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Trading Young, Cheap, and Elite Talent

It seems odd that a team that wants to contend in the future would entertain offers for its best young player. Yet discussions surrounding a possible Justin Upton trade have dominated baseball news this week. As Dave described, this is a unique situation, since teams don’t often trade players who are not only young and cheap, but also project to provide plenty of surplus value. It made me wonder if any other teams could benefit by trading a young, cost-controlled player who projects to rank among the elite. And then it came to me.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are nowhere near contention. In 2010 they finished 57-105, which was the worst record in the league by four games. They do have some bright spots on the team, as Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez made impressive debuts. But even if all three of those players continue to improve in 2011 and beyond, there are still holes on the team. Pitching, specifically, remains a weak point. While James McDonald might yet pan out, there weren’t really any other exciting pitchers at the major league level last year. That could be a big concern going forward.

Earlier this month Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus rated the top 10 Pirates prospects. The good news for them is that both of their five-star prospects are pitchers. The bad news is that both were born in 1991, meaning they’re probably a few years away from helping the big league club — if they don’t flame out along the way. In summarizing the system Goldstein noted that even with the best case scenario they’re half a decade away from contending. By that point a number of their current young guys will be getting along in the arbitration process. Might they want to cash in one of those chips now?

If we’re looking for a talent comparable in surplus value to Upton, it’s Andrew McCutchen. He is just 10 months older than Upton, but has two fewer years of service time. In fact, while Upton’s salary will increase to $4.25 million in 2011, McCutchen will still play under the reserve clause for not only 2011, but also 2012, when Upton will make $6.75 million. Only then will he become arbitration eligible. He might not hit as well as Upton, but he still has a quality bat — he’s produced a .365 wOBA in his 1146 career PA. Upton has produced .356 in his 1728.

For Pittsburgh, trading McCutchen is no light matter. He was easily the team’s most valuable player in 2010 and figures to retain that title for the next few years. Trading him would certainly induce fan backlash, perhaps dropping Pittsburgh to the cellar in attendance; they finished 27th with 1.614 million attendees in 2010. But if they want to restock the farm system they have no better chip. They also have a possible replacement in the system. Starling Marte, two years younger than McCutchen almost to the day, produced an excellent season in advanced-A ball in 2010. That’s a hard sell to the fans, but it could end up being the move that really moves the Pirates into contention in three to five years.

In the above-linked article, Dave examined Upton’s potential surplus value. He came up with a number between $70 and $100 million. Now re-imagine that projection for McCutchen. WAR is a tricky measure for him, because of his defense. Both UZR and DRS rate him as having negative value in center field, but the FANS scouting report rates him much higher. When rating him the Pirates No. 2 prospect prior to the 2009 season Baseball America said he was a “potential Gold Glover.” This is perhaps because of how the Pirates arrange their outfield defense — see Pittsburgh Lumber Co. for a more detailed look. If he does in fact play good defense in center, it’s conceivable that he is even more valuable than Upton in the future. Since McCutchen is two years behind in service time, that surplus value even further increases.

The idea behind trading McCutchen is to rebuild the farm so that they have more of a chance to contend in those three to five years. Dave mentioned Mike Montgomery and Mike Moustakas as representing the low-end equivalent of Upton’s value. What, then, of McCutchen? Maybe the Pirates couldn’t raid all of a team’s top five prospects, but they could get two or three high quality prospects plus a major league player, and then later flip that major league player for more young talent. It’s a tough process, but it’s something that could help fortify the farm and give the Pirates a chance in the future.

There is little to no chance that the Pirates do this. After all, even if they are a half decade away from contention they still might have McCutchen around to be a part of it. But if they want to make a splash and really strengthen their core of young talent, they could do worse than trading McCutchen. Given his age, talent, and salary, a team could end up paying more for him than for Upton. Would the eye to the future, though, be worth the immediate backlash?