In the final inning of the 2016 baseball season, Matt Holliday replaced Brandon Moss on the Cardinals' lineup card and jogged out to left field alone. His teammates stayed in the dugout, clapping for him and leaving the whole wide field to collect the applause of 44,615 St. Louis fans (and at least one on-field municipal cop). A little girl held a sign with a crying emoji on it. Holliday reached his position and raised his arms in acknowledgment; he looked a bit teary, and he waved to his teammates to join him on the field. As they did, he ran back to the dugout, replaced by Tommy Pham. Holliday's career as a Cardinal was over. "It'd be hard to come up with a better script," he said.
Meanwhile, the final out of that inning came on a hard grounder to the pitcher, hit by Andrew McCutchen, baseball's perfect franchise player. His career as a Pirate was, it seems likely, over. But on the Pirates' broadcast, nobody said a word about it. McCutchen took eight steps toward first base, then turned around, the camera following him for an extra second before cutting away.
"I was generally conscious of the thought that they might try to trade him this winter," says Pat Lackey, an excellent Pirates blogger. "But hadn't given it a ton of thought as HIS LAST AT-BAT."
The reason for McCutchen's muted sendoff is, perversely, this: When the Pirates were at one of their lowest points as an organization, McCutchen committed to the franchise. He agreed to a contract extension that would keep him in Pittsburgh well into, even past, his prime. This extension would ensure that if he continued to play well, he would eventually be paid well below his market value. In doing so, he increased the likelihood that the decision to leave Pittsburgh would not be his, that his next destination would not be chosen by him, and that when the day came, it would be too late for his fans to stand and cheer for him.
As the Pirates appear prepared to trade McCutchen, a strange irony of the decade's extension boom has developed: Players like McCutchen, who sign long contracts before they ever hit free agency, are turning themselves into assets too good not to trade. Consider the biggest names around this year's Hot Stove: McCutchen, two years away from free agency; Chris Sale, the erstwhile White Sox ace who was three years away from the open market when the White Sox traded him to Boston this week; and Chris Archer, the Tampa Bay starting pitcher who is under his team's control for five more years.
All three signed extensions early in their careers, before they were even eligible to collect their first million-dollar salaries under the arbitration system. They weren't alone. Since the early 1990s, when Cleveland's John Hart pioneered the practice of locking up his pre-arbitration stars, teams and players have sometimes found it in their mutual interests to sign long deals before it was necessary. Players got a guarantee that, no matter what happened, they wouldn't have to work construction if they blew out their knee the next day. Teams got cost certainty, possible star performance covered under years of below-market salaries and club-friendly options. An idealist might even accuse both parties of demonstrating loyalty.
But if fans hoped these extensions meant continuity, they were mistaken. In the years since early extensions really took off this decade, they have become just another asset for teams to swap.
From the start of January 2010 through the end of December 2014, there were 67 players who signed an extension meeting these qualifications:
Signed when the player was at least two years from hitting free agency;
Covered at least four years, including team options;
And bought out at least one year of the player's free agency.
Of those 67 contracts, 29 -- including Sale's -- have since been traded. Only three of those could be considered salary dumps, and only one of the 29 players was traded with less than one season remaining on the contract. If McCutchen and Archer are traded, or if the Royals move Alcides Escobar this month, nearly half of these contracts will be set to expire in another city. And many of these extensions are still in effect, in some cases for many years, so plenty more will likely be traded in offseasons to come.
A top prospect seemed to be the most sought-after piece on the trade market, but now, the most desirable return is an established major leaguer under years of cost control. When the Braves tore down their major league roster to rebuild, they didn't cash in expensive veterans; they cashed in Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel, young stars who had signed extensions that would keep them under their next club's control for an extra season. Or, in Kimbrel's case, a young star who might be traded again and again, a sort of perpetual rebuilding machine. (See also: newly available Royals reliever Wade Davis, originally extended by the Tampa Bay Rays.)
This winter marks 40 years since players gained free agency. Since then, star players have been accused of disloyalty, of being mercenaries, of ruining the illusion that baseball means as much to the athlete as it does to the fan. "To play baseball now," a New York Times columnist once wrote, "you've got to have the shop steward in you, not the little boy."
But if baseball is a business, don't forget which side is literally a business. There's nothing villainous about it, and there are very good reasons for the Pirates to trade McCutchen. He's a player who is crowded out by a cost-controlled trio of excellent young outfielders in Pittsburgh, a player who has more on-field value to almost every other major league team than the Pirates, a player who is expensive enough (more than $14 million per year) for it to matter in a small market and a player whose signs of decline might render that contract immovable after one more bad season.
The Pirates are doing the right thing for their franchise. But the right thing robbed Andrew McCutchen of his memorable final plate appearance with the club. That sucks, among other things about this situation.
A few days before the 2005 draft, the Pirates invited McCutchen to PNC Park for a workout. The undersized outfielder had hit as many home runs (16) in his senior year of high school as he'd made outs. He wrote poetry, was the son of a youth pastor and drew raves from his coaches (and even a private investigator) for his character. His stock was soaring. Baseball America rated him the 11th-best draft prospect in the country. The Pirates picked 11th in that year's draft, and for months, they'd been paying him special attention. McCutchen hit two balls out that day in PNC Park, but he admitted he had no idea whether he had impressed his observers.
"The Pirates have shown me a lot of interest, probably more than anybody else," McCutchen told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the time. "I feel really good about the organization. When I was down there during spring training, the coaches and everyone made me feel very comfortable."
The Pirates picked him. He bought a Cadillac Escalade with his signing bonus. Scouting director Ed Creech compared him to Marquis Grissom. General manager Dave Littlefield said he didn't expect him to be a power hitter. McCutchen was an 18-year-old who might do anything, or nothing, for the franchise and with his career.
There was a clause in his first contract that the Pirates would invite him to major league camp in the 2007 spring training session, but McCutchen hit so well in his first professional summer that they accelerated the schedule. At 19, and with 210 career professional at-bats, he was brought to the main camp in 2006. "It's a learning experience for me," he said. "One of these days, I'm going to be somebody they're counting on to help them in Pittsburgh." He lined a single in his first intrasquad game, then singled in his first Grapefruit League at-bat.
The next winter, Baseball America rated him the 13th-best prospect in the minors, and the Pirates had a player they could build around. They'd been trying to "build around" players for years, but with historical ineptitude. By the start of 2009, they had finished under .500 in 17 consecutive seasons. They were four games under .500 on June 4, after a loss to the Mets in front of just 10,459 paying customers. That night, the Pirates decided the players they were building around at that moment -- center fielder Nate McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit and pitcher Paul Maholm -- just weren't that good. They traded McLouth. The clubhouse grumbled. Local newspapers editorialized. Fans drove 75 miles and demonstrated outside of PNC Park.
"This is the last game I am going to, and I am burning all of my Pirates hats," one fan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Management has been doing this for 15 years. Every time we get a new guy, we trade him."
But moving McLouth wasn't just about moving McLouth. The same day, the Pirates promoted McCutchen. He led off in his debut, stroked two hits, drew a walk, stole a base and scored three times. "Losing a guy like Nate definitely [stinks]," left fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "But we're getting a guy that can play. ... They see a great future in McCutchen."
He would play the next 53 games without a break. He would rap four hits in game no. 5. He would hit a walk-off single in game no. 20. He would slug three home runs in game no. 51.
"The exodus is over," Pirates manager John Russell said.
"I'm not going anywhere. I know that," McCutchen said.
What a joy he is to watch. How he screams after fly balls, upright and steady, as if he's being hoisted by angels. How he stares out at the pitcher from the batter's box, his hands low and lulling, his yellow gloves glowing. How those hands hold their path inside the pitched ball until the moment they explode outward, and how they carry the bat to a high, exclamatory follow-through when he really launches one. How his galloping stride around second base sends his dreadlocks into a bouncing frenzy between his shoulder blades. He is always aggressive, yet he is never undisciplined. You know at the end of every team's win, when the three outfielders join in the center of the field for a leaping, three-way body-bump? If you close your eyes and imagine that celebration, is it anybody but Andrew McCutchen in the center of it?
He didn't turn the Pirates immediately into contenders. They were under .500 in 2009, despite him, and for the three years after that. But he did give the club something credible to build around. In the 18 seasons before McCutchen's first full year in the majors, the Pirates sent players such as Ed Sprague, Mike Williams, Jack Wilson and Tony Womack to the All-Star Game. In 13 of those 18 seasons, they sent only one -- the obligatory representative that is the cellar-dweller's lone proof of existence among the rest of the sport's best. McCutchen solved that embarrassment.
He was a bona fide star, an MVP candidate for a franchise that hadn't had many of those, either. In eight of the 17 seasons from 1993 to 2009, the Pirates failed to place a single name on a single MVP ballot; twice more, they had only the last-place vote getter, a single 10th-place mention. In those 17 years, the Pirates collected 101 total MVP points. But in 2012, the club's 21st consecutive losing season, McCutchen earned 245 MVP points all by himself. It was the first of four consecutive top-five finishes.
Before that 2012 season, he signed his extension: six years, $51.5 million, with a club option at the end. "This is nothing short of a fantastic signing for the Pirates," Dave Cameron wrote for FanGraphs at the time. "The Pirates simply got a better deal than Arizona did on the [Justin Upton] extension. And, if you compare the McCutchen deal with the [Jay] Bruce contract, you simply can't get around the fact that the Pirates got a far superior player for the same price."
McCutchen was committing to a team that, remember, hadn't finished with a winning record since he was five years old. But, he said then, "The team that drafts you is the team you want to be with. I was drafted by the Pirates, and this is where I want to be. They believed in me from when I was out of high school. I wanted to play here."
Soon after, the Pirates quit losing. On Sept. 9, 2013, they clinched a winning season. McCutchen had two hits that day and downplayed the achievement: "We look at having a winning season as a stepping stone," he said. "The best thing of all is we won't have to hear about all the losing seasons anymore."
Two weeks later, they clinched a postseason spot. No player on the field that day had been with the club on the day Nate McLouth had been traded and McCutchen called up. McCutchen and his relay man threw out the potential tying run with two outs in the ninth. The crowd chanted "MVP" as he ran off the field. "Aw, I don't know about that," McCutchen said. "I just feel like a winner."
It's not our intention to portray McCutchen as an altruist who only wanted to play baseball for the good people of Pittsburgh. Of course he signed that extension because it was good for him and his family. Of course he wants to get paid a fair rate for the revenue he generates for his bosses. But there's a real danger that, in portraying free agents as mercenaries, we miss appreciating how much our favorite players seem to value the same continuity as fans. The players sign long-term contracts or ask for no-trade clauses because those things make them richer, but they also help them plant roots in an organization and a city.
As Andy Messersmith once said about his fight to usher in free agency in the 1970s: "I don't like the idea that I'll be shoveled off to Cleveland or Detroit or anything like that." A research paper in the Southern Economics Journal in 1996 studied player mobility among veteran pitchers before and after free agency. The conclusion was that pitchers changed teams less often under free agency than they had under the reserve clause. Given more control over their careers, they achieved stability.
"This is a place that I'd love to be, a place that I'd love to spend my whole career, win championships and just be here," McCutchen told the Tribune-Review in February.
"We are committed to try to find an opportunity," the Pirates owner, Bob Nutting, said the same month.
It might still happen. More than likely, McCutchen will be traded this offseason. In the days afterward, he'll take out a full-page ad in the local newspaper thanking the citizens of Pittsburgh for their love and support. In the spring, he'll return to Pittsburgh as a visitor, in another uniform, and the crowd will stand and cheer for him for a good, long time. But it won't be the same, because when he finally steps into the batter's box, they'll be rooting, for the first time, for him to fail.