CLEARWATER, Fla. — It was early in March 2012 and Andrew McCutchen had a decision to make. Pittsburgh dangled a six-year, $51.5-million contract extension in front of their 25-year-old center fielder, who had emerged as the face of the franchise as the Pirates attempted to end a long playoff drought.

Take the deal and it meant McCutchen would forfeit his right to become a free agent at the age of 28 following the 2015 season. Refuse it and he would be turning his back on contracts nearly identical to the ones signed by Arizona’s Justin Upton (six years for $51.25 million) and Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce (six years and $51 million), both of whom were first-round picks in the same 2005 draft class as McCutchen.

Upton had been the first overall pick and Bruce the 12th. The Pirates selected McCutchen 11th overall.

“There is always going to be someone to set the market,” McCutchen said. “When I signed my deal, Jay Bruce and Justin Upton, they set the market. That was the market for me at that time and that was the decision I made on my end. The market wasn’t getting higher.”

Jason Heyward got an eight-year, $184-million deal from the Chicago Cubs in December 2015.
Jason Heyward got an eight-year, $184-million deal from the Chicago Cubs in December 2015.

McCutchen, in his first spring training with the Phillies after signing a three-year deal worth $50 million in December, has no regrets. He is, however, smart enough to know that a ton of money was left on the table based on his decision. In his first four years after signing the deal with the Pirates, it could easily be argued that he was the best player in baseball and would have commanded far more than the eight-year, $184 million that Jason Heyward got from the Chicago Cubs.

Sure, Heyward, at 26, was two years younger than McCutchen at the time and the same age as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper when they hit this year’s free-agent market. But from 2012 through 2015, McCutchen finished third, first, third, and fifth in the National League MVP voting. He batted .313 with a .404 on-base percentage and a .926 OPS during that stretch and also led the Pirates to the playoffs in three straight seasons, ending the team’s 20-year drought in 2013.

Oh, yeah, and he was also considered a high-character clubhouse leader, a reputation he carried with him into the Phillies’ clubhouse.

McCutchen might not have commanded a 10-year, $300 million deal like the one the San Diego Padres just gave Machado or that the Phillies could present to Harper in the coming days, but a $200 million offer almost assuredly would have come his way.

“We all have those thoughts after you’ve had your time [to think about it],” McCutchen said. “That was also my thought process before I signed my extension with the Pirates. I’d have been 28, so it wasn’t like I was 25. I had choices to make. I had to evaluate what risks I’d be taking if I waited. I thought about all those things and I’m happy with what I did.”

McCutchen, now 32, said he is unsure if he would have produced those four straight sensational seasons if he had turned down the Pirates’ 2012 offer.

“Maybe I don’t even throw those numbers up if I don’t sign that extension,” he said. “Maybe things are different. At the end of the day I’m happy with what I got. I’m the type of person who plays better when I’m comfortable and not worrying about deals.”

The Phillies, of course, are hoping that’s the case for the next three years.

If McCutchen had signed one of those big free-agent deals after the 2015 season, the team that got him would probably be a little disappointed. In the last three seasons, McCutchen has batted .263 with a .356 on-base percentage and an .802 OPS while averaging 24 home runs and 77 RBIs per season.

Those numbers make him a good player and are superior to what Heyward has done during his three seasons with the Cubs, but you want more from a player who was making roughly $25 million per season.

Regardless, McCutchen has no regrets about his financial decisions. When he’s done with his free-agent deal with the Phillies, he will have made at least $115 million in his career and possibly $12 million more if the team picks up his 2022 option.

He loved his time in Pittsburgh so much that the Florida native remains a resident there.

“I got drafted by them at 18, and when you come up through an organization that’s all you know,” he said. “You develop relationships with the fans and you experience highs and lows. I was able to experience all of that. I didn’t experience the championship, but I experienced a playoff atmosphere and there were a lot of things to appreciate.

"There are a lot of memories and things I hold dear to me. It was a great place and I would always have that as the first half of my career.”

McCutchen is eager to begin the next chapter of his career on the eastern end of the Keystone State this season and he hopes to fill the championship vacancy on his resume.

“Ultimately, that’s what you play for, and everything else is a byproduct of that,” he said.

He is correct. World championships are priceless.