The Pirates continue to explore deals involving McCutchen, major-league sources say.
McCutchen, 30, is coming off his worst offensive season and a below-average one defensively, according to the advanced metrics. But his contract – $14 million next season, with a $14.5 million club option for 2018 – remains appealing.
The Nationals, who discussed McCutchen with the Pirates before the non-waiver deadline, remain interested, sources say; the Nats are also pursuing a closer and exploring a trade for White Sox lefty Chris Sale, but the acquisition of a center fielder would allow them to move Trea Turner back to shortstop, his natural position.
The Rangers, who have a clear need in center, are another potential trade partner. The Pirates also are talking with other clubs, sources say, seeking value for McCutchen after failing to maximize returns a year ago for infielder Pedro Alvarez, whom they non-tendered, and second baseman Neil Walker, whom they traded to the Mets for left-hander Jon Niese.
Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond and Carlos Gomez are the most prominent center fielders available in free agency. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, White Sox’s Adam Eaton, Diamondbacks’ A.J. Pollock and Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier are among the trade candidates, but none of their clubs appears especially motivated to make a move.
McCutchen is more readily available, but the Pirates are seeking significant young talent in return for their franchise player and the 2013 National League MVP, sources say. If they are not compelled to act, they can simply keep him for another year.
Trading McCutchen, however, would enable the Pirates to re-allocate payroll to other areas. It also would enable them to move Starling Marte from left field to center without conflict; McCutchen does not want to switch to an outfield corner, sources say.
The Pirates believe that they positioned McCutchen too shallow last season, contributing to his defensive problems in center. Still, McCutchen’s negative-28 defensive runs saved was the worst in the majors; Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez was next at negative-22.
“I don’t see myself needing to move,” McCutchen told MLB.com at the end of last season. “I don’t feel like I’m slowing down and hurting my team because of where I play. Playing center field is one thing, but being a leader out there is another. That’s something we need.”
A trade of McCutchen and move of Marte to center would create an opening for the Pirates in left – no small concern, considering that left field at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is the deepest in the majors. Austin Meadows, the team’s top outfield prospect, likely needs more time at Triple-A.
Rival officials note that McCutchen looked like a different player last season, and not simply because he batted .256 with a .776 OPS, both career lows. His body language at times left some with the impression that he was distracted, or even unhappy. However, he rallied in his last 50 games, batting .289 with an .869 OPS.
McCutchen’s frustration might simply have stemmed from his offensive struggles, and carried over to the defensive side. He also might have realized that his future in Pittsburgh was uncertain, contributing to his seeming malaise.
It’s entirely possible that his season was only an aberration. But the Pirates, as a low-revenue club, constantly try to navigate the balance between their present and future.
McCutchen increasingly looks like part of their past.