MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

McCutchen trade wouldn't be white flag for Bucs

Pittsburgh could build long-term contender with right deal

McCutchen trade wouldn't be white flag for Bucs

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- General Manager Neal Huntington is open to trading Andrew McCutchen. That doesn't mean he's abandoning hopes of the Pirates returning to the postseason next season.

These issues are not mutually exclusive.

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As unpopular as it would be to part ways with the former National League Most Valuable Player, a McCutchen trade -- the right McCutchen trade -- could set up the Pirates to remain contenders in 2017 and beyond, not just in the two seasons left on McCutchen's contract.

That's the reasoning that drives Huntington and the Pirates' front office as they head into face-to-face meetings with executives of the Nationals, Rangers and any other teams interested in McCutchen.

Huntington recently conceded that "it is no coincidence that we were good when Andrew McCutchen was good,'' but he vowed to pursue every possibility to improve from last year's 78-win season.

"If that means we make decisions that are unpopular, it means we make decisions that are unpopular," Huntington said.

Huntington on McCutchen's future

Huntington and his staff did a great job to build the Pirates team that reached the postseason three years in a row under manager Clint Hurdle, whose hiring ranks as one of Huntington's best moves. That success should buy some trust from the fan base, as difficult as it would be for Pittsburgh fans to watch McCutchen in another uniform.

Every player in baseball is, to use Theo Epstein's terminology, a "fungible asset.'' The guys who run franchises aren't allowed the same kind of sentiment that lies behind the passion of fans. They have to make calculated business decisions that tip the odds in their favor.

The Pirates have a cast of outfielders in Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and prospect Austin Meadows that they should be able to keep together through '21, at least. They don't have a budget that lets Huntington go sign top-of-the-market free agents like Yoenis Cespedes.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn't even let the Pirates collect a first-round Draft pick if they play out the string with McCutchen. That strengthens the argument for trading him, and it only makes sense to do that when his value is as high as it is now.

While McCutchen's production declined last season -- he hit .256 with 24 homers and a .766 OPS -- he made a late adjustment to his swing that allowed him to finish on the upswing (.869 OPS in his last 50 games). Entering his age-30 season, he could be a major force for a team like the Rangers or Nationals, but the Pirates have the pieces to win 90 games without him, especially if they add two or three valuable players to replace him.

McCutchen sends one deep

No, we're not saying that the Rangers are going to send them Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar for McCutchen. That's not happening. But if Huntington could get Gallo and one or two younger prospects from Texas, he could then use the $14.2 million that McCutchen is set to earn to add two mid-tier free agents -- maybe re-sign Ivan Nova and add a right-handed setup man like Joe Blanton or Trevor Cahill.

That's a five-for-one return for McCutchen (counting the two not-Major League-ready prospects).

If the Pirates could also trade Josh Harrison -- opening up second base for Adam Frazier and Alen Hanson -- for a Major League-ready prospect, they could reinvest the remaining $19 million on Harrison's contract to make it a 7-for-2 proposition. That's the kind of math it would take to sustain a contender without the luxury of spending as heavily as other teams.

No question, hanging onto McCutchen is the safer move in terms of public relations, but is it the best way to try to get back in the postseason? The Pirates won 20 fewer games last season than in '15, which shouldn't make status quo seem so attractive.

Gerrit Cole is a solid No. 1 starter and both Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have that same potential. Tony Watson showed late last season that he can be a solid closer. The trick for the Pirates, as well as the Cardinals, is not to become too discouraged by starting out so far behind a Cubs team that has Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant at the infield corners.

The Pirates don't have to catch the Cubs, of course. They just have to hang reasonably close to them to be a factor in the postseason picture.

It's unrealistic to expect McCutchen to turn back the clock to his run from '12 through '14, when he ranked just below Mike Trout on the list of the game's two-way center fielders. It's unfair to ask him to again carry his team to October.

The Pirates need to add pieces that make them less dependent on players like 24-year-old first baseman Josh Bell -- some patience is required if he's going to develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter -- and troubled third baseman Jung Ho Kang. If that means trading McCutchen, Huntington must be willing to make an unpopular move.

The mistake is to think that a McCutchen trade means waving the white flag.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.