The Pittsburgh Pirates made their 25-year old CF very happy this week with a six-year/$51.4M deal to keep Andrew McCutchen in town until at least 2017. McCutchen will get the half-million dollar salary he was owed for this season, plus a $1.25M signing bonus. The chips start to fall for real in 2013 ($4.5M) with increases annually until 2017 ($14M). The Pirates have a $1M buyout for 2018 when McCutchen would top out at $14.5M.

Also happy are those that count themselves among the the Pirate fan base, which is finally on the increase again. Rebuilding isn’t supposed to take two decades.

It was October 14, 1992 when Francisco Cabrera singled to left field, Barry Bonds threw to the plate, and Sid Bream beat the throw to put the Atlanta Braves into the World Series. The Pirates finished the regular season that year with a record of 96-66 and played in the NLCS for the third straight year.

That offseason, Bonds left for San Francisco, P Doug Drabek signed with Houston and, following the departures of OF Bobby Bonilla and P John Smiley the year before, the club fell back sharply. 1993 saw a record of 75-87, and that would look pretty good over the next couple of seasons.

The once-proud Pirates enter the spring of 2012 with an infamous string of 19 straight losing seasons. But locking up McCutchen is the latest, and possibly the brightest, in a series of moves out of the darkness.

In April of 2001 a woeful club christened PNC Park, which is universally recognized as one of the most beautiful parks in the majors. Aside from the 100-loss club on the field that year, the view was absolutely stunning with the backdrop of the city’s downtown and the 6th Street bridge beyond the outfield walls. A 21-foot high wall in RF in homage to Roberto Clemente and a bordering street named Mazeroski Way celebrate the franchise legends while the food and beverage amenities are on par with all modern ballparks.

Since the opening of PNC Park, 75 is the high-water mark for wins, that coming in 2003. A 105-loss season in 2010 was particularly brutal, but several positive pieces that had recently been put in place were cause for optimisim in the Steel City.

Neal Huntington was hired as GM in September of 2007 and on October 5th he fired manager Jim Tracy while also getting rid of the coaching staff, the senior director of player development, the scouting director and the director of baseball operations. That is what you would call “heading in a new direction.”

Already in the organization were 2004 top draft pick Neal Walker and McCutchen, the club’s top pick in 2005, and Huntington held on to them. Pedro Alvarez was taken with the Bucs’ first pick in 2008, while that same year Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte were traded for a package of future contributors, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorff and Jose Tabata.

Piece-by-piece, the path to contention has been put together, with the  hiring of manager Clint Hurdle paying immediate dividends as the 2011 season began. The fiery Hurdle got the young club out to a good start before fading in the second half to finish at 72-90. The team was actually one of the “buyers” at the trade deadline, adding 1B Derek Lee and OF Ryan  Ludwick. It didn’t pan out, but just being in that position at the end of July was major news for this franchise.

Nine wins shy of .500. How many more pieces are needed before the Pirates make serious noise in the NL Central?

The time may not be now, but things are looking better all the time for the Pirate faithful. Two of the biggest bats in the division went to the American League this offseason when Prince Fielder signed with Detroit and Albert Pujols joined the Angels. The Cardinals saw further change with manager Tony LaRussa stepping down along with his right-hand man, long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan. Both clubs are still potent, and there are still the Reds and the Theo Epstein-led Cubs to worry about. But in the spring of 2012, the two teams that represented the NL Central in the post season last year are filling holes.

The Buccos, meanwhile, are getting closer and closer. Locking up McCutchen is clearly the right move. Gone are the days of lamenting the losses of a young slugger like Aramis Ramirez or a batting champion in Freddie Sanchez. Huntington and his player development staff are making wise draft choices and shrewd player personnel decisions.

Attendance is on the uptick over the last three seasons as the club has improved from 1.57 million in 2009 (3rd worst in MLB) to 1.94 million in 2011.

McCutchen and his 5.7 WAR will be joined in the everyday lineup by Tabata, Walker and Alvarez. This offseason has seen the addition of RHP A.J. Burnett, veteran C Rod Barajas, INF Clint Barmes and a dangerous bat in 3B Casey McGehee. Recently drafted power arms Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole are making their way up through the minors.

The string of sub-.500 seasons could come to an end as early as this season. Serious contention may not be far behind.

PNC PARK – Wikipedia