Just how good is Andrew McCutchen?

Those of you who know me personally know that one of my least favorite days of this baseball season was June 3: the day Nate McLouth was traded to the Atlanta Braves. As a McLouth fan, it was great to see his breakout season of last year, which resulted in a well-deserved All-Star nomination and a Gold Glove.

It was also, however, one of my favorite days of the season. The reason why was the promotion of Andrew Stefan McCutchen.

Of all of the first-round draft picks of former Pirates’ GM Dave Littlefield’s tenure, McCutchen was by far my favorite, perhaps the only one I really liked. McCutchen was a high school center fielder with outstanding speed and athletic ability. He also had impressive bat speed and the raw talent of another Pirates center field prospect of years past: one Barry Lamar Bonds of Arizona State.

Having met him at PirateFest this year, I was impressed with his maturity, his handling of the fans and media, and his improved physical conditioning. He put on a significant amount of muscle in the off-season to prepare himself for the rigors of playing a Major League schedule.

I was also present for his three-home run game on August 1 at PNC Park against the Nationals. He joined Pirate greats Willie Stargell (four times), Ralph Kiner (four times), and Roberto Clemente (twice) as the tenth to accomplish the feat, and is also the only rookie in team history to do so.

In his rookie year, McCutchen already has a three-homer game on his resume.

In his rookie year, McCutchen already has a three-homer game on his resume.

During his progression through the Pirates’ minor league system, and culminating with his impressive showing through his first 62 Major League games, McCutchen has made the case for being the most talented prospect to come out of the Pirates’ organization since Bonds. He is also making a case to be this year’s National League Rookie of the Year.

This blog will make a case for just how good he really is, and how important he can be to the team’s future.

Entering this afternoon’s game against the Cubs, McCutchen was hitting .289 with .357 on-base percentage, a .478 slugging percentage, 17 doubles, five triples, seven home runs, 33 RBIs, 43 runs scored and 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, all coming in 283 plate appearances.

His numbers are comparable to the first full big league season of another Major League player, one that has already earned three All-Star nominations, two Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger award in six seasons: Grady Sizemore of the Cleveland Indians.

Some might argue that Cutch’s numbers are in too small of a sample size, so I projected McCutchen’s numbers over the same number of plate appearances that Sizemore had, 706, in his first full season in 2005. Here is what I found:

Sizemore (2005): .289/.348/.484, 111 R, 185 H, 37 2B, 11 3B, 22 HR, 81 RBI, 22 SB, 10 CS, 52 BB, 132 K

McCutchen (proj.): .289/.357/.478, 107 R, 182 H, 42 2B, 12 3B, 17 HR, 82 RBI, 30 SB, 2 CS, 65 BB, 115 K

Extrapolated over 700-plus times at bat, McCutchen matches Sizemore’s batting average with a slightly higher OBP and slightly lower SLG, nearly identical numbers in hits, doubles, triples and RBIs, more stolen bases, more walks, and significantly fewer strikeouts.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that I’m saying McCutchen is already better than Sizemore.

Slow down.

What I’m saying is that at this point in his career, McCutchen has the potential to put up superstar-type numbers like Sizemore and justify his scouting reports as a potential five-tool player: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, defense, and throwing arm. If you want to compare the two based on their tools, you could say the two are even as far as hitting for average, giving Grady the nod in hitting power and defense, and Cutch the advantage in speed and throwing arm.

When you add the numbers, plus the tools, it’s practically a dead heat.

At 27, Sizemore is a bonafide star and one of the Indians' cornerstone players.

At 27, Sizemore is a bonafide star and one of the Indians' cornerstone players.

Given that current Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington was formerly an assistant GM in Cleveland when Sizemore was starting out, I could only imagine his excitement about finally turning McCutchen loose in the big leagues.

Having read this, I’m sure I know what some of you thinking now: now that we know how good McCutchen is, there’s no way he’s going to stick around in Pittsburgh. They’re going to trade him.

Not if Huntington does with McCutchen what his former employer did with Sizemore.

Looking over Grady Sizemore’s six-year, $23.45 million contract that he signed with Cleveland in March of ’06, this is the structure of the deal: ’06: $500,000; ’07: $750,000; ’08: $3 million; ’09: $4.6 million; ’10: $5.6 million; ’11: $7.5 million; ’12: $8.5 million club option ($500,000 buyout)

This type of contract is similar in structure and pay increase to those that the Indians agreed to with players like Travis Hafner, Fausto Carmona, Jhonny Peralta, and departed players Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez. They’re also similar to the contracts the Pirates committed to with McLouth, Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, and Ian Snell, who has since been traded to the Seattle Mariners.

The advantage of these types of four, five, and six-year contracts for players that are so young, but proven is that it allows them to keep control of those players throughout their arbitration years, and even into their free agency years at a price that’s much more affordable compared to their inflated value through arbitration or on the open market.

The downside is, if the player’s production does not match the contract’s value (i.e. Hafner, Snell, Carmona), then the contract becomes an albatross and the team may be forced to make a trade in order to save the contract value.

Neal Huntington has identified McCutchen as a critical piece of the Pirates' future. But he will have to pay up to make sure it stays that way.

Neal Huntington has identified McCutchen as a critical piece of the Pirates' future. But he will have to pay up to make sure it stays that way.

I say all of that to say this: McCutchen is the Pirates’ future right now. He represents the only true talented player that can be identified as a piece of the Pirates’ future core talent.

That means the Pirates must move to sign McCutchen to a long-term deal similar – if not exactly identical, given the numbers and pedigree – to Sizemore’s. I’m sure that McCutchen’s agent, Steve Hammond, would be very excited about said opportunity. An agreement for guaranteed money over that period means his client will be well-paid for his worth, matching one of the best players in the game at the same position.

Also, a similar amount over six years guarantees McCutchen is a Pirate through 2015, and possibly 2016, at a very affordable rate. If they were willing to pay Adam LaRoche $7.05 million to perform way below expectations this season, $8.5 million for potentially one of the best outfielders and most naturally-talented players in the game (at 29 years old and in the prime of his career, no less) is a steal.

Pirates’ team president Frank Coonelly has publicly stated in the past that he cannot envision Andrew McCutchen not being in a Pirate uniform. Huntington has said that McCutchen has the potential to be a player the team can build around.

If McCutchen’s potential comes to fruition and Huntington’s history repeats itself, there’s no reason to think it can’t happen.