Andrew McCutchen: No, Pirates must pay for Mr. Right Now


Jun 14, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) looks to the sky before a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Nostalgia is powerful, especially in baseball.

The scuffed Little League baseball resting on the windowsill in my den takes me back to the District 12 Semi-Final game. The sting of my bloodied knee after sliding into third amid a game-winning triple was euphoric.

I recall happening upon a Mike Schmidt card in a 1986 Topps wax pack. I was so excited I yelped and stuck it inches before my father’s eyes — even though he was driving the truck.

I fondly remember sitting on the concrete patio steps of my childhood home, talkin’ “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” with the old man. His feet rested one step farther down than mine.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

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Hell, I lived the first 24 years of my life in Williamsport, Pa — the home of Little League baseball. You bet I yearn to be so innocent again, and think so innocently of the game I still adore. Yes, nostalgia is powerful. But equally as powerful is reverse-nostaglia — a hankering for an idealistic, however unlikely, future. Amidst talk of a new big-money contract for Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates best be wary of creeping reverse-nostalgia.

Rob Rossi, lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, employed a heavy dose of reverse-nostalgia in his otherwise articulate piece entitled Pirates must pay for Mr. Right, published March, 1.

Rossi dumps a bucket of nostalgia in the first paragraph of his work. “There are twelve pictures, all black and white, that line the wall of a hallway leading from the clubhouse to the field at Pirates City. The pictures are of Pirates Hall of Famers, beginning with Honus Wagner and ending with Bill Mazeroski.”

I imagine dyed-in-the-wool Bucco fans draping themselves in the Jolly Roger and clutching tight their childhood stuffed Pirate Parrot at the mere thought of exploring such a hallway.

The reverse-nostalgia seeps in by paragraph two. Rossi quotes Maz, “We’re waiting on some company.” Ah, I know where this is going. Now the baseball romantics are really gushing, imagining Andrew McCutchen’s mug hanging beside Maz’s at the end of that hallway in Pirates City.

I understand that sentiment. Personally, I also relish the notion of Cutch finishing his career in Pittsburgh, and becoming enshrined in the Hall of Fame/a hallway in Bradenton, Florida. But not at the cost that Rossi himself acknowledges.

More on that later.

To state the obvious, Andrew McCutchen is a revolutionary figure in Pirates’ history. His ascension to stardom coincides with the rise of the franchise from the ashes of rusty has-beens and prospects without prospects, to World Series contenders. His hardware tells the tale: 2013 NL MVP, 2012 Gold Glove winner, 4 time All-Star, and 3 time Silver Slugger. Per Baseball Reference, in 880 games, the Pirates center fielder boasts a lifetime 0WAR of 35.4. MLB Network ranked him as the 6th best player in baseball right now. Besides his on-field accolades, McCutchen is an upstanding human-being; he contributes to the community, always projects as humble, and recently inked a contribution to the Player’s Tribune, called Left Out, about how baseball can uplift children in poverty. Simply put, Cutch is an outstanding dude. What Pirates fan wouldn’t want his HOF bust to sport the hometown logo.

The reverse-nostalgia seeps in by paragraph two. Rossi quotes Maz, “We’re waiting on some company.” Ah, I know where this is going. Now the baseball romantics are really gushing, imagining Andrew McCutchen’s mug hanging beside Maz’s at the end of that hallway in Pirates City.

However, his retention as a Pirate for life depends largely on the price tag.

Recent talks from fans and pundits alike concern a possible contract extension for McCutchen. Even Pirates brass have expressed an interest in someday erecting an Andrew McCutchen statue on Federal Street.

Currently, McCutchen is signed to a six-year, $51.5 million dollar deal, as of March, 2012. He will make $10 this year, $13 mil in 2016, $14 mil in 2017, with a club option for $14.5 mil in 2018. Find me a better deal in all of Major League Baseball. In fact, the deal itself should be the gold standard for small market teams, insofar as cost-effective contracts to super stars. Yes, for a team like the Pirates, the deal is near perfect.

But some wish to place the contract near the shredder for temporary safe-keeping, and reenter the bargaining table with tons more chips in hopes of retaining McCuthen into his twilight years. Such high-risk yearning for that potential McCutchen statue, however glistening and awesome, is dangerous reverse-nostalgia.

David Schoenfield, ESPN baseball columnist, envisions one of three potential contract scenarios between the team and their star.

1. Cut McCutchen loose after 2018. Doing so means spending $51.75 mil until the sides part ways.

2. Extend him for four years after 2018 at $30 mil per season. This would cost the team $170.75 mil.

3. Actually insert his current contract into the shredder. Pay him $247 mil from 2016 to 2025, his age 38 season. In other words, pay the man Giancarlo Stanton money to stay a Pirates for life, and reap all the booty — on-field production, merchandising, fan goodwill, etc — that follows.

Of course, several variations of the latter two options exist.

Rob Rossi is willing to risk handcuffing the Pirates financially, for several years, to secure McCutchen’s picture in that hallowed hallway in a spring training facility. He cites the departure — rather, the non-retention of Barry Bonds — as a cautionary tale. After Bonds became a Giant (the Giants didn’t win the World Series in Bond’s tenure in San Francisco) the Buc’s nightmare of 20 losing seasons began. “The franchise (went) on life support,” Rossi writes, as though Bonds’ absence was the sole reason for two barren decades. Bonds’ leaving was a reason, sure, but so was the departure of other key players — including NL 1990 Cy Young winner Doug Drabec — after Sid Bream‘s slide into home plate in the 1992 NLCS.

Here’s another cautionary tale — Jason Kendall‘s 6 year $60 mil contract, signed in 2000, which contributed to future financial woes, and thus, losing woes. As Kendall’s production waned, so did the Pirates’ management, and fans’, enthusiasm for such a burdensome extension.

For the Pirates to contend perennially, they must spend wisely and avoid anchor-like contracts that keep the warship from sailing. Should McCuthen sign such an extension, he’ll earn more money toward the end of his career when he’ll almost certainly be a less effective ball player. Sure, he possesses a skill set that should translate well as he ages into his 30’s. But agreeing to pay him above market-value in his lean years means compensating him for past performance, not projected performance.

Nostalgia for past Pirates-only greats, be they Maz or Willie Stargell, enables reverse-nostalgia — the craving for another Pirates great ASAP.

Further cautionary tales about whopper contracts abound in the NFL. It’s no secret that football teams are generally more potent with a skilled, but relatively low-cost, quarterback at the helm of a robustly talented team. Super Bowls are often won in this financial structure. However, when said skilled quarterback inevitably receives his blockbuster contract, the overall talent of the team sinks since less money is available to divide amongst other positions. The Pirates can look to their North Shore neighbors — the Steelers — as a prime example. Sure, the NFL employs a salary cap, but a small-revenue team operates under similar financial restrictions.

The big-time money McCutchen would make in his twilight years, should he sign long-term, would be better served reallocated via extensions to other younger key players — perhaps Gerritt Cole, Josh Harrison, or Gregory Polanco.

Other names will join that list in due time.

In short, paying heaps to keep Number 22 a Pirate until retirement may be at the cost of more losing. Imagine a 35-year-old Cutch in the outfield, surrounded by low-cost complimentary players. Would one aging superstar redeem a 72-win team? Furthermore, would that superstar be satisfied, or would he hope to be traded to a contender? Imagine a scenario more depressing than a disgruntled Andrew McCutchen –a few greys in his dreads — wanting to jump from the plank off a doomed voyage to mediocrity.

Imagine a scenario more depressing than a disgruntled Andrew McCutchen –a few greys in his dreads — wanting to jump from the plank off a doomed voyage to mediocrity.

However, regardless of McCutchen’s extension status, winning should always be THE goal. Yes, I want McCutchen here forever, and I acknowledge his importance as the face of the franchise, but I’d rather see him in a Dodgers uniform in 2019 if it means affording talent elsewhere on the diamond to pad the win column. The old adage is always true — wins cure all. Yes, even the departure of a transformational player and uber-classy citizen.

Hey, kids will adopt another favorite Pirate.

Rob Rossi acknowledges the likely fallout of a McCutchen extension. “A game-changing, system-buckling, creative contract for McCutchen probably wouldn’t allow for the Pirates to keep him and still have the means to build a winner around him.”

Okay, so it only makes sense to allow him to walk after the 2018 season, right?


“McCutchen might just be the last player to have what it takes to become the 13th picture on the wall,” Rossi writes. “That makes him priceless, and it leaves the Pirates with no choice but to pay him.”

Beware the word “priceless.” Perhaps I misidentified Rossi’s hyperbole, but it seems that the Pirates can literally not spend too much to keep their star player? Talk about a recipe for financial ruin.

Ugh! Reverse-nostalgia reigns.

Anyone else looking to lower the Jolly Roger for another generation?

Next: Surprising Pirates to watch in spring 2015