Zachary Levine's ESPN Insider article about the Pirates made the rounds this morning. For those who can't read it, the gist is that the Pirates are wasting Andrew McCutchen's prime, just as they wasted Jason Kendall's, and either simply going for it (much in the same way the Indians and Blue Jays have this offseason) or trading him would be better courses of option than simply waiting for Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to arrive.
There's no doubt there's an issue here -- the Pirates have a young superstar, and their organizational talent base is far better than it was five years ago, and yet it's hard to tell whether the Bucs are trying to win now or building for the future. Joel Hanrahan trade aside, they seem to be mostly done with the every-veteran-must-go phase. If anything, they've been adding veteran talent over the past year, with the additions of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. And yet I don't think anyone projects the Pirates to be a serious contender.
Still, I have to take issue with the idea that trading McCutchen would be a wise course of action. It would be very difficult for the Pirates to get fair value for him, for one thing. And unlike Kendall, a catcher, McCutchen projects to age gracefully, thanks to his well-rounded offensive game, athleticism, and clean health record. McCutchen projects to age incredibly gracefully, in fact. Every aging player is a risk, but McCutchen is as good a bet as any 26-year-old to still be very good in five years, when the Pirates' current prospects will theoretically be contributing at a high level. McCutchen's contract also is very favorable, to such a degree that the Pirates could easily wait three years and then get great value for him in a trade. The Pirates shouldn't rule anything out, but absent any specifics, trading McCutchen isn't something I'd be looking to do if I were them.
Levine's other alternative -- essentially, going for it right now -- doesn't sit well with me either, although some of that might depend on details of the Bucs' finances to which I'm not privy. Levine points to the Dodgers, who have spent heavily to build a team around Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. That's nonsense, of course, since, as Levine acknowledges, the Pirates don't have the financial advantages the Dodgers do. He also points to Cleveland signing Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, which of course are exactly the sorts of moves fans love but which frankly strike me as much more bizarre and plan-less than anything the Bucs are currently doing. And even if that weren't the case, there's also the matter of the Indians' lucrative new TV deal -- unfortunately, the Pirates don't have that money.
It doesn't make much sense to pretend you're a contender if you're not, and a couple players aren't likely to make up the difference between the Pirates and the Reds, who project as a 90-plus-win team, this year. Levine doesn't mention the Royals in his piece, but Kansas City's senseless trade for James Shields is another example of a team going for it when it probably shouldn't. The Indians and Royals will likely win more games in 2013 than they did in 2012, but they're unlikely to make the playoffs, and they're going to be paying for their veteran additions (the Indians will spend money, and the Royals will have to watch Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi grow up as Rays) for many years.
So, does trading McCutchen make sense? Probably not, in my opinion. Is going for it, Indians-style, a good idea? Possibly, depending on the team's finances, but I doubt it. So what other options are there? Sometimes, in poker, you run into situations where there don't appear to be any good options -- for example, you're faced with a raise, and you'll be playing out of position if you call, your opponent won't fold to a reraise, and your hand is too strong to fold. In those situations, sometimes the best thing to do is to use process of elimination. The Pirates are currently in a spot where there isn't a clear way ahead. I'm not sure decisive action is the best choice right now, so we're left with ... trying to win now and in the future at the same time. It's awkward, but that's what the Pirates seem to be doing, and that's probably what I'd go with, too.