One more year: A case to keep Cutch

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One more year: A case to keep Cutch

Andrew McCutchen drove in 20 runs for the Pirates in September. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Andrew McCutchen drove in 20 runs for the Pirates in September. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Andrew McCutchen drove in 20 runs for the Pirates in September. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Andrew McCutchen drove in 20 runs for the Pirates in September. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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Before the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2016 season even finished in a 10-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 2, the rumors had already started swirling.

It was likely, according to an Oct. 1 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that 29-year-old center fielder Andrew McCutchen was playing his final game as a Pirate. The next day, as the Pirates’ disappointing 78-83 season came to a close, other sites started to circulate the same reports.

Some might see it as a team looking toward the future, but the Pirates are still built to contend now –– as long as McCutchen is on the roster.

Prized young pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon made their debuts in 2016 and are expected to join ace Gerrit Cole in the rotation full-time next year. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are already playing like All-Stars in the outfield and only just starting to realize their potential.

But McCutchen is the centerpiece of it all, and giving him up would deal a huge blow to the Pirates’ World Series chances.

If they want to make it back to the postseason next season and make a run at their first World Series title since 1979, trading McCutchen this offseason should be the last thing on Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington’s mind.

McCutchen is still the Pirates’ best player, and there’s no guarantee that top outfield prospect Austin Meadows will be able to rise to the big leagues and replicate McCutchen’s production.

Yes, he may have lost a step, having stolen only 17 bases the last two years combined after stealing at least 20 in each of his first five. McCutchen never revealed any specific injuries, but analysts, such as the MLB Network’s Mark DeRosa, are convinced something’s been nagging him.

“I cannot believe that something is not bothering him physically,” DeRosa said in the Tribune-Review article. “He’s been the biggest enigma of the year. But when you battle for the MVP five years in a row and then you have one blip on the radar screen, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.”

McCutchen, the face of the franchise since his rookie year in 2009, made five consecutive All-Star games from 2011 to 2015 and won the 2013 National League MVP Award after leading the Pirates to the postseason for the first time in 21 years. But last year, his production took a huge dip, and the Pirates fell in the standings, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

A late-season surge saw McCutchen hit .284 with six home runs and 20 runs batted in September, numbers more representative of his career performance in his first seven seasons. It was enough to push his numbers on the season to .256 with 24 homers and 79 RBIs –– respectable but still below his standards.

The question is, did he play well enough in August and September to restore his trade value to a level worth dealing him away in the offseason?

In the Tribune-Review article, an American League scout guesses the Pirates can get two good prospects under team control –– similar to reliever Felipe Rivero, acquired in a midseason trade for Mark Melancon –– in return for McCutchen.

If that’s the best they can do, then the answer is no.

McCutchen is still under contract with the Pirates through 2017 with a $14.75 million club option for 2018. That means the team has at least one more full year to see if McCutchen can return to All-Star form, which he seemed on the verge of in the final two months of 2016. If he does, the team can keep him at a bargain price for one more year while deciding whether to extend his contract or trade him away during or after the 2018 season.

If he’s not going to fetch an MVP-worthy shipment of prospects in return, there’s no sense in getting rid of him now when his value is at its lowest point in at least five years. Whether or not they keep him beyond 2017, the smartest thing the team can do is give McCutchen a chance to play out the final year of his deal at PNC Park.

That way, the Pirates can find out for themselves whether last year was really just an outlier in an otherwise stellar career.

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