The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 2017 season in a vulnerable state, not wholeheartedly expecting to contend in the National League Central division, home of the defending champion Chicago Cubs and the perennially-contending St. Louis Cardinals.
With the Cubs and Cardinals both off to slow starts, however, the Pirates have been able to keep afloat in the division race as the All-Star break nears, thanks in large part to outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
A common name in several offseason trade rumors, it was unclear until early spring if McCutchen would even be a Pirate this season. As it played out, the Pirates weren’t wowed by any of the offers they got over the winter and held on to the 2013 MVP. Although he’s not quite on that level, McCutchen’s turnaround from a subpar 2016 season has been unmeasurably valuable to the Pirates’ 36-42 record to date this season, keeping them just four games out of the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers.
McCutchen has batted almost exclusively out of the sixth spot of the batting order since posting a .223 batting average and 42 punchouts through the first two months of the season. The lowered spot in the batting order — theoretically, a lowered amount of applied pressure – has worked wonders for McCutchen, whose season now dons a much different complexion than it did two months in.
After posting a career-low 106 wRC+ and a wOBA of .329 last year, McCutchen is putting that to rest with a 121 wRC+ and a .355 through 76 games this season. McCutchen, in his age 30 season, has lowered his strikeout rate from last year by more than four percent, from 21.2 to 17. The five-time All-Star is on pace for more home runs and more stolen bases than 2016, when he hit 24 long balls and stole six bags. He’s homered fourteen times already this season and swiped as many bags.
Pittsburgh has a club option on McCutchen for the 2018 season worth $14.5 million, with a $1 million buyout. If the Pirates hang on to him, McCutchen will reach free agency in the 2018-19 offseason in a year that’s anticipated to have a rich free-agent class of outfielders, such as Nelson Cruz, Bryce Harper, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis.
The club control of his contract as well as the team-friendly price adds to the attractiveness of McCutchen on the current trade market. Considering his turnaround at the plate, McCutchen would be quite the commodity to add in hopes of a postseason run.
Nevertheless, the Pirates are still mathematically in contention and have 40 of their remaining 86 games (46.5 percent) within the division, including 22 in September. With plenty of time to go on a tear, it would seem counterintuitive that Pittsburgh ship off their resurging star.