It’s been a year and some fresh faces have cycled through, but the outfield situation for the Cleveland Indians remains the same heading into the annual Winter Meetings: It’s a mess.
Michael Brantley should be ready in left field for Opening Day, but the center field platoon of Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte does not inspire a whole lot of confidence and there are not many great options in free agency. So with news that the Pittsburgh Pirates are actively shopping Andrew McCutchen, some Tribe fans are salivating at the thought of sending over a group of prospects to bring the former MVP center fielder to Cleveland. But should they?
Most trades are pretty straightforward on the surface — one team has a proven MLB-ready player to deal, and another team has prospects. The fine details always need to be ironed out, but the majority of deals work on that same framework. The same would apply for a deal involving Andrew McCutchen, but there are some extra wrinkles.
For one, McCutchen had a very uncharacteristic year in 2016. After six straight years of excellence, peaking in 2013 with his MVP season, his offense fell to barely above-average and his problematic defense in center field hit an all-time low last season; the 30-year-old slashed just .256/.336/.430 in 153 games. He still hit a good number of home runs, 24, but something in offense game was missing.
At the risk of oversimplifying what I am sure is a complex mechanical issue, McCutchen was just not hitting the ball very hard. And when he did hit it hard, it did not go anywhere.
In 2016, 19.7 percent of the balls hit by Andrew were considered soft by FanGraphs, a full 5.4 percent higher than his career average. Predictably, his hard-hit ball percentage dropped — down to 35.8 percent from 39.4 percent in 2015. Maybe an even bigger indicator of his struggles, McCutchen’s in-field fly ball rate jumped to 12.6 percent, well above his career-average of 8.5 percent and the 5.9 percent of pop-ups he had in 2015.
If there is a small silver lining in McCutchen’s numbers, it’s that his approach at the plate does not seem to be all that different. His contact rate in 2016 was actually higher than it was in 2015, and he made better contact outside of the zone. The only minor red flag in ‘Cutch’s plate discipline numbers is a small uptick in swings outside of the zone. Whatever mental issues he had in 2016, they were not really affecting his ability to make contact — the contact just was not good.
Let’s not dress it up here, though, McCutchen was awful in 2016. Untradable, unusable, awful. Luckily, if the Indians were to trade for him, they would be acquiring future McCutchen, not 2016 McCutchen.
Granted, it cannot take into account any of the lingering injuries McCutchen may have heading into 2017, but Steamer projects a return to form for the outfielder. Steamer has him slashing .283/.378/.469, good for a wRC+ of 129. Before 2016, though, a 129 wRC+ for McCutchen would have been a huge drop-off. His wRC+ had not dropped below the 130 threshold since his sophomore season in 2010.
I know I sound down on McCutchen’s offensive ability right now, but 2016 was not all bad. His last two months were great, in fact. He slashed .284/.381/.471 with a 13.9 percent walk rate and 14.8 percent strikeout rate in 244 plate appearances. Offensively, I still believe he could help out the Indians tremendously. Offensively.
But you are dreaming of an Indians trade for McCutchen as a center fielder, here’s a word of advice: don’t. His defense in center field has never been great. And while it probably will not be as bad as it was in 2016, don’t expect much more than another Tyler Naquin on defense. Any Indians fans who watched the World Series should know how much defense matters in center field, and McCutchen probably can’t carry it himself anymore. Maybe when he was slashing .327/.400/.553, but not now.
For the Indians, and any other team trying to acquire McCutchen, one of the most enticing aspects is his favorable contract. The Pirates smartly inked him to a six-year, $51.5 million deal prior to the 2012 season. He is owed $14 million for 2016, with a team option for $14.5 million, including a $1 million buyout. Whether or not McCutchen is really a valuable piece in center field anymore, the Indians would be hard-pressed to find another potential center fielder with ‘Cutch’s offensive potential in the free agent market for $14 million annually.
The Pirates will be shopping him as a center fielder, of course, as that’s where he would be the most valuable. While I would expect (hope?) the Indians to realize that’s not the case, all it would take is one team buying into the narrative of him bouncing back to a serviceable center fielder to drive up the asking price. No matter what, the Pirates are probably going to demand one of Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen among others. Neither of which I am sure is worth giving up with the risk of McCutchen never bouncing back always looming.
The Indians do need a bump at center fielder, but McCutchen probably isn’t it. He may answer an offensive issue for the Indians, but he is not the answer.