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The Pirates should consider trading Andrew McCutchen

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew McCutchen has been a fixture in PNC Park's center field since 2009, and for many of the seasons since then, he's been a fixture on NL MVP ballots as well. He was the Pirates' best player as they ended their 20-year streak of losing seasons, and three of his best years corresponded with the three best Pirates seasons since the early 1990s.

Now, though, all that might be in the past, and the Pirates should strongly consider trading him.

The Pirates should not deal McCutchen if they don't get an offer they like. There should not be any desperation to trade McCutchen, and in fact there are valid reasons to consider waiting to deal him, or not doing it at all. McCutchen is a good player coming off a bad season, and there might turn out to be more value in waiting to trade him until July. There's also the possibility that the Bucs could contend again, and that McCutchen could again be the centerpiece of a good team. He's also making a modest $14 million in 2017 and he has a $14.75 million option for 2018, salaries the Pirates should certainly be able to afford.

We might, however, be reaching the point where the benefits of trading McCutchen outweigh the benefits of keeping him. McCutchen turns 30 on Monday, and he's coming off his worst season in the big leagues. That's a problem.

A player's decline usually doesn't follow a straight line. McCutchen could have many good years of baseball in him, and even if 2016 did mark the beginning of his descent, his path down in elevation could take him over smaller hills, the tops of which would still be very high points by most players' standards. It's also possible 2016 might not turn out to be the beginning of the end at all, and that McCutchen could have three or four more 2012-through-2015-caliber seasons left in him.

But if we have to guess, "he's turning 30 and he's coming off his worst season" seems like a good place to start. Expecting 6-WAR seasons from McCutchen going forward would be unwise. Extending him probably would too. And the value of waiting to deal him until he reestablishes himself would appear to be increasingly limited, since the Pirates only have two years before he's eligible for free agency anyway. His trade value might be relatively low right now due to his recent performance, but his value relative to his performance will decline once next season starts anyway, because his new team will be getting him for fewer and fewer games.

Maybe the Pirates have good reason to be more confident in McCutchen's performance going forward than potential trade partners will be, and maybe that will turn out to be a good reason to keep him. The Bucs can take comfort in McCutchen's performance over the last two months of the season, which were fairly consistent with his pre-2016 track record. If that's the McCutchen they believe in, and no one else does, then fine -- they should keep him until he proves them right.

But if they can find a trade partner willing to pay a reasonably high price for him, they should make a move. Fangraphs' Dave Cameron, in a midseason piece that was about how the Pirates shouldn't trade McCutchen, offhandedly compared the Pirates' situation to that of the Rockies' decision to trade Troy Tulowitzki. The idea was that the Rockies had a talented asset whose value wasn't at its peak, but they traded him anyway. Tulowitzki's value continued to decline since the deal.

Of the players the Rockies got in return, the only one who's performed well is Jeff Hoffman. Putting that aside, though, the Rockies' timing was good, and his example suggests that selling low can sometimes make sense if a player still has value and there's a reasonable chance that value will continue to decline. In McCutchen's case, the odds are at least decent that it will, simply because he only has two years of control remaining.

Then there's the question of exactly what the Pirates are trying to do in 2017. After a 78-win 2016 campaign, their chances to contend next season appear limited, especially with the Cubs having an apparent stranglehold on the top of the division, some of the Pirates' more productive players in 2016 (Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, Ivan Nova, Neftali Feliz) becoming free agents, and a thin free agent market at the Bucs' most obvious area of need (starting pitching). That hurts to write, but there's no point in the Pirates pretending they're something they're not. The Bucs still have their share of talent, but next year's rotation looks weak, and they have so many long-term contracts among their position players that they're somewhat limited in their ability to improve by acquiring hitting. A full-scale rebuild would be ridiculous, but to not consider trading a short-term asset like McCutchen seems silly too.

Obviously, there would be no shortage of interest in McCutchen, although I'm sure most teams would want to use him as a corner outfielder. The Astros, who need outfield help, are looking to spend this winter, and have a ton of young talent, stand out as an obvious potential trade partner. The Blue Jays, Dodgers, Giants and others could also make some amount of sense, depending on how the free agent market unfolds.

The Pirates could perhaps ask for a top-50 prospect and a MLB or MLB-ready player or two. The number of very good prospects to have changed hands recently (Clint Frazier, Anderson Espinoza, Lewis Brinson, Gleyber Torres, Manuel Margot, and so on) suggests that the Bucs should set their asking price high. Maybe the extremely seller-friendly market that existed at this year's trade deadline won't continue into the offseason, and if it doesn't, again, hoping it returns in July is a possibility. But when teams ask about McCutchen this winter, the Pirates should listen.