The growing sense around the Pittsburgh Pirates is that it is no longer a matter of if they will trade Andrew McCutchen, but rather a matter of when.
The center fielder becomes a free agent at end of next season if a $14.5 million club option for 2018 isn’t exercised. Based on history, there is seemingly no way that option would be exercised as it would exceed the club record of $13 million that left-hander Francisco Liriano was paid in 2015.
The Pirates wanted to offload Liriano’s contract so badly this year that on Aug. 1 they traded him, along with two well-regarded prospects, to the Toronto Blue Jays for right-hander Drew Hutchison.
Considering McCutchen’s salary will be $14 million in 2017, a season which some in the Pirates organization privately concede will likely be a second straight without a postseason berth, and it seems certain that the 30-year-old could be dealt as soon next week during the Winter Meetings at National Harbor, Md.
Many executives around the game believe the Pirates won’t be able to get a major haul in return for McCutchen, who is 30 and is off his worst season of his nine-year career. He batted .256 with 25 home runs and 103 OPS+ in 153 games and defensive metrics rated him as the worst-fielding center field in the major leagues.
Considering McCutchen finished in the top-five in the National League MVP voting for four straight seasons from 2012-15 and won the award in 2013, however, would some team pay a premium?
“Doubtful,” said an executive from an NL team. “It looked like he aged five years in one year last season. They’ll get something but it won’t be the type of deal where you can go a long way toward rebuilding your roster. You’re not going to get a superstar-like package for a guy who might not be a superstar anymore.”
With that in mind, here are three teams that could use McCutchen and seemingly match up well with the Pirates as trade partners:
- Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies don’t fancy themselves as contenders in 2017 but are looking to add veteran hitters. Adding McCutchen would seemingly create some buzz in Philadelphia and he could still be around in 2018 for a postseason push.
The Phillies could tempt the Pirates by offering right-hander Jake Thompson from their stable of outstanding young starters. Though he was 3-6 with a 5.70 ERA in his first 10 major league starts this year, the 22-year-old Thompson went 11-5 with 2.50 ERA in 21 starts with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
He was rated as the 35th-best prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus coming into 2016.
First baseman Rhys Hoskins, 23, doesn’t get a lot of respect from prospect mavens but it is hard to deny what he did this year, hitting .281 with 38 home runs and a .951 OPS in 135 games with Double-A Reading.
Another unheralded prospect, right-hander Sixto Sanchez, had a dazzling stateside debut by going 5-0 with a 0.50 ERA in 11 starts with the rookie-level GCL Phillies. While the Gulf Coast League is a long way from the big leagues, the 18-year-old Dominican is intriguing.
- San Francisco Giants
While the Pirates would ideally like to land a controllable starting pitcher with upside such as Thompson, they could also use bullpen depth and someone who could eventually become the closer. Thus, an offer centered around right-handers Derek Law and Kyle Crick would draw some attention.
Law 26, had a 2.13 ERA in 61 games as a rookie this year and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Crick’s stock dropped after he went 4-11 with a 5.04 ERA in 23 starts while spending a third straight season at Double-A Richmond, but he is still just 23 with stuff that could play well out of the bullpen.
The Pirates also lack power-hitting prospects, which would make Chris Shaw appealing. In his first full professional season, the 23-year-old first-round draft pick from Boston College in 2015 hit a combined .267 with 21 home runs and an .819 OPS with high Class-A San Jose and Richmond.
- Toronto Blue Jays
Right-hander Joe Biagini had an outstanding rookie season this year, posting a 3.06 ERA in 60 relief appearances after being selected from the Giants in the Rule 5 Draft, and helping the Blue Jays reach the American League Championship Series for a second straight year.
Biagini was a starter during his four minor league seasons and the Blue Jays plan to look at him in that role in spring training. The ability to start or relieve, his 52.2 percent ground ball rate as a rookie and being under club control for five years would make Biagini attractive to the Pirates.
It is easy to project 21-year-old first basemen Rowdy Tellez’s batting stroke fitting well at PNC Park with its short right-field porch. Tellez is coming off a big season at Double-A New Hampshire in which he hit .297 with 23 home runs and a .917 OPS in 124 games.
Outfielder D.J. Davis had an awful season at high Class-A Dunedin, hitting .197 with one home run, 22 stolen bases and a .558 OPS. However, the 22-year-old has plenty of raw talent and the pedigree of being a first-round draft pick in 2012.