This offseason figures to be one of the most high-priced and exciting free agent affairs in the league’s long history – and the Chicago Cubs could very well be at the heart of it all (LOL … that might not be true anymore). In any case, these players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs, positions, and talent levels.
Potential Target: Andrew McCutchen, Age 32
Performance in 2018
I have a theory that some number of Cubs fans paid so much extra attention to baseball during the 2016 season (for obvious reasons), that many of their opinions on players are stuck in that period. For example, that season was the first and most major drop-off for Andrew McCutchen – when he was on the Pirates, no less – and despite the two bounce-backing performances that followed, people think he totally became toast at the plate. That’s just not true.
Let’s start simple: McCutchen’s slash line may have been lacking in the power department last season (remember where he was playing his home games for most of the year out in San Francisco), but thanks to a 13.9% walk rate, he got on base at an impressive .368 clip. That’s a high-quality OBP, ranking among the top 20 in baseball last season, which might, alone, get you to start dreaming about an everyday lead-off hitter.
Speaking of everyday, McCutchen drew 682 plate appearances last year and has been at or above 648 PAs in nine of his ten seasons. That’s dependable and notable. But I digress.
But if OBP isn’t enough to get you moving, note that a 120 wRC+ means McCutchen was 20% better than the league average hitter last season, all things considered. That would’ve ranked fourth on the Cubs behind Javy Baez (131 wRC+), Anthony Rizzo (125 wRC+), and Ben Zobrist (123 wRC+), and just ahead of Kyle Schwarber (115 wRC+).
But despite boasting strong overall offensive numbers, I think McCutchen could’ve been even better last season than he already was. Consider that he dropped his soft-hit rate down to 13.5% for the year, which is lower than his career average, and posted the highest hard-hit rate of his career (43.4%). Yeah, the Andrew McCutchen hit the ball harder last season than he ever has in his career – and remember, we’re talking about a formerly ELITE hitter here.
But I’m not just talking about bounce-backs in the BABIP department (though that should be expected). Indeed, with a strong fly ball rate to match all that hard contact, McCutchen probably should’ve hit for a lot more power last season, too. So if you told me he was in store for a bump in his ISO, I’d believe you.
In the end, the results say he was a good hitter last season, but the peripherals say he could’ve been great. If aging doesn’t bite him too hard over the next couple years, he could keep on keeping on at the plate.
Performance Before 2018
We can break McCutchen’s career up into three chunks: the start, the fall, and the bounce-back. Considering that we started with half of his bounce back in the section prior (2018), let’s start with the 2017 season and work backwards.
I’ll keep 2017 brief: Basically, McCutchen hit slightly better in 2017 (123 wRC+) than he did in 2018 (120 wRC+), slashing .279/.363/.486. He walked a little less and got on base a little less, but he also struck out less, hit for a higher average, more power and maintained strong batted ball peripherals. He has been a very good hitter for the past two seasons.
2016 was the nightmare year, however. Riding high following his fifth straight season of at least a 130 wRC+ with 5.0 WAR, McCutchen hit a wall in 2016. He was technically an above-average hitter (105 wRC+), but that was a STEEP drop off from 2015 (144 wRC+). It’s not easy to identify exactly what happened, because it looks like it was a little bit of everything:
- His K-rate rose to an all-time high
- His walk rate dropped to an all-time low
- Soft% rose to an all-time high
- Hard% dropped beneath his career average
- Infield fly ball rate rose to an all-time high
And I can go on. For one reason or another, the peripherals all fell for McCutchen in 2016 and his results took a major hit for it. A one-year blip? Maybe so.
Let’s move onto the fun part: the start of his career.
McCutchen broke into the league back in 2009, and from 2009-2015, he was one of the best players in baseball. Indeed, through those seven seasons, McCutchen’s 144 wRC+ ranked 10th best in baseball, behind only guys like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, Prince Fielder, and the like.
And thanks to everything else he offered (like 143 stolen bases, 128 home runs, an 11.7% walk rate, and average(ish) defense), he earned 41.2 WAR … second only to Cabrera during that stretch (Mike Trout was just behind with 38.4 WAR). Yep. For a seven-year stretch, McCutchen was the second most valuable player in baseball.
Projection for 2019 and Beyond
Of course, 2015 was three seasons ago and McCutchen is 32 now. A lot can change, and I think it already has. But with that said, if McCutchen’s new normal (at least for a few seasons) is in that 120 wRC+ range, I think any team would be happy to have him. And fortunately, that’s exactly what the projections are forecasting. In fact, Steamer believes he’ll have his best year since 2015.
Steamer: .265/.363/.461 (124 wRC+); 12.4 BB%, 20.9 K% and 20 HRs
If you could lock that production in out of the Cubs leadoff spot right now, you’d do it in a heartbeat. For reference, Dexter Fowler posted a 109 wRC+ and a 129 wRC+ in his two seasons with the Cubs.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
In general, everyone but Jon Heyman’s expert seems to agree that McCutchen is in store for a 2-3 year deal in the $12-$13M range per year. Heyman’s expert tacks on additional year and a couple million in AAV, but that would be the absolute high end, if I had to guess.
Additionally, I’ll point out that MLB Trade Rumors actually predicted that he’ll wind up on the Cubs, but also mentions the Indians, Rays, Cardinals, Braves, White Sox, and Phillies as possibilities. Some of those teams might make sense, but someone would probably see McCutchen as backup if other things fell through.
I really don’t want to sleep on the fact that this guy has taken 650 plate appearances in every full season he’s played in (all but his rookie debut). Injuries can happen at any time and might get more likely as you get older, but McCutchen has been a model of health and consistency and he deserves credit for that – not unlike Jon Lester when the Cubs targeted him.
Although he’s not going to be a tremendous defender out there anymore, it’s a plus that McCutchen can capably play any of the three outfield positions. Nice to have when you might have other parts moving around a lot.
I also love the fact that McCutchen has not one, but two bounce-back seasons after his drop-off in 2016. That tells me 2016 was more likely the fluke and not the resurgence in 2017-18. Sure, he could fall off the face of the earth again, but nothing in his peripherals over the last two years indicates that’s coming.
And finally, McCutchen is an Anthony Rizzo-level good dude. The city of Pittsburgh LOVED him and he’s done a lot for his community over the years. He even won the coveted Roberto Clemente Award back in 2015. Having a guy like that to add to the clubhouse is absolutely a good thing that goes beyond solely what he does on the field.
Fit for Cubs
The Cubs need an everyday leadoff hitter, and McCutchen can easily be that guy. As an outfielder, adding him to the fold would be easy enough, especially because, if needed, he could play in Wrigley’s manageable center field. Of course, the Cubs could also move Jason Heyward to center and stick McCutchen in right, and move the rest of the outfield pieces around or to other teams accordingly.
And if he’s really willing to take a 2-3 year deal for less than $40M, he should have no problem fitting into the Cubs financial plans. Sure, that would likely take them close to that upper CBT bound, but I’m not sure that’s as much of barrier as total dollars is.
So positionally, offensively, financially, and in terms of desirability, Andrew McCutchen seems like a perfect fit for the Cubs. If they’re really not going to go after Bryce Harper, I really hope McCutchen is at the top of their board.
Final thought: Targeting a cheaper guy like McCutchen could allow the Cubs to max out on other impactful shorter-term deals. It’s a heavy bet on some aging veterans, but the Cubs are at that point in their competitive window. It’s time to put the peddle to the metal.