The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t finished over .500 in 18 years. The 1992 season was the year the Pirates won 96 games. Andy Van Slyke, their center fielder, won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and was in the All Star game. Zoom ahead 18 seasons and the Pirates have another special center fielder: Andrew McCutchen.
Like Van Slyke, McCutchen hopes he too can be a five-time Gold Glover and three-time All-Star. What is unknown is whether it will be with the Pirates. Will he be traded or leave through free agency like so many other former great Pirates, such as Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla?
The Pirates’ payroll for 2011 is close to $42 million, or $6 million less than they spent on their big-league players in 2008 and 2009. They have very little long-term exposure on the books: $10.25 million committed in 2012, and nothing committed in 2013 and beyond. In analyzing their roster, it is clear the top priority should be signing McCutchen to a long-term contract. The financial spreadsheet is clear, and the baseball evaluations generate few questions.
Behind the scenes, Neil Huntington, the Pirates’ VP and GM, and president Frank Coonelly, have been in negotiation with representatives for McCutchen for quite some time. McCutchen has told me on multiple occasions that he wants to stay with the Pirates. He’d like to sign a long-term deal with the Pirates and he has his agent grinding it out with the Pirates’ brass.
This past spring, Huntington told me that he would like to sign McCutchen if the numbers and years are right. As Clint Hurdle told me last Friday, the public doesn’t know how hard Huntington has been working on a multi-year contract for McCutchen.
For the Pirates to make this type of commitment, five years with a club option should be the minimum requirement. The advantage for the club in signing a player to a long-term deal is getting a discount on dollars, but more importantly getting the players' free-agent years. The player gets financial security. The fifth year gets the Pirates the first free-agent year and a club option gets the second free-agent year. A substantial buyout would have to be included for the player’s benefit if the club option isn’t picked up.
Let’s go into the reasons why it will benefit the Pirates to sign him to a long contract now:
The Stock Market Theory: His numbers are down. He hasn’t had his breakout year yet. He has not won a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger -- yet. Last year, Carlos Gonzalez had his breakout year, but it was too late for the Colorado Rockies at the end of the season to get Gonzalez signed at a good rate. The Los Angeles Dodgers will be kicking themselves for not signing Matt Kemp to a longer deal, and the Arizona Diamondback are pleased that Justin Upton is already tied up.
The Pirates can sign McCutchen before his breakout year and get him for a lot less than they could get him a year from now. McCutchen isn’t going to get in the range of a Kemp or Gonzalez, but if the Pirates wait, who knows what this market will do. Things can change with an improved economy, a new CBA and an increase in industry revenues.
Exposure: The club has very little long-term exposure on the books and not a lot of arbitration-eligible players. The team can afford to sign McCutchen and fit him in their budget, which should be close to $48 million in 2012, with the potential of growing to at least the $55 million to $58 million range by the year 2016.
Fans: This would be a wise public relations move. When a front office scouts, signs and develops players, and those players succeed, they are going to keep them. Doing this would send a loud message to the Pirates’ fan base.
Players: It would be incentive for Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker to produce, because it they do, the message is that you’ll get paid and rewarded with financial security.
Leadership: McCutchen represents the Pirates well in terms of his makeup, character and leadership. He is a great, quiet influence on the younger players in the Pirates’ system and can be a leader and face of the franchise for years to come.
Here is my assessment of McCutchen, using the scouting grades that run on a scale from 20-80:
Andrew McCutchen, 1st Round Pick, 11th overall 2005
Offense: McCutchen has above-average bat speed and plate recognition. He has a direct path to the ball and gets started with his trigger on time. He has explosive, quick wrists with strong forearms. His compact swing allows him to hit line drives to all fields. Stays back on the ball well; power will develop in time because it’s there in batting practice. He could become a 25-homer hitter. He has blazing speed and can steal bases, but is a below-average base runner; his stolen base rates have to improve. He does not always get good jumps on the bases and hasn’t figured out how to read pitchers and what counts and pitches to run on yet; eventually, he will be able to steal 45-50 bases. Has ability to hit in the Nos. 1, 2, or 3 slots in the lineup, with potential to someday score 100, drive in 100, hit 25 and steal 45 with an OPS in the. 860 range.
Defense: He has the potential to be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. He has great range, but still needs to improve his consistency with angles and reads off the bat. However, because of his above-average instincts and makeup, he should become a Gold Glove center fielder who has the ability to take away significant runs from opponents in the gaps. I love his energy and presence on the diamond.
Summary: He’s a five-tool athlete with the potential to be special, and he has the ability to make adjustments. He possesses All Star and Gold Glove potential with great leadership qualities and an excellent makeup. The Pirates should try to sign him to a long-term, five- to seven-year contract with the intent of buying him out of at least two years of free agency.
McCutchen is a future All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger as a center fielder. I look forward to the Pirates’ news conference announcing a long-term deal with him. It will be good for baseball, the Pirates and the McCutchen family.
Thanks for reading and as always I appreciate your comments and feedback. Follow me on Twitter @JimBowdenESPNxm and feel free to send me ideas for future blog posts.