It was a rough season for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. After three straight playoff seasons, the Bucs fell to 79-83 and third place in the NL Central Division.
A six-game winning streak at the end of April lifted Pittsburgh to 15-9, just three games out of first place.
They would never be that far over the .500 mark, or that close to the division lead again.
In examining what went wrong this season in the Steel City, you find a number of factors came in to play. The starting pitching rotation suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness. The club got little production out of either the catcher or first base positions.
But another key element in the Pirates’ struggles this past season was a noticeable decline from center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
ONCE-CLUTCH CUTCH SLIPS UP
The 2013 National League Most Valuable Player had finished among the top five in MVP voting in each of the previous four seasons. He was an NL All-Star in the previous five seasons, and had won four consecutive Silver Slugger Awards.
In short, “Cutch” was one of the best players in all of baseball. This season, however, he never approached those levels. McCutchen hit for an entirely mediocre .256/.336/.430 slash line. He produced 24 homers and 26 doubles, driving in 79 runs and scoring 81 times.
His stolen base total slipped to just a half-dozen, the first time in his career that he didn’t reach double-digits in steals.
His defensive game was also down this past season. The former Gold Glove Award winner saw both his DRS and UZR ratings slip noticeably. Should he stay, there has been talk in Pittsburgh of moving McCutchen to a corner outfield spot in 2017.
A BOUNCE-BACK CANDIDATE
McCutchen could be a major bounce-back candidate next season. He just turned 30 years old in October, and has just one more guaranteed season on his contract at $14 million. There is a $14.75 million team option for 2018 with a relatively inconsequential buyout.
The Pirates could take him into the 2017 season, in which case he would become a major trade deadline piece. Then should the club fail to contend, but he produce that bounce-back season, they could look to deal him in July.
However, he might prove more valuable right now. This would allow an acquiring team to plan its lineup with his presence in mind. They would also have McCutchen for all of Spring Training and the entire season.
A number of clubs have been linked to possible McCutchen talks with the Pirates. Going back to last season, the Washington Nationals were reportedly discussing such a deal.
A rumored lead piece coming back to Pittsburgh in those talks was outfielder Victor Robles. However, Robles was sensational last season, and is now considered a top ten prospect in all of baseball. It is doubtful the Nats would surrender him for one season of McCutchen.
The New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Dodgers have all been linked to McCutchen through various rumors.
Bucs manager Clint Hurdle was quoted by Rob Biertempfel of triblive.com during the World Series: “Andrew has been very black and white in the conversations I’ve had with him. He’s told me, ‘I’m under contract here, so I plan on playing here. However, I don’t call all the shots, either.’”
Hurdle further went on to discuss the reality facing the Pirates in a small market with players in McCutchen’s contract situation:
“I think any general manager that’s in a market similar to the one we’re in has to explore the possibility of (trading) players who have one or two years left on their contracts. You have to see what value is there to keep or to move. That’s the way we’re going to need to continue to operate. It’s the hard part of what we get to do.”
How they choose to handle the McCutchen situation makes the Pirates one of the more interesting teams as baseball’s Winter Meetings open next weekend. But even if nothing is done in National Harbor, they still have all winter, and even into next season, to consider such a move.