There’s more than one way to flex your financial muscle in the game of baseball. Shouldering out lesser bidders and landing the top free agents available in November is the standard by which most fans measure their team’s fiscal heft. However, as the Toronto Blue Jays deftly displayed at the non-waiver trade deadline last summer, absorbing expensive contracts from teams moving in another direction is another, equally-excellent way of acquiring talent. For those who may have forgotten, just before the 4 pm cut-off on August 1st, the Blue Jays swung a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, surrendering Triple-A right hander Drew Hutchison for left handed starter Francisco Liriano and two top-ten organizational prospects, with the “catch”, if you’d define it as such, being that Toronto would take on the entirety of the $18 million still owed to Liriano between 2016 and 2017.
I can’t think of a single writer or baseball analyst who didn’t absolutely love the move for Toronto at the time, and the results were as sound as the process. Not only did Liriano allow the Blue Jays to move to a six man rotation to space out Aaron Sanchez’ appearances and give Marco Estrada’s ailing back some extended rest, but he channeled his 2013-2015 Pirates’ self on the mound and gave strong start after strong start down the stretch when the club needed him the most. The two prospects that arrived with Liriano – catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez – rank as the fourth and fifth best in the Blue Jays’ system according to MLB.com, but they’re the icing on an already delicious cake. Taking on the full Liriano contract in order to minimize the talent necessary to be relinquished was arguably General Manager Ross Atkins’ niftiest move yet.
Regardless of how the discussions with Jose Bautista unfold, his defensive performance this postseason made it abundantly clear to all potential suitors that he should no longer be realistically considered an outfielder, and negotiations should be handled with sights firmly set on a designated hitter role. When coupled with Michael Saunders’ impending free agency, Toronto suddenly has a pair of potential openings in the outfield corners, at least one of which could be filled by another of Russell Martin’s former Pittsburgh teammates: Andrew McCutchen.
That’s a flashy introduction, but the justification behind McCutchen’s (prospective) availability is that last season he looked little like the five-time All Star the baseball world has come to know and love. He’s become an expensive luxury for the penny-pinching Pirates. The outfielder turned in career worst walk and strikeout rates as well as his lowest ISO since 2010, leading to an uninspiring .256/.336/.430 slash line. Even still, it was the athletic domains, fielding and base-running, where statistically he appeared to be most a shell of his former self. McCutchen’s -28 DRS were easily the worst among qualified outfielders in 2016. He was also firmly in the “poor” range in base running according to the metrics, which evaluates a runner based on the sum of their ability to advance the extra base, avoid double plays, and steal bases, all relative to league average.
The Pirates would almost certainly love to keep McCutchen; he’s the face of their franchise, and was the standard bearer as the organization finally advanced to three consecutive postseasons in 2013, 2014, and 2015. But, if any organization has the in-house means to replace a former MVP in the outfield, it’s them. Between 28 year old Starling Marte and 25 year old Gregory Polanco, who are locked up for five and seven more years respectively, the club is already rich in outfield talent at the Major League level. Backing up the pair is a ready-made replacement in Austin Meadows, who ranked as Baseball Prospectus’ 22nd best prospect in baseball prior to 2016. He should be ready come the passing of the Super 2 deadline.
Last season Andrew McCutchen turned in a career worst batting line, played the worst centerfield defense in baseball, ran the bases like a 240-pound first baseman, and is still owed at least $14.5 million. If you’re questioning why on earth the Blue Jays should be interested in ‘Cutch, your skepticism is justified, however there are reasons to be optimistic for improvement in each of the three facets he struggled so mightily with.
What was said about his career-worst walk and strikeout rates and his lowest ISO since 2010 remains absolutely true, but mid-20’s, prime Andrew McCutchen set an awfully high, Hall-of-Fame level bar, and expecting the early 30’s model to maintain that extraordinary standard would be unfair. His 10.2 percent walk rate was still a full two points better than league average, while his 21.2 percent strikeout rate was league average. McCutchen’s .174 ISO in 2016 represented a 22 point decline relative to 2015 and a 54 point decline relative to 2014, but interestingly, both his flyball and home run per flyball rates remained consistent across the three years.
Using the Statcast Leaderboard over at Baseball Savant, we can see that McCutchen did lose a little on his exit velocity. His average flyball or line drive was a scorching 95.2 miles per hour in 2015, but fell to a still-above-league-average 94.1 last season. Similarly, his barrel rate (defined as the percentage of balls with an expected batting average/slugging of .500/.1500 based on exit velocity and launch angle) also fell, from 10.6 percent of all batted ball events in 2015 to 8.8 percent in 2016. Unfortunately there is no data available prior to the 2015 season so we can’t observe much in terms of career trends or patterns, but one would think it would take more than a decline of 1 mph in exit velocity to result in a 15 percent drop in extra base hits.
Perhaps the primary culprit for McCutchen’s substandard offensive season, particularly in the power department, was a thumb injury suffered in late May that was further aggravated in a game against Miami on June 2nd. McCutchen avoided the disabled list, but his performance on the field suffered greatly. Over 26 games in June he hit an abysmal .202/.255/.323, and as we saw first-hand with Josh Donaldson late this season, a jammed thumb can nag for quite some time as it’s so easily aggravated. With the Pirates’ season firmly in the toilet, McCutchen finally got the physical and mental blow he desperately needed, even if it was one he didn’t especially want. After wrapping up a series against the Brewers on July 31st, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave his star the entire next series against the Braves off, refusing to consider even a pinch-hit opportunity. From his August 5th return through the closure of the season, McCutchen hit a robust .284/.381/.471, and the supporting numbers are even more glowing. The centerfielder posted walk and strikeout rates of 13.9 and 14.8 percent, respectively, with a .188 ISO, 40.2 percent hard-hit rate, and 8.7 percent whiff rate; all of which were topped off by a 13-game hit streak in mid-September. While you can’t simply wipe out four months of struggles, the August/September version of Andrew McCutchen bears a much better resemblance to what one should expect offensively in the center fielder’s short-term future.
Just to reiterate last season’s putridity: -28 DRS. There should be a significant asterisk on those figures, however, as a lot of what happened was the consequence of the Pittsburgh coaching staff aligning their outfield differently in 2016 in hopes of better serving their pitching staff.
In 2015, when McCutchen posted bad-but-not-horrendous defensive numbers (-8 DRS), he was positioned an average of 316 feet from home plate; the fifth deepest among 36 centerfielders on the field for at least 1,000 batted balls. When reviewing the 2015 season over the winter, the Pirates analytics staff discovered that because of their outfield depth and their groundball-heavy pitching staff, they were surrendering too many easy extra bases, be it first-to-third or second-to-home, and too many bloops between the infielders and outfielders. As Clint Hurdle said to Adam Berry of MLB.com in April:
“It was glaringly apparent that we could make an adjustment on our end, especially with the athleticism we have with our outfielders, and change the dynamic of what’s gone on as far as run prevention goes.”
The justification was reasonable, as in 2015 the Pirates pitching staff allowed the second shortest average flyball/line drive distance at 285 feet, but allowed the second highest batting average on those batted balls at .482. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, two things happened in 2016. First; McCutchen lined up ten feet closer (an average of 306 feet from home plate) but the Pirates average flyball/line drive distance actually increased in 2016. Second; the overall groundball rate of the Pirates staff fell from 50.4 percent to 46.9 percent, and at the expense of those groundballs came more flyballs and line drives. In combination, this resulted in fewer weak batted balls hit in front of McCutchen, and more hard-hit towards the gaps or behind him. Flyballs and line drives are more devastating than groundballs when they find grass – and thus have the greatest influence on run-saving defensive metrics – so before McCutchen even set foot on the field last season he was already behind the 8-ball.
Defense fades as players age, absolutely, but the Pirates coaching staff was the overarching reason why McCutchen statistically looked like a 40-year old out there in 2016. The first step for any team acquiring Andrew McCutchen? Let him play deeper. The second? Shift him to an outfield corner.
The best argument to be made may be the case of Adam Eaton of the White Sox, who entered 2016 as a 27-year old coming off a season in centerfield in which he cost his team defensively with -14 DRS. The Chicago coaching staff made the decision to switch him to right field, and he rewarded them with a Gold Glove caliber, +22 DRS season. An offseason signing of Austin Jackson spurned the move for Eaton and the White Sox; with Kevin Pillar in place for the Blue Jays, a shift for McCutchen wouldn’t even be a question.
Cutch will be six months on the wrong side of 30 next April, so even with a shift to left or right field in the cards it’s unlikely he’d have a full-blown Eaton-esque renaissance. Still, playing a deeper outfield on one of Kevin Pillar’s flanks in front of a suffocating pitching staff could transform him back from historically poor liability to competent defender, which would be huge for both the Blue Jays immediate Championship aspirations and McCutchen’s future earning potential.
Andrew McCutchen is getting older and humans tend to get slower as they get older, yet his base running numbers are puzzling even with this in mind, as he seemingly runs when he shouldn’t, and stays put when he should.
Known as a five-tool prospect, McCutchen stole 20-plus bases in five consecutive seasons to open his Major League career. Over the past three that figure has dropped to 18, 11, and just six last season, which was highlighted by seven caught stealing for an atrocious success rate of 46 percent. McCutchen was never an elite base stealer; his success rate has eclipsed 80 percent just twice in eight years (2009, 2014) as he has relied more on his physical gifts than on perfectly timing the pitcher. McCutchen is clearly cognizant of his diminished speed as his overall attempt volume has decreased in each of the last four seasons, but with two first-base pickoffs and one caught stealing of third among his seven stealing outs, his ability to read pitchers hasn’t progressed quite the way you’d expect and hope for a veteran player.
Beyond just base stealing, McCutchen has gotten significantly worse at taking the extra base when a single or double is hit behind him. Baseball-Reference defines Extra Base Taken Percentage (XBT%) as the “percentage of times the runner advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, when possible”, while admittedly not accounting for batted ball type or location. Basically, this measures the ability to go first-to-third on a single and first-to-home on a double. McCutchen took the extra base just 27 percent of the time in 2016, which was down from 29 percent in 2015, 41 percent in 2014, and 64 percent (!!!) in 2013. Contextually, in any given year the league average is around 40 percent.
On November 5, 2014, the Pirates announced that Nick Leyva and Rick Sofield would be switching duties, with Leyva moving from first over to the third base coach duties, and Sofield vice-versa. Since the third base coach is responsible for making the call to advance runners, the change from Leyva to Sofield could potentially explain some of McCutchen’s recent inhibitions. Under Leyva the Pirates as a team took the extra base 41 and 40 percent of the time in 2013 and 2014, and remained consistent at 41 percent under Sofield’s direction in 2015. It wasn’t until 2016 that the team took a step back as a whole, falling to 35 percent despite a roster that most outside observers would consider quick.
That mark is actually below the 2016 Blue Jays, who managed an advancement rate of 38 percent with an offense consisting mostly of mashers in their early 30’s and a dude with one knee. While I don’t think anyone would want to see McCutchen try to take the extra base 60-plus percent of the time like he did as a 26-year old, there’s no reason for him to be that far below both the team and league average.
In summary, Andrew McCutchen was sort of bad in 2016 and the Pirates could potentially be shopping him this offseason as he approaches free agency, but there are signs that he should rebound nicely moving into 2017 and 2018. While McCutchen wouldn’t address the lopsided, right-handed nature of the lineup, the Blue Jays should absolutely be interested. He would be a perfect fit and conceivably a massive defensive upgrade in in left or right field, and while he’s been mostly a number three hitter, his .381 career on-base percentage sure would look good in the leadoff position ahead of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and (hopefully) Edwin Encarnacion and/or Jose Bautista in some configuration.
What would he cost the Blue Jays? While I couldn’t hazard a guess at the specifics, I’m confident that despite his down year and rising salary, there would be a long line of organizations dying to get their hands on the outfielder, so it would cost significantly more than Drew Hutchison, and you wouldn’t be getting prospects back, that’s for certain. The Blue Jays wouldn’t deal Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman, who are expected to be rotation stalwarts in both the short and long term futures, but would the re-tooling Pirates be interested in the final two years of J.A. Happ’s contract – a pitcher whom the organization covets but fell short on re-signing last winter? What about the under-appreciated Dalton Pompey, who is seemingly and frustratingly going nowhere in Toronto? Might they be intrigued by the young arms of Sean Reid-Foley or Conner Greene, who are pushing into the upper levels of the minor leagues? What about Rowdy Tellez to offer a power jolt in place of John Jaso in the very near future?
All of that is without mentioning Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Anthony Alford, the two top prospects in the system according to the recently published rankings over at Baseball America. Both of whom possess the star potential that Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins would almost certainly want to keep within the organization behind the aging offense. There are so many possible combinations of players that without a report from Jon Heyman, Ken Rosenthal, or Jeff Passan explicitly saying “The Pirates are interested in X, Y, and Z”, it’s impossible to draw something up that you could stand behind with any confidence here in the first week of November.
This new front office wants to build sustainably, and understandably for that very reason they value prospects and controllable talent. But, Andrew McCutchen would help the Toronto Blue Jays today and in the future. He could be traded again twelve months from now if things go sour in 2017, or given a qualifying offer twenty-four months from now if they don’t. You would have to give up a chunk of talent now, sure, but you would be getting Andrew freaking McCutchen to reinforce the last few great years of the careers of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin – all of whom play for the Toronto Blue Jays, by the way.
Furthermore, acquiring McCutchen would in no way preclude the organization from using their other financial resources to re-sign Encarnacion, Bautista, or even both. You would be dramatically augmenting the present by turning first round-caliber talents Sean Reid-Foley or Conner Greene (and other stuff) into a first round pick in June 2019. The youth isn’t entirely removed from the organization; it’s simply delayed by a couple of years, and during that delay, the fans will be filling the Rogers Centre as the team looks for its third and potentially fourth consecutive playoff berths.
To have a sustainable winner, the farm system must be given attention and nurtured, absolutely. But in the same vein as an organization’s financial resources, there’s more than one way to use your prospects, too. Andrew McCutchen may be the perfect opportunity to massage both into a premier asset.
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