Can Andrew McCutchen become a fantasy superstar, given the lack of offensive help in Pittsburgh?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a bad team. I mean, abysmally bad. Not only did they have the worst record in the National League in 2010, with 105 losses, but offensively, they were a disaster. Last in the NL in runs (587), last in batting average (.242), next-to-last in total bases, walks and on-base percentage the depressing list goes on and on, and includes that death knell to success: They're last in payroll.
In the midst of all of this gloom, there is one true glimmer of hope: Andrew McCutchen. The young outfielder appears to be on the verge of a true breakout (if you don't count last season), and our projection and ranking (No. 10 among all outfielders) for him might even be underselling his potential. The reason for concern, of course, is that while he might be ready to explode, there could be nobody else in a Pirates uniform to help light the fuse.
Last season, McCutchen tied for 60th overall in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a statistic designed to put a player's overall value to his team into a single number. According to Baseball-Reference.com, a WAR over 5.0 indicates a player is All-Star quality. A player in the 2.0-5.0 is considered a quality major league starter, while a 0-2.0 number indicates the player is better suited to a part-time role. McCutchen's WAR was a very respectable 3.3, but here's the tragic part: Neil Walker was the only other Pirate (1.5) to manage a WAR over 1.0, meaning that besides McCutchen, there was essentially a bunch of empty uniforms in the Pirates' lineup.
The cupboard is indeed bare.
OK, so maybe we're not expecting a winning season in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1992 -- the year Miley Cyrus was born, if you want to put a face to the length of Pirates fans' misery -- but that doesn't necessarily mean a superstar can't blossom in a losing environment, does it?
Let's take a stroll through the past 30 years or so, and see what we can learn from the six most similarly "fantasy challenged" teams over that time and how those squads did in the seasons directly after their embarrassing offensive showings:
2003 Tigers (Team batting average: .240; Runs: 591). They lost 119 games and started guys like Warren Morris, Eric Munson and Shane Halter. Yet Dmitri Young was still able to be a fantasy stud, hitting 29 home runs, driving in 85 runs and hitting .297 from the DH spot. The next year they traded for Carlos Guillen, signed several free agents, including Ivan Rodriguez, and the offense soared, producing a .272 batting average and 827 runs. The new guys were the offensive studs, but Young still posted a solid .272-18-60 in 104 games, after fracturing his fibula in April and missing just shy of two months.
2003 Dodgers (Team batting average: .243; Runs: 574). Because of a sensational 3.16 team ERA, this Dodgers team actually finished eight games over .500 in spite of their glaring offensive flaws. Adrian Beltre hit 23 home runs, but he hit only .240 and scored only 50 runs. The "star" of the team was Shawn Green, who had 150 runs produced and batted .280 for the year. The next season, the Dodgers moved Green from right field to first base and started a brand new outfield of Jayson Werth, Milton Bradley and Juan Encarnacion. But it was Beltre who broke out in a big way: 48 homers, 121 RBIs and a .334 batting average. The Dodgers won the NL West, hitting .262 as a team and scoring 761 runs.
1992 Giants (Team batting average: .244; Runs: 574). Will Clark was his typical solid self this season, with a .300 average, 16 home runs, 73 RBIs and even 12 steals. Still, the reason this team lost 90 probably lies in the fact its top three outfielders (Chris James, Darren Lewis and Willie McGee) combined for just seven home runs. The next season, the Giants not only won 103 games, but hit .276 and scored 808 runs. The difference? Signing free agent Barry Bonds away from the defending NL East Champion Pirates -- note the year -- who went on to win the NL MVP for the third time in four seasons.
1990 Astros (Team batting average: .242; Runs: 573). This team finished only 12 games under .500, but looking back, it's hard to see how they did even that well. The fantasy star was either Franklin Stubbs, who went .261-23-71, or perhaps you could settle on the Juan Pierre-like Eric Yelding, who had 64 of his 89 career stolen bases this year. The next season, Houston went into rebuilding mode. They unloaded payroll, including Stubbs to free agency and trading away Glenn Davis for Steve Finley, Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch. That deal allowed them to call up a young first base prospect named Jeff Bagwell, who led the team with 15 homers, 82 RBIs and a .294 average.
1988 Orioles (Team batting average: .238; Runs: 550). They started the season 0-21 on their way to 107 losses. This fairly experienced team had Cal Ripken, Larry Sheets, Jim Dwyer, Fred Lynn and offensive leader Eddie Murray, who belted 28 home runs with 84 RBIs and a .284 batting average. Lynn and Dwyer were sent packing in September, and after the horrific season, Murray was shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers. A much younger team -- only one starter over the age of 29 -- took the field in 1989, and catcher Mickey "Froot Loops" Tettleton broke out with the first of his six 20-plus home run seasons. The O's improved to a .252 batting average and scored 708 runs.
1983 Mets (Team batting average: .241; Runs: 575). These Mets were the least productive unit in a seven-year stretch of futility; only the 1981 players' strike prevented a steady string of 90-loss seasons. In June, the Mets traded for Keith Hernandez, one month after the debut of eventual Rookie of the Year, Darryl Strawberry, who hit 26 home runs, stole 19 bases and drove in 13 percent of the Mets' runs. In 1984, they made very few changes to the starting lineup, save for promoting homegrown prospects such as Wally Backman and Mike Fitzgerald. They improved to .257 with 652 runs, Strawberry continued his growth, hitting another 26 home runs, stealing 27 bases and driving in 15 percent of the Mets' runs, and the team won 90 games thanks to an emerging pitching staff.
So where do the 2010 Pirates seem to fit? They're not an underachieving group of veterans that need to be broken down and sold for parts like the 1988 Orioles or the 1990 Astros. They're not "one player away" like the 1992 Giants, and even if they were, they don't have the deep pockets to lure a big-time free agent into the fold. And they're not looking to bring in a bevy of established players to take the place of their youngsters, like the 2003 Dodgers.
The two teams they most closely resemble are the 2003 Tigers and the 1983 Mets. However, the Tigers took the position that they had gotten "too young, too fast" and tried to minimize the role of their less-experienced players. The current Pittsburgh organization seems to be copying the course of the 1983 Mets, allowing players like Jose Tabata, Walker and Pedro Alvarez to become a core upon which to build. Free-agent signee Lyle Overbay could take on the Keith Hernandez role, providing veteran stability (especially defensively) at first base.
So to bring this analogy to its ultimate conclusion, Andrew McCutchen is Darryl Strawberry. Sure, McCutchen is leading off for now, but once his power numbers start to improve, he might find himself in a more RBI-friendly spot in the lineup. Plus, he's being managed by Clint Hurdle, who was in that Mets locker room in 1983. Hurdle will be sure to do what's necessary to keep his own emerging superstar from the path that ultimately led to Strawberry's all-too-early decline and keep his eyes squarely on the prize.
Perhaps the huge leap into the realm of the elite is still a year or two away, but even in the middle of this Pirates lineup, as currently constituted, 20 home runs, 35 steals and a .300 batting average is very possible. If his development continues as expected, then a 40-40 season by 2013 might not be such a crazy idea.
For Pirates fans, though, there's no doubt that wins have to come along for the ride, and with a very ordinary looking pitching staff, even that first taste of .500 in many years might not happen anytime soon. And as we all know from the likes of Nate McLouth and Jason Bay, there's a very good chance that a few more losing seasons could mean McCutchen is wearing a different uniform when that 40-40 finally comes along.
However, for fantasy owners, there's nothing to worry about here, either today or tomorrow. Regardless of the pieces in play, this guy is clearly good enough to get the job done, even if he must fill all those empty uniforms by himself.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
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