By Joe Lemire
March 06, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Andrew McCutchen has long felt a kinship with the fellow first-rounders of the famed 2005 draft class.

Anytime the Pirates centerfielder sees a highlight of one of his cohorts -- an illustrious group that includes Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki, among many others -- he blurts out, "Oh-five draft class, don't forget."

"It's unbelievable," McCutchen said. "We've got some studs drafted in that class. I let people know."

There's now another important commonality McCutchen shares with each of those aforementioned stars: They have all agreed to long-term contract extensions with their original clubs, becoming cornerstones around which those franchises can build.

This week McCutchen agreed to a six-year, $51.5 million contract -- with an option for a seventh year that would cover 2018 -- that includes this season (his final one before arbitration eligibility), his three years of arbitration and at least his first two free-agent years.

"It's almost like I feel married and you renew your vows," McCutchen said Tuesday. "I always wanted to be here."

McCutchen is one of the game's burgeoning stars. He made his first All-Star team last season while receiving the majority of his at bats as Pittsburgh's No. 3 hitter for the first time.

In 2009 and '10, he had batted an identical .286 with a .365 on-base percentage in each of his first two seasons with 12 and then 16 home runs and 22 and then 33 stolen bases; last year his average dipped to .259 but his OBP remained at .364 while he increased his power output to 23 homers and still stole 23 bases. A speedster with great range, McCutchen has also improved his defense each season.

Just 25 years old, McCutchen has a lot of room to grow, too.

Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said the club was willing to make this commitment "because of the person Andrew is, the player Andrew is and the player we believe that he is going to become."

McCutchen's signing with the Pirates is particularly significant for the organization as it tries to snap a 19-year streak of losing seasons and return to the playoffs for the first time since Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds filled the middle of the lineup. Last year the club exceeded 70 wins for the first time since 2004 and was in first place in the NL Central as late as July 25.

"In September of 2007 I was hired by [owner] Bob Nutting and [president] Frank Coonelly because we shared a vision," Huntington said. "A big part of that vision was evaluating, acquiring, developing and retaining quality individuals to create and sustain an outstanding organization with the primary goal of putting a winning, consistent major league team on the field.

"Today is yet another step in that process, an important step in that process, as we secure an important piece of our major league team for several years in the future."

McCutchen's deal is the second largest guaranteed contract in team history and, if the option is later exercised, would eclipse the six-year, $60 million pact signed by catcher Jason Kendall in 2000.

"This signing is done because it's the right thing for the organization," Nutting said. "It's exactly the right player, whom we have faith in for the long term."

It also follows the six-year, $15 million contract signed by fellow Pittsburgh outfielder Jose Tabata last August. Tabata had less service time and isn't the same caliber player as McCutchen, but his extension is further affirmation that the Pirates are entering a new phase of their rebuilding process, during which the club is moving closer to contention. One can expect second baseman Neil Walker to potentially be the next target for a long-term deal.

This retention of talent comes on the heels of $47.6 million in bonus money the club has spent on the past four amateur drafts -- the most in baseball and including a record $17 million last year alone --which is an investment that has reeled in such high-ceiling prospects as pitchers Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia and outfielders Starling Marte and Josh Bell.

"I am extremely enthusiastic and pleased with the direction and pleased with where we are today," Nutting said. "[But I am] obviously not satisfied and obviously not finished."

While signing McCutchen to be part of the sales pitch for the future was not a stated priority, the club can now point future free agents toward him as a selling point, that there will be continuity with a star player.

McCutchen's contract shares similar terms with two other outfielders in that '05 draft class: Upton, who signed with Arizona for six years and $51.25 million before the 2010 season, and the Reds' Jay Bruce, who signed for six years and $51 million before the 2011 season. (A third first-rounder from 2005, the Padres' Cameron Maybin, signed his own extension last week, though his was for five years and $25 million.)

McCutchen will be eligible for free agency again at the age of 31 or 32, while Bruce, who also has an option on his contract, will be 30 or 31; Upton, who is nearly a year younger than McCutchen and who does not have an option, will be a free agent again at age 28.

By signing a contract that covered two (and maybe three) free-agent years, McCutchen potentially traded additional salary in exchange for guaranteed financial security and a renewed commitment to the Pirates. And while the team has to assume the risk of injury or under-performance, it also gets cost-certainty with its best player and sends a message to the rest of the baseball world.

"It shows people outside the organization that we're headed in the right direction," he said. "We're doing things the right way."

McCutchen's goals are different than simply earning the most money he can or than simply ending the Pirates' nearly two-decade losing streak.

"It'll be good [to end the streak], but it'll more for the fans than for us," McCutchen said last month. "We're not shooting for 81 or 82 wins. We're shooting for a championship. Everyone's hungry to beat the streak, but once that streak is beaten, you're going to want something else.

"Why not beat the streak, reach the playoffs and win the World Series? Why not do it all? Let's open some eyes."

With his new deal -- a milestone day for the player and for the franchise -- he took an important step.

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