322 season), Johnny Damon (.282, 24 homers, 82 RBIs, 107 runs, 12 steals in 2009) and Hunter Pence (.282-25-72-76-14 in '09)?
McCutchen is being taken, on average, 87th in ESPN average live drafts, ahead of the other three players above. Maybe it's just me, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable taking the player who has had the season we're projecting above, rather than the guy who might have it.
That's my problem with McCutchen. I like the player and his 25-homer, 25-steal potential (and yes, potential is all it is right now), but in the drafts I've been in, he's being taken when he's barely a blip on my radar screen, at least a full round before I'd even consider him. In fact, I'm shocked he's being taken as late as 87th in ESPN standard leagues; in the leagues in which I've already drafted, he was taken among the top 75. I'll bet that has happened -- or will -- in many of your leagues, too. Point being, if you really want him, you'll likely have to take him by at least early in the ninth round.
OK, so let's go back to that projection. Hmm sounds a little like, well, like a typical Alex Rios season. Rios had a down season in 2009, but the three previous years he was a top fantasy outfielder, going for a .291 average, 15 homers and 32 steals in 2008. We have him projected for .276-22-79-23 in 2010. Oh, and he's only 29, far from over the hill. Well, he's being taken, on average, with the 116th pick, three rounds later.
Or there's Nate McLouth. In 2008, he had an even better season compared to what we're projecting for McCutchen (.296-26-94 with 113 runs and 23 steals). He missed time last year because of a hamstring, playing only 129 games between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and he still finished with 20 homers and 19 steals. We have McLouth projected at .266-22-72, with 95 runs and 22 steals. He's being taken, on average, with the 114th pick in ESPN standard leagues.
You see what I'm saying here? There are scores of reliable players being taken after a player who tailed off greatly -- .268 average, three steals, one homer in 112 at-bats in September -- once the book got out on him. Lance Berkman is being taken after McCutchen. Raul Ibanez. Jason Bartlett. Denard Span. Michael Bourn. If you throw in pitchers, you have Ricky Nolasco, Matt Cain and Cole Hamels.
I'm just not seeing it. Is it fair to like McCutchen this much to pick him over proven top players? I mean, I know he's young and has come on strong in the past few years, but he's a career .286 hitter in the minors, with 43 homers in nearly 2,000 at-bats. Oh, and in case you think he's headed for a 40- to 50-steal season, here are his steals by year as a pro: 17 in 2005, 23, 22, 21, 34 and 32 last season. That's not the track record many 40-steal major leaguers have.
But what about his brilliance after being called up in 2009? Hey, no arguments there; the kid was a lot better than any of us could have expected. But it's not like it wasn't anything we haven't seen before. He didn't even win the NL Rookie of the Year award, though he played four full months in the majors; he lost out to fellow outfielder Chris Coghlan. McCutchen's 2009 also isn't a true precursor to a top-100 season. He got 433 at-bats in 2009. If we take his production out to the 602 at-bats we project him to get this season, we're looking at .286-17-75, with 103 runs and 31 steals. Good numbers, but not extraordinary, surefire top-100 numbers. Not enough that I'd take him over Young or Pence.
McCutchen is an impressive player, with great all-around ability both offensively and defensively. He's just too young to expect big numbers from right now. In August I saw a player who was being challenged by opposing pitchers, and he showed he can hit the fastball. One month later, I saw a player who was getting a steady diet of breaking balls. (He struggles to hit the breaking stuff; in 2009, he hit just .147 against righty curveballs and .077 against lefty curves.) To his credit, he was smart enough to wait out the breaking stuff and draw walks, but he also struck out once per every four at-bats in September. He's a good enough hitter to someday make the adjustment and learn to hit the hook, but for now he's still an incomplete hitter, not one you bank on for a big
And it's not like his team is going to help him much. In two of the five roto categories, runs and RBIs, a hitter's team plays a big part in his production. And the Pittsburgh Pirates were dead last in runs scored in 2009. They scored 111 runs fewer than even the league average, and it's not like they've loaded up on hitters for 2010. Remember a few years ago when we would downgrade Jason Bay because of the team he played on? Why would we not do the same thing here? Certainly McCutchen has 100-run ability, but we can't really expect that many from him when his team scored only 636 runs all last season.
If you're the type of owner who likes to roll the dice and take chances on young players, pick McCutchen right around the spot he's being drafted now. Be my guest. But while you're taking him and hoping he produces the numbers above (or slightly better), I'll be taking hitters who have proved they already can, or in some cases just did.
McCutchen will be in that "already-proven" class someday, probably in the next 2-3 years. Of course, by then we'll probably be writing about some other hot second-year "phenom" who just had a better-than-expected rookie season.
Brendan Roberts is a fantasy editor and Fantasy Sports Writers Association award-winning contributor to ESPN.com.