Pirates' McCutchen might be National League's most cost-effective star
There is no debate that Andrew McCutchen is already one of baseball's brightest stars. When players take the field Tuesday at Target Field in Minneapolis for Major League Baseball's 85th All-Star Game, McCutchen will be making his fourth straight appearance in the midsummer classic.
The reigning National League MVP and the No. 2 vote-getter in NL balloting, McCutchen is having another MVP-caliber year. His value to the Pirates, who have climbed back into the NL Central race at the break, never has been higher.
And, if one were to factor in McCutchen's club-friendly contract numbers with his performance on the field, the center fielder's value skyrockets.
Baseball has such a calculation. It determines what the baseball industry calls a player's “surplus value.”
In fact, McCutchen's “surplus value” ranks No. 1 among all the National League starting all-stars and third among all all-star starters, ranking behind only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson, according to an analysis by the Tribune-Review.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was asked where McCutchen would rank if he were to assign every player in the game a trade value.
“He's certainly near the top,” Huntington said. “He's certainly our most valuable player.”
Watching McCutchen play the game day after day, it's easy to determine that he is one of the game's best. Break out the calculator to consider McCutchen's surplus value, and he becomes perhaps the most important building block in the National League.
McCutchen offers the Pirates an incredible competitive advantage and a window of opportunity. Surplus value, a method to understand a player's value in monetary terms, calculates the difference between actual wages and actual production.
In baseball, surplus value places a dollar figure on a player's production, using the all-encompassing performance statistic called wins above replacement (WAR). The value of one Win Above Replacement is estimated to be $5.5 million on the open market.
To arrive at a surplus value, a player's actual salary is subtracted from his WAR value.
For example, McCutchen is projected to be a 6.7 WAR player in 2014, according to Fangraphs.com. That one-year performance is estimated to be worth $36.85 million on the open market. To arrive at McCutchen's surplus value, subtract his $7.48 million 2014 salary from that total to arrive at a projected surplus value of $29.42 million.
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Had McCutchen not agreed to a six-year, $51.5-million deal prior to the 2012 season, with a $14.5 million club option for 2018, he would easily be out-earning his contract in his second year of arbitration this year, and he would have been a free agent after the 2015 season, when the Pirates would have been unlikely to retain him. Consider that free agent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million deal last offseason with the Yankees.
Had McCutchen not signed the six-year deal, his career as a Pirate might be winding down, and so, too, might be the Pirates' window of opportunity. Instead, the Pirates have an elite player controlled at costs well below his value on the open market through 2018. The contract buys out up to three free-agent years, assuming McCutchen's 2018 club option is exercised.
“That we have the opportunity to keep him through three years of free agency and hopefully beyond, is (critical),” Huntington said, talking about the Pirates' financial flexibility. “To have the ability to build around him is incredibly advantageous for any market but particularly a small market.”
According to Fangraphs.com's performance projections, McCutchen projects to produce $117 million in surplus value through the remainder of his contract. Among starting all-stars, his projected surplus value through 2018 ranks behind only Trout and young Dodgers star Yasiel Puig.
McCutchen is so good, his contract is so club-friendly, one can argue that the Pirates should never consider rebuilding during his time here and must do everything they can to maximize the window.
“Our true hope is to never be in a rebuild,” Huntington said. “Our marching orders from ownership are to be a consistent championship-caliber organization. When you have a guy like Andrew McCutchen, you build around him. You do everything in your power to build around him, and that's what we've worked to do.”
While the Pirates clearly benefit from the deal, McCutchen said he has no regrets by agreeing to the contract. He gained financial security by signing the deal, though he perhaps will surrender more than $100 million dollars by not testing the arbitration process and forfeiting up to three free-agent years.
McCutchen is not alone. Many young stars in the game — more than 100 young players since 2008, including fellow Pirates outfielder Starling Marte — have traded future earnings potential for security by signing similar multi-year contracts.
“I'd do what I did. I made that decision for a reason,” McCutchen said. “It's plenty of money. I'm not going to spend it all. It's more than enough. I'm going be here for some time. That's two things I don't worry about. I wasn't pressured (by the union). … Ultimately it's (the player's) decision. People can say, ‘Don't do it.' Ultimately, it's up the player. They are living it.”
PIRATE FOR LIFE?
One player who similarly and dramatically has out-performed his contract is Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria.
Just days into his major-league career, Longoria signed a deal that gave up to nine years of control to the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2013, with the Rays still holding three years of control over Longoria, the Rays agreed to a new 10-year, $135-million contract with Longoria.
Could the Pirates' leverage their control to extend McCutchen? Can Longoria's situation be a model for the Pirates and McCutchen?
“We truly hope Andrew McCutchen retires as a Pirate. That is going to be incredibly challenging to do, but that is our long-term goal,” Huntington said. “The contracts are always a challenge. If a player gets hurt or under-performs, there is no recourse for the club, but when the player drastically out-performs the contract, there is a lot of heat and attention. ‘Why don't you extend him longer?' I'm sure there will come a point in time for us to revisit it as it will with other players we signed to multi-year deals.”
As it stands, the Pirates have control over McCutchen throughout his peak years. McCutchen will be 32 entering free agency.
While players often begin to decline in their early 30s, McCutchen has offered evidence this season why he's a good bet to continue to be an elite-level player into his 30s: he keeps evolving, he keeps getting better.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle notes that McCutchen's patience at the plate has improved this year as more pitchers have pitched around him. McCutchen's walk rate is at a career-best 14.3 percent. Hurdle said McCutchen is also better at utilizing the entire field. McCutchen's number of batted balls to the opposite field are up nearly 50 percent over his 2012 and 2013 levels. And he already has exceeded his opposite-field home run total of last season (4) with five.
“Nothing has changed with my approach,” McCutchen said. “It's not me that's changing. It's the pitching. I'm just trying to do the same thing. Stay within myself and take what they give to me. If they don't, I'll take my walk.”
On a field of fellow NL stars Tuesday, none will be more valuable. And McCutchen might be becoming better, and somehow, more valuable.
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