Looking at Andrew McCutchen’s Trade Value

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Andrew McCutchen once again might be on the trade block as he was a year ago.  With one year left on his contract, the Pirates might look to get value now and compete for 2019 and beyond.  Based on his projection and salary, his value is still semi high.

Andrew McCutchen had a down season in 2016, hitting .256/.336/.430 with a 105 wRC+ and a 0.6 fWAR.  His name came up numerous times last winter, and he was reportedly moments away from being dealt to the Washington Nationals.  Last season he rebounded to a .279/.363/.486 slash with a 122 wRC+ and a 3.7 fWAR, and this was with a slow start to the season that saw him moved to the six spot in the order, along with an initial move to right field before Starling Marte was suspended for performance enhancing drugs.

McCutchen will likely have his name came up in talks once again this offseason, as the Pirates have gone 153-170-1 over the last two seasons after reaching the National League playoffs the previous three seasons.  Early this month, Travis Sawchik had a great article on Fangraphs on what the Pirates should do with McCutchen, but because of the decently high chance of a deal, I will take a look at McCutchen’s trade value in terms of the surplus he will provide and what to expect in return, focusing more on the prospect potential in a return instead of a player that is currently on a 25 man roster.  However, to show why the surplus exchange model works, and how almost equal surplus is exchanged in a trade, I’ll start off with a past trade, though this one involves a one-for-one deal involving two MLBers at the time.

An example of surplus in a trade

The Neil Walker for Jon Niese trade was controversial at the time.  Even with the Pirates trying to balance both the present and future, trading a player, who despite having limited defensive value, was still a projected two win player because of his middle of the order type bat for a backend starter presents its own set of problems.  From 2013-15, Walker posted fWAR’s of 2.6, 3.6, and 2.2, which weighing each year as 0.1, 0.3, and 0.6 (a very simple Marcel) gives Walker a 2.66 fWAR for that window.  Niese however was coming off a season in which he had a career low strikeout rate and was 11 percent below average in ERA.  His fWAR’s of the previous three seasons were 2.1, 2.3, and 0.9, which equates to a 1.44 fWAR Marcel.

Simply, the Pirates were trading a solid starter who plays second base and is solid number five hitter for a backend starter, who was supposed to start the season as the team’s three starter in hopes of Jameson Taillon to be ready for June, which is really a way for teams to gain an extra half-year of control while still only paying for three years of arbitration.  But the trade also represents an illustration for McCutchen’s trade value in terms of surplus, though you could pick the Chris Sale trade to Boston and it would hold as well, so will almost any other trade in the past couple seasons.  With Walker having one year remaining at the time of the trade and it being a deal made by the Pirates, I think it’s the best example to use.  The dollar per WAR on the free agent market was about $8.7 million in 2015 according to economist Matt Swartz and we can use the 5.9 percent growth rate that he mentions to calculate what teams would project to be the cost for one win in 2016 and then for following years (using the $9.6 million per win would work as well in terms of the calculation, but teams wouldn’t know that cost at the time of the deal).  Using STEAMER projections for both Walker and Niese, we can create the table below, and subtracting off 0.3 wins and 0.4 wins for Niese in the following years.  Walker, who was in his final year of arbitration, has three values with the following key: gold=what the Mets and Walker agreed to, red=what Walker filed for, and green=what the Mets filed.

WalkerAge Contract RateWAR Lg$/WAR  Surplus 
201630 $10,550,000.005.9%2.3 $9,213,300.00 $10,640,590.00
201630 $11,800,000.005.9%2.3 $ 9,213,300.00 $9,390,590.00
201630 $9,400,000.005.9%2.3 $9,213,300.00 $11,790,590.00
NieseAge Contract RateWAR Lg$/WAR  Surplus 
201629 $9,000,000.005.9%1.7$9,213,300.00 $6,662,610.00
201730 $10,000,000.005.9%1.4 $9,756,884.70 $3,659,638.58
201831 $10,500,000.005.9%1.0 $10,332,540.90($167,459.10)

The Pirates expected Niese to fill out a backend of the rotation spot for the 2016-18 seasons, though 2017 and 2018 were both team options with $500,000 buyouts.  The options never became an issue as, despite his comments, the Pirates needed to put their outfielders behind the fence to have a shot at being an effective shift with Niese on the mound, and he was ultimately traded back to New York for Antonio Bastardo at the trade deadline.  Meanwhile, Walker hit .282/.347/.476 and had a 3.7 fWAR in 113 games for the Mets.  The trade was a disaster for the Bucs, but the overall point of this illustration is how at the time of the trade the Pirates were going to receive equal surplus for the amount they were trading away, not what the two players actually produced because that is an extreme unknown, and the best information at the time is the projections, though there are error bars and these systems are not the be all and end all.

Relating to Andrew McCutchen

For McCutchen we can replicate the same process with a slight update to the cost of one WAR on the market and calculating his surplus based on projections, once again using STEAMER.  The league dollar per WAR is the $10.5 million in 2017*5.9% growth rate:

McCutchenAge Salary WAR Lg$/WAR Surplus
201831 $14,500,000.003.2 $11,119,500$21,082,400

McCutchen is a more valuable player than Neil Walker and would demand a larger return, you wouldn’t need to calculate his surplus for that, but the surplus tells us what to expect in a return.  By trading McCutchen, the Pirates would likely look for prospects that are near Major League ready – they currently project at 82-80 without Jung Ho Kang and other moves made by the Pirates and the 29 other teams – the Pirates would be signaling more of rebuild or retooling for 2019 and beyond.  I think they can compete this year for a wild card spot with McCutchen and other moves, but Neal Huntington and the rest of the front office might not like the odds and would rather get value now instead of just a getting a pick in the 2019 draft by losing McCutchen in free agency after offering a qualifying offer.

Just like for calculating how much it would cost the Pirates to acquire Evan Longoria from the Tampa Bay Rays, I’ll use the model that The Point of Pittsburgh has created and licensed to Fangraphs.  Below is the table on Fangraphs for the surplus for hitters and pitchers and their respective grades:

75$175 million$83 million
70$107 million$62 million
65$70 million$62 million
60$60 million$34 million
55$38 million$22 million
50$20 million$14 million
45$11 million$13 million

A 55 grade pitcher or a 50 grade hitter would be the headline for the Pirates, and they would also likely receive flyer type prospects as well, be it young hitters with high ceilings or young live arms with control issues.  The headline prospect is who fans seem to always focus on, so I’ll take a look at some potential teams and potential prospects the Pirates could look at.

Potential Teams

The teams that would initially come to mind for a partner in a deal would be the teams looking at Giancarlo Stanton, which would be the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals.  The Phillies are still young and rebuilding and Stanton would present a long term acquisition and build a core around him.  The St. Louis Cardinals are a division rival and I don’t see the Pirates trading their best player since Barry Bonds to them unless they’re really blown a way by an offer.  Which leaves the Giants and Red Sox as the two top teams to come to mind.

The Giants top prospect is Christian Arroyo, and with the hole they currently have at third and his MLB readiness, he played 34 games for the Giants this past year, he seems to be off the board.  Tyler Beede is the Giants other top prospect and didn’t appear on Fangraphs midseason top 100, in fact Arroyo did not either.  Beede would represent a 50 future value arm, or $14 million in surplus, and would need to really be one of two main pieces in a deal for McCutchen.

The Red Sox are the last team left of the teams that have known interest in Stanton, and seem to be the most willing to deal prospects for players with Dave Dombrowski as the President of Baseball OperationsRafael Devers, who no longer qualifies as a prospect, would be the best option for the Pirates.  He provided the Sox a slash of .284/.338/.482 and a 111 wRC+ and filling the void at third base.  His surplus is extremely high, STEAMER projects him at a 2.4 fWAR in 2018, and at the start of the season his surplus would’ve been about $38 million given his 55 future value grade.

The player the Pirates would likely target would be left-handed pitcher Jay Groome, who received a 55 future value grade at the start of the season by Eric Longenhagen, equating to a $22 million surplus value.  Groome was a top prospect in the 2016 draft and has a plus fastball and plus curveball.  Add in players such as Bryan Mata, a soon to be 19-year-old flame thrower, and Lorenzo Cedrola, a soon to be 20-year-old outfielder with speed but very little power, and the Pirates might have their best trade partner.

The Cleveland Indians could represent a potential match as well with Jay Bruce and Carlos Santana becoming free agents.  Jason Kipnis will likely play centerfield with Bradley Zimmer in right and Michael Brantley in left.  Edwin Encarnacion potentially could fill the void at first base, though that would also create a void at DH, but McCutchen could fill that.  Even with what looks like a crowded outfield, Brantley has only played 101 games over the last two years and Jason Kipnis was limited to 90 games last season, and is only projected for a 1.7 fWAR and 98 wRC+.  They could use an upgrade.

Triston McKenzie is a 55 grade arm and would provide the same surplus that Groome would provide, $22 million.  McKenzie was taken in 2015 and, similar to Groome, has a plus fastball and curveball.  In class High A, McKenzie struck out 186 hitters and only walked 45.  Cleveland might not be incentivized to deal him given his high ceiling, and the Pirates might have to target a 50 grade hitter such as Nolan Jones ($20 million in surplus) instead.  Outfielder Oscar Gonzalez, who has a cannon of an arm and is only going to be 20 next season, and shortstop Tyler Freeman, who was selected with the 71st overall pick in this past draft and is a solid hitter but might have to move off of shortstop in the future, could round out a potential deal.

Next: Should the Pirates Pursue Mark Appel?

Final thoughts

The Red Sox and Indians make the most sense for a deal centered around McCutchen.  He has about $20 million in surplus value, which would make a 50 grade hitter or 55 grade pitcher the headliner with additional young players with high ceilings that might be considered raw rounding out the deal.  The Pirates are currently projected to be around .500, and are ranked 13th in ESPN’s power rankings.  With a little bit of luck here and there, the Pirates could find themselves in the wild card race, but without McCutchen that would decrease the odds tremendously.  Of course, given he is only under control for one year, the Pirates could capitalize on his remaining value instead of just receiving a draft pick in 2019 and trade him away this offseason.

*Numbers from fangraphs