On Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants. It was, on paper, the Giants seemed destined to make in light of their outfield needs and near misses on Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna. So, too, did it seem inevitable for the Pirates, who mere days ago traded young rotation stalwart Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros.
If all of that feels vaguely familiar, despite none of those players having come all that close to playing for the Phillies, well, your sixth sense is onto something.
Just two-and-a-half years ago, the Phillies underwent a similar procedure over the course of eight months, trading Cole Hamels in July 2015 and Chase Utley just three weeks later. The two franchise icons, just like that, were gone. And that’s before considering that just eight months prior, the greatest shortstop the team had ever seen (Jimmy Rollins, lest you need the reminder) was also dealt away.
Hamels, like Cole (Gerrit, that is), had multiple years remaining on his contract when the Texas Rangers scooped him up in return for six players. Utley, like McCutchen, was in the final year of his own contractual obligation. The two scenarios don’t line up so prettily from an exact timing perspective, it’s true, but lost franchise impact feels similar.
Focus on McCutchen: Captain of the revived, resurgent Pirates franchise that ended an oppressive playoff drought, and, at the outset of that time period, provided a home crowd with one of the most memorable moments in playoff history. Sure, Russell Martin is the one who actually hit that homer, but the Bucs were only even in that game on the back of McCutchen’s MVP season in the first place. Cutch departs Pittsburgh having hit 203 homers, 292 doubles and posting an .866 OPS, mostly as an above-average defensive center fielder. He was drafted by Pittsburgh (11th overall in 2005), groomed by Pittsburgh, and beloved by Pittsburgh.
Then, focus on Utley: Stoic leader of another resurgent franchise that eventually claimed glory as its own. He, too, has an iconic playoff moment or two he can claim at least partial responsibility for. Although never an MVP, Utley finished in the top 10 in voting three times, and ended his Phillies career with 233 homers and an .847 OPS while playing a rather criminally underappreciated defensive game at second base. He, like Cutch, was drafted (15th overall) and groomed by one team before being dealt.
Now, Cole: Picked first overall in 2011, Cole spent the better part of five season with the Pirates at the Major League level, making three postseason starts and notching a top-five Cy Young Award finish (2015). While the bitter taste of unfinished business likely lingers on the tongues of some Pirates fans now that he’s been dealt to Houston, it would be unfair to call most of his 127 starts in the black and gold less than captivating; a curiosity teasing at what could be as he pumped electric fastballs and breaking balls over the plate.
Hamels: The lanky southern Californian who matured from barfighter to NLCS and World Series MVP at 24 years old, was traded fewer than three years into a six-year extension signed following the 2012 season. His 294 starts (4th), 114 wins (6th) and 1,844 strikeouts (3rd) as a member of the Phillies are all among the 10 highest totals in club history.
What we cannot compare, yet, are the respective returns. The Phillies, as we know, turned a half-season of Utley into Darnell Sweeney, who was paired with Darin Ruf for Howie Kendrick. Hamels’s remaining deal was converted into Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Matt Harrison, which has yielded varying results across different levels of the organization. Will the Pirates see similar success with Kyle Crick, Bryan Reynolds, Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michal Feliz and Jason Martin? More? Less? We don’t know, and we won’t for some time yet. So goes a trade in the game of baseball.
Nevertheless, it’s tough to observe what Pittsburgh has done this past week and not think about what the Phillies went through during the throes of their own rebuild, at the nadir of the past ten-plus years. The empathic side of me wishes them nothing but the best, and a quick return to form; having seen this story unfold before, the experienced and practical side side of me knows that there is likely a long road ahead for the Pirates, and the vacuum left by the departure of two team mainstays is one that won’t soon be filled.