If the Pirates haven't already considered locking up their young superstar they should certainly do so now. Andrew McCutchen continues to impress the baseball world day after day it seems. On a team that many believe isn't that far from being competitive, it's extremely crucial that McCutchen stay in black and gold. So what would it take for the Pirates to lock up McCutchen you ask? Let's take a look.
McCutchen was called up by the Bucs shortly after the 2009 season started. In what would amount to 478 at-bats during that season McCutchen proved that he was capable of being an above average center fielder. He was worth 3.3 wins in '09 and was paid less than 500K. The following year, McCutchen did much of the same. His defense was much worse although in 200 additional plate appearances his K% lowered several points and was worth a 96.8 wRC which was an improvement from his '09 wRC of 75.2. He'll be arbitration eligible following the 2013 season.
Denard Span is a perfect comparable. Span was called up just a few weeks after the 2008 season started. Unlike McCutchen, Span wasn't an everyday player the whole season but spent a lot of time roaming the outfield and was an integral part in the Twins almost triumphant division run. He was worth 2.9 wins that year and became the Twins everyday left fielder/center fielder the following season.
In 2009, the Spandy Man defined the term "Pandemonium" or "Spandemonium" if you will after he became one of the game's better leadoff hitters. In 676 plate appearances he posted a .392 on-base percentage to go along with an 0.79 BB/K ratio. Although his wOBA and wRC+ decreased by five points each from the previous year, his 2009 season amounted to a 3.6 WAR. Span, who at the time would have been arbitration after the 2012 season was signed to a five-year deal worth $16.5MM.
Alas, after their first two seasons McCutchen and Span were worth 6.6 & 6.5 wins respectively. As a player's salary should grow 42%, 54%, and 85% of their free agent value (as Wang notes) throughout the first several years of a new contract, the time to lock up McCutchen would be now before his value increases dramatically. It would probably take a bit more money to convince McCutchen and his agent that the Pirates are committed, but 5/$16-18MM is at least a starting point.
Another thing the Pirates could do, although it's probably a silly idea, is to trade McCutchen and have Tabata man center field while letting someone like Starling Marte or Andrew Lambo man left field come 2012. However, with the Pirates likely closer now than they've been in a while to competing, keeping McCutchen is probably not only a priority of theirs but a necessity.
Arguably the games' best center fielder, McCutchen is improving dramatically. The longer he's not locked up increases his price should he hit arbitration when eligible. The Pirates may as well be in a sticky situation in a year or two as Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and others will demand a raise and what not. If they're going to be a successful team on the field, they need to be successful economically within their organization -- Something Neal Huntington and co. have shown they are capable of doing.