LAS VEGAS — The Phillies’ signing of Andrew McCutchen to a three-year deal worth a reported $50 million would have moved the needle quite a bit three years ago. At that point, he was 29 years old, had made the National League All-Star team five straight years and finished in the top five in MVP voting for four straight seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He had a résumé and a reputation at that time that would have made him more highly sought than either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado will be in this year’s free-agent market.
As the Phillies’ previous regime painfully learned, however, time takes its toll on even the greatest players. Get to the age of 32 and it’s quite possible the view on the immediate horizon is a cliff. McCutchen turned 32 two months ago, but the Phillies decided his precipice is still well off in the distance and to the surprise of many in baseball they risked a lot of money on it.
“They sure did,” one big-league manager said as he walked through the sprawling lobby of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino early Tuesday afternoon. “Our scouts still think he can play, though.”
Another big-league manager, in fact the one who spent nine seasons managing McCutchen, remains a huge fan of the outfielder who won the National League MVP award in 2013 while leading the Pirates to their first playoff appearance in 21 years.
“I love him,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I love him. He’s a ballplayer. Passionate for the game, respects the game and takes care of his teammates. He has been a lifelong learner and he has added value to everything he has done. I appreciate the man.”
Asked if McCutchen has lost a step as an outfielder, a base stealer and a hitter, Hurdle said, “That’s for you guys to figure out.”
Given how great a player and how much of a clubhouse leader he was during his tenure in Pittsburgh, it’s only logical to conclude that the Pirates did think McCutchen was on the decline when they traded him to the San Francisco Giants last January.
That does not mean his former manager was happy to see him go.
“He plays hard,” Hurdle said. “He gives you everything he’s got. What more can you ask for as a manager? And he wants to win. He was certainly one of our clubhouse leaders and with his experience and his attitude, it made sense that he would be.”
The Phillies might be willing to admit that McCutchen is no longer an MVP-type player, but they still believe he is well above average and there are numbers to support that notion, including a .368 on-base percentage.
With the Giants last season, McCutchen remained a leader, which is something the Phillies could really use. It was unfair to Rhys Hoskins last season that he had to become the team leader in his first full big-league season. Hoskins handled the role with remarkable aplomb, but now he has a guy with a ton of experience to help him in that role. Regardless of how much any team pays Machado and Harper, there is no guarantee that they are going to get that attribute as part of the deal.
What McCutchen was not with the Giants or with the New York Yankees after they acquired him for the September stretch run was a centerfielder. He played almost his entire career as a centerfielder in Pittsburgh, winning a Gold Glove in 2012. But his 128 games with the Giants last season were all played in right field. The good news for the Phillies is that McCutchen handled the position very well despite some of the difficult nooks and crannies at AT&T Park. After joining the Yankees, McCutchen started 15 games in right field and nine in left.
It seems more likely that he will play right field for the Phillies with Nick Williams possibly moving to left field or even being traded. The Phillies wanted to upgrade their outfield defense and no doubt feel as though they have with McCutchen’s addition.
Was the price too high?
“Sometimes you have to pay to get what you want,” a National League executive said. “They obviously got the guy they wanted.”
While three years and $50 million does seem to be a steep price for a player who just hit a career-low .255 and had the second-lowest WAR figure of his career at 2.0, it will be interesting to see what free agents Michael Brantley and A.J. Pollock end up getting. If they wanted considerably more, then maybe the price was right, especially if it opens the door for the signing of Machado. It could be argued that Brantley, who played with Cleveland, and Pollock, who played with Arizona, had better seasons than McCutchen last year. But those two also have extensive injury histories.
McCutchen, on the other hand, has been on the disabled list just once in his career, with fractured ribs in 2014, and he as had more than 600 plate appearances every year since 2010.