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The strange case of Andrew McCutchen

He’s the Pirates’ best player by far, but is in a weird position.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew McCutchen is a great baseball player. Beyond that, he is also one of the most likable personalities in professional sports. These facts are obvious, but are nice reminders after a surprisingly poor 2016 season for the Pittsburgh star (which coincided with a disappointing year for the entire team).

As the 2017 season draws closer, McCutchen and the Pirates both find themselves in a complicated and, frankly, weird position. Pittsburgh is projected to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, but also doesn’t seem willing to trade its best player (despite some earlier attempts). Together with McCutchen’s recent struggles, and a move to right field, the situation raises plenty of questions about the star outfielder’s future as a Pirate.

In 2016, McCutchen posted numbers that ranked well below his normal levels. With a batting average of .256, an OBP of .336, and an OPS of .766, McCutchen played at a level that, while still respectable, looked wildly out of place with his better years. His WAR of just 0.7 (compared to 5.8 in 2015) made it clear that 2016 was a down year.

Given that McCutchen is now 30 years old, and is approaching the end of his contract — he will most likely be on the Pirates for two more years — it makes sense that there have been rumors about potential trades. Dealing a superstar player is never easy, though, and McCutchen’s popularity with the fans and unclear value (because of his decreased 2016 production) would make a trade even more difficult. Perhaps because of these factors, all recent news points to McCutchen staying in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.

The problem with this situation is that the Pirates may not be good this season, and could easily regret holding on to their veteran leader. FanGraphs projects the Pirates to finish at 82-80, a record that (if all other projections hold true) wouldn’t be good enough for the playoffs in a crowded National League; Baseball Prospectus predicts an identical finish. A division title was probably out of the question when competing against the Cubs and Cardinals, but the Wild Card race may be even more crowded.

It’s easy to understand why the Pirates wouldn’t want to trade McCutchen. At 30 years old, he should still have a few years of good production left, and it would be very difficult for the team to even come close to replacing him in the next few years. Projected for 3.3 WAR next year (which may be conservative given his history before 2016), McCutchen should be a well above average player in 2017. Projections aren’t set in stone, and Pittsburgh can hope that he improves and that the team can collectively outplay its potential.

However, if the team floated McCutchen’s name for trades during both the summer and the winter, there’s reason to believe that he could hit the market again. Especially if Pittsburgh has a poor start, or is clearly below the level of the Wild Card teams, these rumors could re-emerge at a moment’s notice. Plenty of teams would love to add McCutchen for the right price.

It’s difficult to say if Pittsburgh should put their best player back on the market. The team remains within striking distance of a Wild Card spot, and is still riding the momentum of some of the best years in recent history. If they choose to blow everything up, it’s difficult to say when the Pirates could get back to this level. However, a Wild Card spot is a difficult task in a league this crowded, as Pittsburgh would have to beat out teams like St. Louis, San Francisco, and New York. Delaying a rebuild could prolong the next period of mediocrity.

It’s easy to root for Andrew McCutchen, and it’s also easy to envision him rebounding for a solid 2017 and bringing his team to a Wild Card finish. If this happens, then the Pirates’ decision to not trade him will have paid off in the best way possible. As 2017 draws closer, though, the biggest theme around McCutchen’s future in Pittsburgh is uncertainty. Just how good this Pirates team will be, and how long he will be on it, are both completely unclear.

Thomas Jenkins is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Peachtree Hoops. You can also follow him on Twitter for tweets about sports.