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McCutchen on verge of demanding big bucks

| Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011

Justin Upton, Jay Bruce and Andrew McCutchen have much in common. All three are budding stars in the National League, top-notch outfielders and 24 years old.

The trio was part of MLB's blockbuster 2005 draft class. The Arizona Diamondbacks chose Upton with the first overall pick. The Pirates got McCutchen with the 11th selection, one spot before the Cincinnati Reds snagged Bruce.

Yet, there is one area where McCutchen differs dramatically from Upton and Bruce.

Upton is making $4.25 million this year. Bruce is getting $2.75 million.

The Pirates are paying McCutchen $453,000, only $38,500 more than the MLB minimum.

The reason for such a disparity in dollars is Upton and Bruce each have a six-year contract. McCutchen does not have a multi-year deal — yet.

McCutchen turned down a long-term contract offer from the Pirates in each of the past two offseasons. Talks between general manager Neal Huntington and Steve Hammond, McCutchen's agent, are at a stalemate, but the two sides will resume discussions this offseason.

The Pirates are not in immediate danger of losing McCutchen, who can't become a free agent until after the 2015 season. However, they do want to lock him up before he qualifies for salary arbitration in 2013.

The outcome of talks between Huntington and Hammond will be a bellwether moment for the Pirates.

McCutchen is the face of the franchise, perhaps the Pirates' most exciting player since Barry Bonds. Failing to keep him past 2015 would cause a ruckus among the fan base, which has endured 19 straight losing seasons, and also would have negative connotations in the clubhouse.

Hammond and Huntington declined to comment, citing the agreement not to publicly discuss contract talks. Pirates owner Bob Nutting did not respond to an interview request.

According to multiple team and industry sources, the Pirates will probably offer a six-year deal with at least one club option. Neither of those conditions figures to be contentious. The battle line will be drawn, as it usually is in these situations, over the dollar figure.

McCutchen's camp certainly is keenly aware of $51-million payouts that Upton and Bruce accepted in 2010. The Pirates' target will be lower, perhaps around the $40.5-million package second baseman Dustin Pedroia took from the Boston Red Sox in 2008.

The Pirates spent $42 million on player salaries this year, which was $6 million less than they spent in 2008 and 2009.

Payroll is expected to rise next year, in part because the team's core players will be due for salary bumps under MLB's collective bargaining agreement. The Pirates' only long-term commitment is to outfielder Jose Tabata, who in August inked a six-year, $15-million extension.

As player with less than three years' experience in the majors, McCutchen must accept whatever annual salary the Pirates offer. After the 2012 season, McCutchen will be eligible for salary arbitration, which gives him a limited measure of control over his paycheck.

Arbitration can be an expensive way to work out a deal. This spring, Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf won his case and was awarded a $2.025 million salary, despite winning just one game last season.

With arbitration looming, the Pirates are beginning to feel some urgency to sign McCutchen. He has enough of a track record in the majors — a .277 batting average and a .823 on-base plus slugging percentage over 415 games — to assess his value. McCutchen plays center field, the most demanding position in the outfield, which adds to his worth. Bruce and Upton are right fielders.

"Although he is a different type of player than both Upton and Bruce, McCutchen definitely deserves to be in the same pay range," former Reds GM Jim Bowden said. "I think Upton will play out to be the superior of the three, but Bruce and McCutchen certainly are very close (to Upton) in value."

Bowden, an analyst for and MLB Radio, suggested a fair deal for the Pirates and McCutchen would be a six-year, $49-million contract with a $13-million option for 2018.

"McCutchen will always be a tradeable player with a six-year deal at the age of 24," Bowden said. "If the Pirates can afford to keep him through his free-agent years, this deal will be a bargain by 2016-2017, just like Upton's and Bruce's (contracts) will be."

Both Bruce and Upton were two-plus players when they got their contracts. Upton signed his $51.75-million deal a month before the start of the 2010 season, when he had 289 games of experience. Bruce agreed to his $51-million pact in December 2010, after he had appeared in 357 games.

Although McCutchen has more service time than Upton and Bruce had when they got their long-term deals, there are some important differences that could mean a lower payout for McCutchen.

Bruce was a Super-2 player, which means he had enough service time to get an extra year of arbitration eligibility. The possibility of facing four years of arbitration nudged the Reds to giving him the long-term contract.

A breakout year always leads to a larger payday. Pedroia's deal came after he won the AL MVP. After finishing third in the NL MVP race last season, Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez signed a seven-year, $80-million contract in January.

McCutchen has not yet had a breakout year, but it might only be a matter of time. This season, he earned his first All-Star berth and is hitting .262 with an .823 OPS. He's only the eighth Pirate to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in the same season.

In 2009 Upton showed all the signs of a coming breakout — he hit .300 with a .899 OPS and earned an All-Star berth — so the Diamondbacks locked him up before his value shot up even higher.

"There's nothing that Justin Upton can't do in this game," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "The power numbers are real. The bat is real. He takes pride in his defense. He runs the bases hard and he can steal a base. A very exciting young player."

That sounds a lot like McCutchen, doesn't it?

"Yeah, there are definitely some similarities there," Hurdle said. "And there's so much room to get better. Andrew is just scratching the surface. He's where Justin Upton was four years ago."

In more ways than one.

Possible replacement may already be in system

If the Pirates cannot sign Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal, he could be traded or leave as a free agent after the 2015 season.

Who would replace McCutchen in center field• That player might already be on the team or still developing in the club's farm system.

Jose Tabata, who this year signed a six-year extension, played center field in the minor leagues. Though he is not as flat-out fast as McCutchen, Tabata has good speed and takes solid routes to the ball. He also has an average-plus throwing arm. Alex Presley, whom the Pirates control for five more years, also can play in center.

Assistant general manager Kyle Stark said Gorkys Hernandez, who hit .283 with a .740 OPS this season at Triple-A Indianapolis, has the tools to be "something special, defensively" in center. Would that be enough to replace McCutchen?

"It's going to take someone unique, if and when that ever happens," Stark said. "Andrew McCutchen has no interest in moving off center field. But as far as abilities, looking at it in a vacuum, Gorkys Hernandez is definitely a center fielder."

Starlin Marte, 22, batted .332 with an .870 OPS at Double-A Altoona. Stark said Marte's defensive skills already are close being to major league-ready.

"Defensively, he definitely belongs in center field," Stark said. "Offensively, the big question for him, in terms of his ultimate upside, is how does he control the strike zone• I think he has the ability to do it; it's just a matter of commitment on every pitch, every night."

Stark said the Pirates intend to continue to develop both Marte and Hernandez as center fielders. Both are expected to be at Indy next year, though there is chance Hernandez begins the season with the Pirates as the fourth outfielder.

Additional Information:

Andrew McCutchen

Position: Center field

Age: 24

Bats/Throws: Right/Right

Height/Weight: 5-feet-10/188 lbs.

Drafted, round: 2005/1st, 11th

MLB debut: June 4, 2009

Career stats: 415 games, .277 BA, .823 OPS*

Other: All-Star 2011

*through Thursday

Additional Information:

Justin Upton

Position: Right field

Age: 24

Bats/Throws: Right/right

Height/Weight: 6-feet-2/205 lbs.

Drafted/round: 2005/1st

MLB debut: Aug. 2, 2007

Career stats: 577 games, .278 BA, .847 OPS*

Other: All-Star 2009, 2011

*through Thursday

Additional Information:

Jay Bruce

Position: Right field

Age: 24

Bats/Throws: Left/left

Height/Weight: 6-feet3/225 lbs.

Drafted/round: 2005/1st

MLB debut: May 27, 2008

Career stats: 508 games, .257 BA, .805 OPS*

Other: All-Star 2011

*through Thursday

Additional Information:

Dustin Pedroia

Position: Second base

Age: 28

Bats/Throws: Right/right

Height/Weight: 5-feet-9/180 lbs.

Drafted/round: 2004/2nd

MLB debut: Aug. 22, 2006

Career stats: 709 games, .304 BA, .851 OPS*

Other: Rookie of the Year 2007; MVP 2008; All-Star 2008, 2009, 2010; Gold Glove 2008

*through Thursday

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