By John Franco
The Pirates got some good news last week when it became clear that Andrew McCutchen wouldn’t be a super two player, meaning he wouldn’t be arbitration eligible next year. That means the Pirates will pay him less than $1 million for 2012, followed by three years of salaries determined by arbitration in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Having one of the most dynamic players in the National League under team control for four more years is a great situation for Pirate fans, and an interesting one for the Pirates’ front office.
The Pirates have danced around an extension with McCutchen, opening talks in May of this year and finally seeing them stall in August. It would be understandable if both sides were a bit hesitant to finalize a deal until Cutch’s super two status was decided, but it also seems like McCutchen is hesitant to sign a contract that would include any of his free agent seasons. The free agent seasons are one of the key points of interest for the Pirates, who would like to get a discount in exchange for some guaranteed money a few years down the road.
The contracts commonly used as a baseline for McCutchen’s expectations belong to Justin Upton and Jay Bruce. Upton signed a 6-year deal worth $51.25 million before the 2010 season, covering his final non-arbitration season, his three arbitration seasons and two years of free agency. At the time of the deal, Upton was 22 years old. Bruce also signed a 6-year deal, getting $51 million after the 2010 season, but his deal covered his three arbitration years and three years of free agency. Here are their numbers prior to signing their contracts:
Upton: 422 games, 1517 AB, 111 OPS+, .272/.352/.471
Bruce: 357 games, 1267 AB, 109 OPS+, .257/.327/.474
McCutchen will be older than Bruce or Upton at the end of this season – he turns 25 on October 10th – but he has the advantage of being a centerfielder compared to a pair of right fielders. The Pirates are reaping some serious rewards for McCutchen just barely avoiding super two status, as he will have about 1600 AB after this season with another year to go before arbitration eligibility. Here are his numbers now, with about 30 games to go:
McCutchen: 393 games, 1489 AB, 124 OPS+, .282/.368/.461
Park effects and the decreased offense in the 2011 season make McCutchen look better when using OPS+, but WAR tells a similar story:
McCutchen: 11.9 WAR
Bruce: 5.2 WAR
Upton: 7.8 WAR
So unfortunately for the Pirates, it seems that McCutchen has probably priced himself out of Upton’s contract range. McCutchen may be slated to make under $1 million without an extension in 2012, but by holding off on an extension, he’s probably put himself into the range of $80 million for 6 years if he’s willing to sign that long. If he doesn’t sign an extension soon, he could justifiably threaten the record set by Ryan Howard when he asked for $22 million in arbitration.
Assuming that McCutchen does come around to the idea of a 6-year deal what would it look like? This chart shows the estimated structure of a 6–year deal which would pay approximately $86 million.
McCutchen appears headed for a 6-WAR season this year. If he has really turned a corner to become a consistent 6+ win player then I’m underestimating him a little bit. I’ve got him down for 5.5 WAR in 2012, 6 WAR at his peak for the following two seasons, and then three years of a slight decline to a really good player. For these 6 seasons, Cutch would provide 32.5 WAR.
I am using $4.5 million per win as my base value. On the open market, one win might be closer to $5 million, but I don’t expect the Pirates to pay that premium and I’m not sure they would sign McCutchen without any hometown discount. Using the standard 40-60-80 percent values for Cutch’s 3 arbitration years and then a 90% value for two free agent seasons (discounted because it’s so far into the future and because it provides cost certainty), the cost comes out to $86.03 million.
Different Contract Lengths
Using this same structure, a 7th year (age 31, 4 WAR) would increase the contract to $102 million. If McCutchen is only willing to sign away 1 year of free agency, the deal would be something like 5 years, $67.8 million. Ideally, the Pirates would have a team option for $20 million or so in year 6, likely with a buyout of $2-3 million. A deal for $68 million and a buyout of $2 million would allow both sides to announce a deal for 5 years and $70 million.
At this year’s trade deadline, Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly showed a willingness to spend money without overcommitting themselves or taking any serious risks. If they want to do that with McCutchen – showing the fans that they are serious about keeping him in town without making a lengthy deal – an extension for 4 years and $50 million would buy out only McCutchen’s team controlled seasons at a slight premium. That would give the Pirates cost certainty (which they got by extending Jose Tabata) without accomplishing anything else.
The Pirates are likely to wait until this off-season to resume talks with McCutchen on a long-term deal. Now that he’s priced himself out of Justin Upton territory, they’ll have to blaze new territory to get a deal done. The Rockies gave Carlos Gonzalez a 7-year deal worth $80 million this off-season, buying out one non-arbitration year, 3 arbitration years and three free agent years. CarGo is almost exactly a year older than McCutchen, and had a 119 OPS+ in 1167 AB before signing his deal.
Amazingly, a 7-year deal for Cutch should probably cost more, but if the Pirates can use that deal as a benchmark, it might make both sides very happy. And it would keep McCutchen out of pinstripes until 2019.