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Pirates shopping McCutchen, increasing likelihood of trade before opening day

| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, 3:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen connects on a solo home run during the seventh inning against the Brewers Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, at PNC Park.

The Pirates are actively shopping Andrew McCutchen to other teams, industry sources told the Tribune-Review, which increases the likelihood the star center fielder will be traded before opening day.

McCutchen, 30, will make $14 million next season. His contract includes a $14.75 million club option for 2018.

Last summer, the Pirates discussed a possible McCutchen deal with the Washington Nationals. According to one major league executive, the Pirates now are initiating calls to clubs instead of merely waiting for the phone to ring.

The price of acquiring McCutchen, the sources said, would be a package of top-tier prospects.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported on Wednesday the Nationals are still interested in McCutchen. Rosenthal also listed the Texas Rangers — who are managed by former Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister — as another potential trade partner.

If McCutchen is dealt, the Pirates could reallocate those dollars toward acquiring a veteran starting pitcher, which is their top offseason priority. It also would enable them to move Gold Glove left fielder Starling Marte to center.

Although his defensive skills appeared to be in decline last season, McCutchen has resisted the notion of moving to a corner outfield spot. He also had a career-worst season offensively in 2016, batting .256 with a .776 OPS.

It probably is not a coincidence the Pirates have ramped up talks about McCutchen after Yoenis Cespedes came off the free-agent market. On Wednesday, the New York Mets finalized a four-year, $110 million deal with Cespedes.

The list of free-agent center fielders includes Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gomez, but McCutchen — a five-time All-Star and the 2013 National League MVP — arguably is the best player available.

“It's out of my control, so I don't think about it, really,” McCutchen said at the end of last season. “If something happens, I'll turn the page and start a different chapter in my life.”

General manager Neal Huntington has avoided talking specifically about McCutchen's status.

On Tuesday, Huntington said uncertainty over what will be in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement — which expires at midnight Wednesday — has not slowed the Pirates' approach to roster-building this offseason.

The next CBA likely will include modifications to the luxury tax system and compensation to clubs that lose free agents who reject qualifying offers. It also is expected that active rosters will be expanded to 26 players from the start of the season through August.

As MLB and the players union hammered out the new deal, some teams have slowed down their offseason player moves.

“It's probably affected the bigger market clubs more than us,” Huntington said. “We've continued to have dialogue in the free-agent and trade markets. We just haven't found the right trade or right free agent yet.”

Barring a last-minute collapse in CBA negotiations, MLB's annual winter meetings are scheduled to begin on Monday in Washington, D.C.

The winter meetings are baseball's biggest trade and free-agent marketplace. With the Pirates also listening to offers for Tony Watson and Josh Harrison, Huntington's phone likely will be buzzing.

“It could be an interesting week,” Huntington said. “I don't think we'll be stealing headlines at the meetings, but we anticipate we'll be busy.”

Notes: On Wednesday, the Pirates signed left-hander Dan Runzler and right-hander Jason Stoffel to minor league contracts with non-roster invitations to spring training.

Runzler, 31, last pitched in the majors in 2012 with the San Francisco Giants. This year, he put up a 7.06 ERA and a 1.85 WHIP in 20 relief outings for the Minnesota Twins' Triple-A affiliate. After being released, he signed with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters.

Stoffel, 28, split last season with the Baltimore Orioles' Double-A and Triple-A clubs and went a combined 3-5 with 24 saves and a 2.44 ERA.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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