NOTE: The views expressed in this EDITORIAL do not necessarily reflect the views of Detroit Sports Nation or a majority of its writers and should not be misconstrued as such. The views contained within are the views of the author and the author alone.
It’s still pretty unclear which direction the Detroit Tigers will go in pertaining to this season, as there still over 100 games to be played and a playoff spot is well within striking distance for the majority of American League clubs.
There are a ton of questions for the Tigers moving forward, both short- and long-term. The outfield alone poses many and it could look drastically different come next season. And with no clear-cut answers moving forward, the team may have to get creative in terms of personnel.
One guy that the Tigers could and perhaps should at least consider in the offseason? Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Before we continue, I think it is important to understand that just hearing such a claim may seem head-scratching and borderline ludicrous, given the team’s apparent firm commitment to shed payroll, getting younger and more athletic. But we’re going to lay out some reasons why McCutchen, a former National League MVP, could be a good fit in the Motor City.
The Pittsburgh outfielder has been the cornerstone of baseball revival in the Steel City. From 2012-15, McCutchen was a 4-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger and finished top-5 in the MVP voting each of those four seasons; winning it in 2013. He picked up a Gold Glove along the way as well. For that stretch, he was easily among the top five or ten players in the sport and a true five-tool type of player.
However, McCutchen has regressed quite a bit each of the last two seasons. After posting a career-low slash line in 2016 (.256/.336/.430), he’s continued to decline this season, hitting just .232 with an OPS barely over .710 in 55 games. The power and run production are still there as he’s on pace to be at or around his 162-game career average.
Still, it’s far from where the Buccos would like to see him at and one could directly correlate his numbers with the team’s success. Pittsburgh made three consecutive playoff appearances and was among the best teams in baseball from 2013-15. Last season, they finished five games under .500. This season, they’re 26-31 and in the basement of the NL Central Division.
The confusing part about all of this? Nobody can really seem to pinpoint as to why McCutchen has struggled mightily each of the last two seasons. Health is not a concern, or doesn’t appear to be, he played in 153 games a year ago and has played in all but two games for the Pirates this season. We can’t really say he’s “getting old,” because he doesn’t turn 31 until October. And he’s always been a historically “slow” starter, with a career .254 BA and .762 OPS in March/April. But as evident by his track record, he’d get out of those early-season slumps no problem.
So what gives?
The only other possible explanations for these struggles could be mental. Going back to last season, the Pirates have been pressured to expose McCutchen to trade talks. Given they are a smaller market by baseball standards, many around the league anticipated Pittsburgh to explore trading him rather than signing him long-term and strain the club financially. Of course, given the importance of McCutchen to the franchise and city, a “hometown discount” of sorts was always a possibility.
(Don’t worry, we’ll get to the Tigers aspect of this in a bit.)
But now, neither that nor any sort of trade seems viable because of his production, or lack thereof. Pirates general manager Neil Huntington took the bait of McCutchen trade talks and made it public, and it trickled down to McCutchen all offseason, perhaps letting it affect his performance.
So now the Pirates are in a pickle. He’s not really “tradeable” per say and if this trend of decline continues, Pittsburgh may be forced to just let him go. McCutchen is making $14M this season and has a club option worth $14.5M in 2018. So the former MVP outfielder could become a free agent.
If that were to happen (and it’s a big if), the Tigers should strongly consider pursuing him this offseason.
The biggest reason as to why it would make sense to at least be a suitor is the lack of clarity in the outfield beyond this season. It appears that the only constant moving forward is Justin Upton, who is making $22+M each of the next four seasons after 2017. Center field has been a revolving door this year in Detroit and they rank near the bottom in all of baseball in terms of offensive production. And J.D. Martinez continues to sizzle, but he will almost assuredly not be donning the old English D in 2018, whether he’s traded and/or signs elsewhere.
The outfield situation alone presents a great opportunity for someone like McCutchen to come in and start in center field (or right field) almost right away and solidify a spot.
We laid out all the reasons as to why he is (or isn’t, rather) struggling; all signs point to be it being mental. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him some good. Sometimes, that is all it takes for a player to find a spark.
This is all obviously contingent on McCutchen as well as the Pirates. Does the team want to commit to the fan-favorite long-term, even if he can’t rekindle his past success? Would McCutchen want to continue playing in Pittsburgh, after his GM effectively threw him into the fire that is the “Hot Stove” season? Do the two parties together think they can still deliver a championship to the Steel City?
How about contract talks? What might a guy in a rare and unique position like McCutchen get on the open market following back-to-back “poor” (for his standards) years after four straight MVP-caliber campaigns? Personally, it screams a deal that could comprise of both options and incentives between him and his team of choice.
So as a hypothetical, let’s say the Tigers are in hard on McCutchen this offseason. He’ll be 31 years old come that time. There’s a multitude of ways to go about this in terms of deal construction. It essentially would look like a one-year flier deal with a lot of added wrinkles. Here’s an example of what it could be:
- 1-year deal for $9.75M in 2018
- Could reach $13M with incentives
- $1.625M if he has .280 BA in 150+ games
- $1.625M if he records 15 SB
- Could reach $13M with incentives
- Vesting options for 2019-21
- 2019: contingent on meeting incentive marks; $15M salary
- 2020: finishes top-5 in AL MVP voting in ’19; $17.5M salary
- 2021: finishes top-5 in AL MVP voting in ’20; $17.5M salary
Let’s break this down a little bit more:
- The $9.75M base salary for 2018 would be an average annual salary over McCutchen’s five previous seasons (2013-17).
- The incentives are there for him to earn and prove that he is capable of bouncing back and worthy of that pay grade. If he meets both, he could make $13M in his first year with the Tigers.
- Then come the vesting years or “mutual” options between McCutchen on the Tigers. The first of three mutual option years require him to meet both incentive requirements. Should he do so, he’ll opt into the 2019 season making a firm $15M.
- The 2020 and ’21 option years are primarily contingent on his climb back to being among baseball’s best players. If in 2019 (age 32 season) he finishes in the top-5 of MVP voting, he will be on the books for 2020 and make $17.5M. The same goes for 2021, if he replicates that type of season, reflective in the MVP ballots, in 2020.
To sum it up, this contract says, “Okay Andrew, we want you to be an anchor in our outfield for the foreseeable future. We know you struggled some, but feel confident in your ability to bounce back, and provide production and leadership both on and off the field, while helping carry a largely young corps of players moving forward.”
And they’d get just that with McCutchen. This is a first-class professional in the game and a former Roberto Clemente Award winner, an honor that goes to a player “who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
One player in the Tigers organization who may benefit the most from bringing in a guy like Andrew McCutchen is youngster JaCoby Jones. Jones, as many remember, came over in a 2015 deal from the Pirates in exchange for reliever Joakim Soria at the time. He has shown promise on both sides of the ball and is among the more athletic players on the Tigers roster. But as expected with most young players in any sport, the growing pains with Jones have been surreal thus far, and shadowing a player like McCutchen would do wonders not only for him but also the club.
And given the Pirates’ and (McCutchen’s) willingness to become more versatile, McCutchen may end up playing more right field than center as his career progresses. Jones in center and McCutchen in right would not be the worst scenario for Tigers fans to get used to.
In terms of the Tigers financially moving forward, they have at least $19.75M coming off the books this season (J.D. Martinez, Francisco Rodriguez and Alex Avila). That number could really spike depending on how things play out, with players having club options (Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez) and players who have immediate trade value to other clubs through next season (Andrew Romine, Justin Wilson, Jose Iglesias and Victor Martinez).
Again, while the team appears primed to shed payroll and not spend so freely, the one contract they may want to consider is an incentive-laden, option-filled deal for Andrew McCutchen, IF he is available.