Following up on what Tim at Pirates Prospects and Pghfan987 here at Bucs Dugout have recently said, allow me to throw my weight behind the idea of signing Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal. The Pirates evidently have money to spend this offseason, and they've already been linked to big-name free agents like Jorge De La Rosa (who just re-signed with the Rockies) and Adrian Beltre. If they really can sign a player like Beltre for a reasonable price, then that's great, but it's more likely that big-ticket players will require the Bucs to overpay substantially, since the Bucs have no realistic chance of competing next year.
The next rung of free agents - and Dejan Kovacevic has said this is where the Pirates' real range likely lies - is injured pitchers like Justin Duchscherer, mediocrities like Scott Olsen, and aging vets like Lance Berkman. There wouldn't be anything inherently wrong with signing any of these guys, but none of them are likely to change the Pirates' fortunes in either the short or long terms. (Pitcher Brandon Webb, who has also been linked to the Pirates, might be an exception, but only if he's healthy, and he would only be around for a year.)
There is something the Pirates can do this offseason to change their long-term fortunes, and that's signing Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal. Of all the players currently in the big leagues, he can Pedro Alvarez are the most valuable. McCutchen is a much better candidate than Alvarez for a long-term contract because of McCutchen is a much better athlete with a well-rounded skillset that includes the ability to play defense (even if his talent hasn't yet translated into good statistical results) and good strike zone judgment. McCutchen is the very archetype of the sort of player who will age gracefully. He could well turn out to be a superstar, and even if he doesn't, the chances that he remains a good, productive ballplayer for the next several seasons are very high.
I don't know where the Pirates and McCutchen might be in discussing an extension. (I feel like someone reported on this a week or so ago, but I can't find the article. If anyone remembers, could you leave it in the comments?) And I know there will be obstacles, like the fact that McCutchen might be a Super Two next year. But in general, deals for star players who are well away from free agency are very good for both parties. The player gets set up for life, and the team generally gets to keep the player longer, or at a discount compared to what he would have gotten in arbitration, or both.
If there's money thrown around this year, the best way to spend it might well be on McCutchen. The Pirates could hopefully guarantee his services for and extra year or two, while also acquiring the cost certainty of knowing exactly how much they'll have to pay him a few years from now, when they could well be competitive and every dollar will have to be spent well. As an incentive for McCutchen, the Pirates could give him a few million dollars up front, which would keep him warm in those cold winter nights when he wonders whether the $400,000 a year he now gets plus the $1.9 million bonus he received out of high school are enough. (I'm kidding, of course, but the financial incentive of being set for life is important to a lot of ballplayers, and paying him now would have the additional benefit of mitigating what the Pirates would have to pay him later - when, again, they might be competitive.) Now is the time to sign him - whether he has one year or two left before he hits arbitration, he has performed at a high level for two straight years, long enough to show that he's worth the investment. Signing him won't get any easier for the Pirates if they continue to wait.
Finally - and I know the front office doesn't care about this, and I applaud them for that, but this is a nice fringe benefit - the fans would love this. The Rockies just signed Troy Tulowitzki to what could well turn out to be one of the worst contracts in the history of baseball, and Rockies fans were thrilled about it, because it meant the Rockies had committed to their most popular player.
I'm not opposed to the Pirates spending money in the free agent market. But they shouldn't force it. That's one point. The other point, and it might follow from the first one or it might not, is that if they want to make a splash this offseason, signing McCutchen is a perfectly smart way to do that.