If anyone’s having trouble imagining Andrew McCutchen wearing something other than a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, don’t worry. Soon you won’t have to.

Because it’ll be reality.

This is according to the hot-stove season’s Masters of Whispers. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported Wednesday that McCutchen, a five-time National League All-Star and one-time NL MVP, is the “most likely to go” of the star players on the trading block this winter. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports forcefully concurred:

McCutchen, 30, obviously hasn’t been moved yet. If the center fielder is still in the same frame of mind he was at the end of the season, he’s not sweating it wherever he is.

“I’m under contract with them, right? That’s the way I’m looking at it,” he told MLB.com’s Adam Berry. “I don’t align the stars. I’m not the person that controls all that. I don’t do that. It’s all in God’s hands.”

Well, in this case, McCutchen‘s fate is technically in the hands of Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. While he hasn’t yet moved McCutchen, that could change before you even get to the period at the end of this sentence.

Although nothing ultimately happened, Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reported Thursday the Pirates had “ramped up” talks with the Washington Nationals, who preferred to get a deal done by the end of the day. They didn’t, but Friday’s a new day with plenty of time for wheelin‘ and dealin‘.

The writing on the wall is easy for the people of Pittsburgh to read: Time to say goodbye.

Oh, it’ll get dusty in there for sure. McCutchen has been with the organization since the Pirates drafted him in the first round back in 2005, after which he largely made a mockery of the minor leagues en route to his major league debut in 2009.

From then on, he’s been the Pirate.

Early on, that only meant being a bright spot on teams that were carrying on a legacy of futility dating back to the team’s last postseason trip in 1992. McCutchen averaged an .822 OPS with 17 homers and 26 stolen bases in his first three seasons, but the Pirates topped 90 losses each year.

Things started to change before the 2012 season even began. The Pirates rewarded McCutchen‘s strong beginning by brightening his future with a six-year contract extension.

“Knowing that Andrew will continue to lead the team for a bright, successful, championship future at PNC Park is a thrill for me—the organization is in a wonderful place,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said, via Tom Singer of MLB.com.

Nutting then turned to McCutchen and said, “You’re going to be a critical part of that as we go forward.”

Spoken like a true prophet. 

McCutchen broke out as a superstar in 2012 with a .953 OPS, 31 homers and 20 stolen bases, winning a Gold Glove as well. That helped the Pirates improve to just 83 losses. His MVP season in 2013 boosted them to 94 wins and put them back in the playoffs as one of the NL’s wild-card teams. They were a wild card again in 2014 and again in 2015 after a 98-win regular season.

McCutchen‘s average season in these three years: a .917 OPS with 23 home runs and 19 stolen bases. In the National League, only Paul Goldschmidt was worth more wins above replacement.

Which brings us to 2016, and where this story gets considerably less nostalgic.

Star players tend to fall off gradually, taking several years to go from great to good to mediocre to bad. This past season saw McCutchen take an express elevator straight to bad. His bat produced a career-low .766 OPS, and defensive runs saved charges that his defense cost the Pirates 28 runs.

Maybe this wasn’t the biggest factor in the Pirates going from 98 wins to 78, but it was a big one. Nor is it the most encouraging stepping stone toward the rest of his contract, which calls for $14 million in 2017 with a $14.5 million option for 2018.

As Passan reported, Pirates ownership did not issue a mandate that McCutchen be moved this winter. There’s a good argument that they shouldn’t move him. Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today cited that $28.5 million is plenty reasonable for a player of McCutchen‘s status, and moving him would be a jab at a fanbase that’s “certainly grown tired of hearing their management cry poor.”

Like it or not, the Pirates are a small-market team with a payroll that can only go so high. With extensive repairs to make, clearing McCutchen‘s deal and getting some talent back before his value declines any further does make sense.

As much as the man himself feels like a Pittsburgh landmark, McCutchen might need a change of scenery. For whatever reason, be it knee soreness left over from 2015 or something else, eagle-eyed observers didn’t see the same bounce in his step in 2016.

“He didn’t play with that Andrew McCutchen edge,” one American League scout told B/R’s Danny Knobler. “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.”

There is a bright side: Life after McCutchen could be just as fruitful as life with him.

In the short term, the Pirates could fill his shoes in center with the feet of Starling Marte, who’s been an elite defender in left field in addition to a fine offensive player. If Josh Bell lives up to his potential in his first full season at first base, he could more than make up for McCutchen‘s offense from 2016. Coming off a breakout season, right fielder Gregory Polanco can also help pick up the slack.

In the long term, the Pirates will reap the benefits of a farm system that could soon be in the running for the best in the league.

Jim Callis of MLB.com ranked Pittsburgh’s system at No. 4 in August. Although they’ve debuted in the majors, said system still includes Bell and right-hander Tyler Glasnow alongside well-regarded prospects such as outfielder Austin Meadows, shortstop Kevin Newman and right-hander Mitch Keller.

Per Rosenthal, there’s now buzz on getting outfielder Victor Robles from the Nationals. That would mean adding MLB.com’s No. 10 prospect.

It’s easy to hear all this and point to the big ol‘ “Maybe” implied in prospect chatter. But cultivating and establishing a core of homegrown players is essential to winning in today’s MLB. The Pirates know this from their experiences with McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Gerrit Cole and others. They can do it again.

Trading McCutchen will be the end of an era for the Pirates. That’ll be worth lamenting. It was the first era in a while that was worth a damn, and he made it not only possible but that much more enjoyable. There should be a special place in the all-time Pirates pantheon for him.

But it’s not often that a team gets to say goodbye to one good era and hello to another. The Pirates will be in a position to do that if they trade McCutchen, and that would mean just another nice thing to say about his time in Pittsburgh.

He was always good for the Pirates, even on his way out the door.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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