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03/05/12 11:09 AM EST

Pirates enter new phase with McCutchen deal

Pittsburgh agrees to six-year contract with homegrown star

The Pirates have had a smart, sensible plan in place for a while. It's one modeled after the Rays, Rangers, Royals and other clubs who've constructed their franchises from the ground up.

It's not just the right way to do business. It's the only way for a franchise that can't afford to build its club through free agency. This approach has a downside. It does not dazzle fans, at least not immediately.

It's just not sexy to channel an organization's resources to 18-year-old kids who are five years away from the Majors. Pirates fans have heard a lot of the same stuff for years, and so when the club's losing streak extends to a 19th consecutive year, they have no idea if things really are changing.

This one's for you, Pirates fans. Things really are getting better -- and fast. The Bucs are not back yet, but they're getting closer. They're collecting quality young arms and speed, and there's a payoff coming.

The agreement on a six-year, $51.5 million deal for outfielder Andrew McCutchen on Monday is an indication that the reconstruction of the franchise is beginning another phase. It began last year with the signing of outfielder Jose Tabata to a deal that could run through the 2019 season.

"We have said from the very beginning that we have a plan to build talent and then to retain and build on talent that are key pieces of the organization," chairman Bob Nutting told MLB.com recently.

For a few months last summer, it looked like the Pirates were all the way back. With the hiring of Clint Hurdle as manager, the Bucs had someone who demanded things be done a certain way.

Because Hurdle is so confident, because he has a certain way of dealing with people, with making them believe they can do more than they think they can, everything felt different in Pittsburgh last season.

Hurdle's players responded, too, sprinting out of the gate. On July 25, the Pirates were 53-47 and in first place in the National League Central. They went 19-43 the rest of the way as injuries and slumps decimated the club. Pittsburgh ended up using 52 players, with 10 of them making their Major League debut.

But the club ERA (4.04) declined by almost a full run from 2010 (5.00), and the Bucs had three All-Stars -- McCutchen, closer Joel Hanrahan and right-hander Kevin Correia -- for the first time since 1990.

Fans started to believe. The Pirates drew 1.9 million fans to PNC Park in 2011, the most since it opened in '01 and the fourth-highest total in franchise history.

General manager Neal Huntington has continued to pick through the bargain basement of free agency, finding veterans who fit his model and price range. Correia won 12 games and pitched 154 innings in 2011 after Huntington signed him for $4 million.

This season, Clint Barmes is taking over at shortstop after hitting .244 for the Astros last season. He has had a tough couple of years, with his wife enduring a difficult pregnancy and his dad dying of cancer.

Yet Hurdle knows him better than almost anyone from their seven years together in Colorado. He knows that Barmes is above average defensively, that he's a consummate professional and that he's capable of contributing offensively.

The Pirates need third baseman Pedro Alvarez to be the player he was once projected to be, and they need newly acquired right-hander A.J. Burnett to get healthy and back on the mound. They also need Correia, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and the rest of the starting staff to stay healthy and productive.

In short, the Pirates have a chance to contend in a blurry NL Central. Few will pick them to win, but unlike past years, they're not to be overlooked.

Still, 2012 is simply another step along the way. Just a couple of years ago, Huntington was getting torched for continuing to trade away young players and collecting Minor Leaguers.

He had inherited a mess when he took over the Pirates after the 2007 season, and he knew that no amount of tinkering at the Major League level would get the club back in contention as long as the farm system was so bare.

Those trades weren't an indication that the Bucs were cheap or that the club would be terrible forever. The Pirates have been spending plenty of money since Nutting took over as chairman before the 2007 season and put in place a blueprint built on player development and doing things for the long haul.

Huntington had been with the Expos and Indians when both were smart, resourceful organizations. He knew that the key to building a successful franchise hadn't changed much since Branch Rickey ran the Pirates.

In four Drafts, Huntington has shelled out $47.6 million in bonuses, including $17 million in 2011. He has spent in the international market as well, getting No. 6 prospect Luis Heredia for $2.6 million. In Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, the Bucs have two of the best young arms in baseball.

The Pirates do have a plan designed to get Pittsburgh back to respectability one brick at a time. Best of all, once they're back, they have a chance to be back for a long time.

The Bucs are not just collecting young players anymore. They've acquired enough of them that they can see things changing in the Minor Leagues, with three of their clubs making the postseason in 2011 and the overall system compiling a .512 winning percentage.

There's a new day coming for the Pirates, and it's not far away. Once upon a time, McCutchen must have wondered if things would ever change. Now he can believe he may just be part of something special.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.