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Armed with data, Pirates must weigh whether extending McCutchen's contract is right move

| Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, 9:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen poses for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

Despite Andrew McCutchen being under contract for three more seasons, Pirates fans already are concerned about their club maximizing what remains of the McCutchen Era. Fears abound over what life will look like after the superstar is gone and whether the club is able or willing to retain him beyond 2018.

McCutchen is a once-in-a-generation talent, a talent the Pirates needed to halt a generation of losing.

Since the Pirates joined the National League in 1887, only nine position players in franchise history have produced more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than McCutchen. In the post-World War II era, only Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds and Ralph Kiner have been more productive.

Stargell and Clemente are immortalized with statues outside PNC Park. They are iconic players, in part because they spent their entire careers in Pittsburgh.

“This is a place that I'd love to be, a place that I'd love to spend my whole career, win championships and just be here,” McCutchen told the Tribune-Review this month.

Just last week, Pirates owner Bob Nutting expressed interest in extending McCutchen's deal.

“We are committed to try to find an opportunity,” Nutting said. “There is no one who we'd like to have for a career in a Pirates uniform more than Andrew.”

So should the organization make McCutchen a Pirate for life?

It's a difficult question for the club. The data of how players age during their 30s and the history of lucrative extensions suggest an extension would be a poor investment from a mathematical cost-and-performance perspective. But even if McCutchen declines significantly during his mid-30s, there are intangible benefits beyond his on-field performance to retaining the 2013 NL MVP.

“There will be an appropriate time somewhere down the road to work toward another common ground that works for both parties,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of contract talks. “We understand the name recognition. We understand the posters hanging in kids' bedrooms. We understand the intangible value a player like Andrew McCutchen brings.

“At the same time, the most important components that go into any contract consideration are the projected contributions going forward on the field and the ability of that team to build a championship team around that marquee player.”

Hard evidence

No player is immune to the influence of time.

A McCutchen extension would begin with his age 32 season. The four-year decline from 28 to 32 is steep for center fielders — an 84 percent decline in production. Since 1946, age 28 center fielders account for 23,983 games played and 426.1 Wins Above Replacement. Age 32 center fielders account for 11,000 games played and a 174.8 WAR, according to a Tribune-Review analysis of BaseballReference.com data. Translation: Age 28 center fielders play twice as many games and have a WAR more than twice as high as age 32 center fielders.

“We are aware of aging models,” Huntington said. “You try to drill down deeper (and) look at each individual person, each individual athlete, and try and factor in as many different components that make that player what he's been, and how do those components project?

“The models are a nice foundation, but each case is really case specific.”

Wherever McCutchen plays during his next contract, historical data suggests he might no longer be a star.

The defensive decline is particularly glaring among center fielders.

Age 28 center fielders have accounted for 65.1 defensive WAR since 1946. By age 32, center fielders have combined for minus-12.9 defensive WAR.

McCutchen perhaps could move to left field later in his career, where there would be less burden on his glove, but his bat would have less relative value in an outfield corner.

Former New York Mets general manager Jim Duquette notes such an extension is risky for a club but says McCutchen might be an exception.

McCutchen's top historical comparables for his 2016 season, according to Baseball Prospectus's projection system PECOTA, are Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. Each of those three was an elite player into his late 30s.

“It's not ideal to start (an extension) at his age 32 season,” Duquette said. “The knee is a major concern because he's a speed guy, and the decline could come faster if it continues to be troublesome ... but there are certain players that do not show the same decline after that age, and he's been relatively healthy.

“I am generally not a fan of extending guys with that much time left, but in Cutch's case, the best way to keep him in a Pirates uniform is to explore extending him now.”

The Tribune-Review also researched players who have comparable talent, contract and service time to that of McCutchen when signing lucrative extensions.

There have been 16 players beyond pre-arbitration status and a season or more from free agency who have signed $100-million extensions. These are essentially lifetime contracts in today's game.

The average age at the time those players signed their extension was 28.5 years, their average time until reaching free agency was two years and the average WAR they produced per season during the three years leading up to signing their extensions was 5.7.

On average, each of those deals added 6.8 additional years of club control at $21.1 million per season.

McCutchen is 29. He's three years from free agency. He's performed at an MVP-level since 2012, and a seven-year extension would take him through his age 38 season.

The majority of such contracts have been net losses for clubs.

Eight of the 16 deals — extensions for David Wright, Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, Ken Griffey Jr., Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and Matt Kemp — are cautionary tales for clubs. Another four contracts — for Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria — look like future liabilities.

Consider in the first season added to the existing contract in these extensions, players produced 81 percent less WAR compared to their three-year average production leading up to the extension.

Griffey, another marquee center fielder, signed a nine-year, $112.5 million deal after being traded to Cincinnati in 2000. He produced 9.9 WAR during the course of the contract.

There is a risk in players moving down the defensive spectrum. Mauer moved from catcher to first base while his bat declined after signing an eight-year, $184 million extension.

Longoria was locked into a club-friendly deal like McCutchen's and was four years from free agency when he agreed to another extension with the club in 2012. Longoria has shifted from being a franchise player to a merely a good one. He is signed through 2022.

Soft power

In 2001, former Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd signed Todd Helton, who retired as a Rockie, to a nine-year, $141.5 million contract extension.

In the five years before the extension kicked in, Helton was one of the top hitters in the NL, batting .335 with 36.2 home runs per season. During the nine-year extension, his home runs fell to 17.8 per season and his OPS declined 100 points to .931 per year.

O'Dowd, now an MLB Network analyst, said signing a player to such an extension has to be for reasons “other than just pure baseball performance.”

“There's no doubt we paid for performance with Todd at a point in time when he wasn't performing that way, and that's just inevitable with those contracts,” O'Dowd said. “Looking at it now, I'm so happy Todd Helton finished his career as a Rockie because I feel that created institutional value for the franchise that goes well beyond the analytical metric value.

“There's a lot to be said for having an icon start a career and end a career (in the same city). ... A franchise like the Rockies, the roots are shallow. They haven't been around that long. You have to have players that are identified with your franchise long term to establish deep roots. ... There is perception value.”

O'Dowd notes it is more difficult for a small-market payroll to absorb a star player's decline, and whatever soft benefits exist, whatever boost in ticket sales and merchandise occur, might not offset a $100 million contract that goes south.

The Pirates face a dilemma, O'Dowd said. At some point, they have to extend McCutchen, trade him or let him walk.

“Since that ‘We Are Family' period of time, it's been a long time,” O'Dowd said, “and there haven't been many Andrew McCutchens that have come along.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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