There’s a club of major league superstars so exclusive it has just two members.

To get in requires a number of recent top-five finishes in Most Valuable Player voting. One year won’t do—sorry, Bryce Harper—and neither will two. You might get there soon, Manny Machado, but not just yet.

No, to get into this most exclusive club will take at least four years of top-five finishes, all in the last five seasons.

Mike Trout is in, obviously. And less obviously, so is Andrew McCutchen.

The Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder had a bad year in 2016. There’s no question about that. His offense dropped off, his baserunning wasn’t great and his defense in center field was the worst in the game by some measures.

He wasn’t an MVP this year. He wasn’t an MVP candidate.

He certainly isn’t Mike Trout.

But McCutchen shouldn’t be forgotten, not in a winter when the Pirates are willing to listen to trade offers for a guy an acquiring team would control for the next two years. There just aren’t many guys out there who can do what he has already done. 

If McCutchen is anything close to the perennial MVP candidate he was from 2012 to 2015 (including his MVP-winning season in 2013), then he’s a bargain at $14 million next year. If he’s the player he was for much of 2016, he’s a drag on your payroll at any price.

“He’s going to come to camp and be Andrew McCutchen again,” Neal Huntington predicted to Bleacher Report last week.

Huntington is hardly a neutral observer. He’s the Pirates general manager, which means he needs McCutchen‘s value to be high for a trade or his performance level to be high if the Pirates keep him.

“We don’t think it’s a coincidence we were really good when he was really good,” Huntington said.

He was the very symbol of the Pirates’ return to relevance, a first-round draft pick who emerged as a star just as the team was becoming a contender. The six-year, $51.5 million contract McCutchen signed during spring training in 2012 was a strong signal from both the team and the player.

He’s available now because limited-budget teams like the Pirates can’t afford to offer big contracts that take players deep into their 30s. McCutchen turned 30 last month, and if that doesn’t make him old now, it means he will be old before his next contract runs out.

It’s the perfect time for a team like the Pirates to think about a trade—or it would be if McCutchen were coming off anything but the worst season of his career. But that might make it the perfect time to acquire him if he’s about to bounce back.

He was bad enough in 2016 to make you wonder if age is already catching up with him. He was bad enough to make you wonder if the injuries that contributed to his drop-off were even worse than he and the Pirates admitted, or if he had issues with manager Clint Hurdle.

“He didn’t play with that Andrew McCutchen edge,” said one American League scout who has followed his career. “Maybe he just needs to get out of there and get some new scenery—unless there’s some long-term medical issue. He has been banged up.”

“His body language wasn’t the same,” said another scout, who works for a National League team. “Was it him getting older or being hurt? This guy played like his hair was on fire before.”

Huntington agreed a hand injury was a factor in McCutchen starting so slow in 2016, but he shot down rumors there could be a lingering knee issue.

“No player is the same at 30 as he was at 25, but he has no long-term health issues at all,” Huntington said.

Huntington pointed to McCutchen‘s stronger performance at the end of the season. His walk-to-strikeout ratio got much better in the final two months, and Huntington said better bat speed led to McCutchen handling high-velocity pitching better as the year went on.

The National League scout said the body language also improved.

“I saw more energy later in the year,” he said.

Another American League scout saw similar improvement and called it a possible sign McCutchen could return to star status.

“He can be a star again,” the scout said. “But I doubt he can be a superstar, because the speed element is somewhat gone.”

Observers generally agree McCutchen has lost a step, cutting down on his ability to steal bases and turning an above-average center fielder into one who is average or worse.

The Pirates believe the defensive metrics are somewhat unfair. Huntington said the Pirates asked McCutchen to play shallower to cut off base hits in front of him, and when pitchers failed to execute, it resulted in him allowing balls to get past him.

But Huntington also admitted the Pirates will consider changing their outfield alignment if McCutchen is back in 2017, with Starling Marte possibly taking over in center field and McCutchen taking a corner spot.

The same metric that gave McCutchen a minus-28 in defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs (the worst by a full-time center fielder since Matt Kemp in 2010), had Marte as plus-19 in left field.

Kemp is one example of a star rebounding from a bad season. He wasn’t good offensively (by his standards) or defensively in 2010, but he bounced back so well he finished second in MVP voting in 2011. Then again, he was only 26.

McCutchen is 30, old enough to make you wonder how many more good years he has left. Remember, though, a team trading for him this winter should mainly be concerned that he has a good 2017-18 remaining.

“I personally think he’s got a couple years,” the National League scout said.

Not surprisingly, McCutchen agrees. Before the season ended, he told Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he knows he needs to do better.

“I’ve got to prove—not to [fans] but to the team and to ownership—that I’m able to play out my career at a high level,” McCutchen said. “I didn’t do that this year. I didn’t play at my best level.”

We’ve seen McCutchen at his best level. Few players in the game ever reach that level.

That shouldn’t be forgotten.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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