Imagine, just for a moment, an outfield consisting of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Andrew McCutchen, all wearing a Nationals uniform.
Keep thinking. Keep salivating. Now stop.
First, we salivate. Then, we think.
In any deal that the brings Andrew McCutchen to D.C., the Pirates have made it excruciatingly clear that they demand a whole slew of blue-chip prospects in return.
Now let’s think about Andrew McCutchen. Even when coming off of a season that is among the worst in his career, McCutchen is a star — there’s no disputing that. However, the Pirates, in desperate need of a shake-up, are ready to deal their centerfielder away, and they aren’t taking any discounts. But, although Bryce Harper had the worst season in his career last season, he’s still Bryce Harper, and any team wanting to acquire him is going to have to empty the farm to even have a remote chance of getting Mike Rizzo’s ear. The same goes for Andrew McCutchen: he’s still Andrew McCutchen, and if the Nats want to get him, they’ll have to give up a lot of talent.
One player the Pirates are eager to get their hands on is one of the Nats’ young outfield prospects, Victor Robles. Robles, if you’ve never heard of him, is pretty good — he’s the Nats’ second-best prospect, the 10th-best prospect in baseball, and is ranked second out of all prospects for his raw tools. Baseball America has called the young (19 years old, to be exact) Dominican “one of the most dynamic prospects in the game,” with “the potential to be a true five-tool player.” So yeah, pretty good.
That’s not where it ends, though. Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ GM, isn’t just going to take Robles 1-for-1 for McCutchen — he’ll demand some major league talent, and will also likely be interested in some of the young, nearly majors-ready pitchers the Nats have available not named Lucas Giolito (think Reynaldo Lopez or Austin Voth).
In summary: Robles, a major-leaguer, and Reynaldo Lopez or Austin Voth. That’s a lot of talent. Is McCutchen worth it? Almost certainly not — no player that isn’t named Mike Trout is really worth that haul.
For that reason alone, the Nats should be skeptical of this deal. But that’s not where it ends — there’s another, much more practical reason for Mike Rizzo to not make this deal.
In two years, when McCutchen reaches free-agency and signs a lucrative deal, which will likely not be with the Nationals, Bryce Harper will also reach the open market, and Jayson Werth will likely be long-gone (Werth is a free-agent after the 2017 season). That means the Nationals’ outfield will be completely empty by Opening Day of 2019, assuming Bryce Harper departs. Right around that time, the baseball world will have its eyes focused not on Washington, but instead on Pittsburgh, as they eagerly await the major-league debut of Victor Robles, a player who is expected to eventually replace Bryce Harper (if he were to remain a National).
That empty outfield will have to be replenished somehow — either with current minor-leaguers, none of whom outside of Robles look particularly inspiring as Bryce Harper’s replacements — or with outside deals, which will require either further emptying the farm system, or signing two or more outfielders to new, expensive contracts. Neither of those scnenarios sound particularly enticing.
Either way, the Nats’ run of consistently being in contention would be in jeopardy — most teams that give away the farm generally don’t succeed, immediately or afterwards. (Generally, it’s difficult to win when you need to fill two to three outfield spots and have given away the majority of your pitching talent.)
There’s a much easier solution here: signing a free-agent outfielder such as Dexter Fowler.
Trading for McCutchen is not a necessity. Let us not forget that offense is not what killed the Nationals during the playoffs last season — the Nationals scored 24 runs to the Dodgers’ 15 during the 2016 NLDS — nor are the Nationals particularly struggling out of the leadoff spot, with Trea Turner poised to hold it down for the forseeable future.
If Rizzo (or the Lerner family) is absolutely insistent on going into win-now mode and making a showy move that pushes the team to the NLCS or beyond, acquiring Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox for the same package featuring Robles would be much more prudent — the value of a starting pitcher like Sale still in his prime far outweighs the potential value McCutchen could add. Plus, the Nats could add another centerfielder through free-agency and not deal with an empty outfield come 2019.
Next July, if the Nationals are still desperate for a centerfielder, it’s quite possible that the Pirates will continue to struggle but still have McCutchen on their roster — meaning that Pittsburgh would be willing to deal him away for a much lower price.
Ideally, Rizzo pulls of a deal for either McCutchen or Sale without giving away Robles or any blue-chip prospects — but for now, if it comes down to either giving away Robles for McCutchen or having to move on and look elsewhere, there is absolutely no question that Mike Rizzo should pass on McCutchen.