Face of the Pirates Andrew McCutchen. (US Presswire)

Our "Core Values" series continues today with baseball's most unsuccessful franchise over the last two decades: the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates won three straight NL East titles from 1990-92 but haven't made the postseason or even finished over .500 in the 20 years since. They were 16 games over .500 as late as Aug. 8 last season, but a 17-37 finish left them three games below the break-even mark when it was all said and done.

As for what actually defines a "core" in our unscientific series, here's a refresher. Feel free to skip over the blockquotes if you've been with us since the start ...

Core Values series
Previous posts
What's a core? For our purposes, a team's core comprises a "cornerstone player," a "face of the franchise" and then the "future face of the franchise."
So what's a "cornerstone player"? For starters, it's one of the best players on the roster and perhaps the very best player on the roster. Beyond that, though, it's the player whom the organization has identified as the talent around which to build by signing him to a long-term deal. In other words, they've backed their faith in the player's abilities with the most powerful statement of all: lots of redeemable U.S. currency. Not only do they see this player as central to their current aims but also to their designs on future contention.
What's a "face of the franchise"? He -- and we're getting subjective here -- is the player who most prominently embodies the franchise in question. He's that player you think about when you think about this team. Is he the same guy as the "cornerstone"? Sometimes. But the cornerstone is primarily a financial designation. The "face" is, for lack of a better term, a cultural identifier. They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not not mutually exclusive, either. What about the word "values" you see in the headline above? After we identify and evaluate the three elements of the core, we're going to slap a letter grade on the whole thing.

And now on to the Pirates ...

Cornerstone player(s): Andrew McCutchen

During spring training of last season, the Pirates signed McCutchen to a six-year contract extension worth $51.5 million. The deal also included a club option for a seventh season. The timing could not have been any better for the team, as their 26-year-old center fielder broke out by hitting .327/.400/.553 with 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. McCutchen emerged not just as the best baseball player in Pittsburgh, but as one of the game's truly elite. He hits for average, hits for power, steals bases, has a disciplined approach at the plate, is solid in the outfield, and has played in at least 154 games in each of the past four seasons. That's the skill set of a franchise player and superstar.

Face(s) of the franchise: McCutchen

McCutchen isn't merely the face of the Pirates anymore, he's also the face of the best-selling baseball video game franchise after winning a fan vote to grace the cover of MLB 13: The Show. Beating out the likes of Ryan Braun, CC Sabathia, and Bryce Harper says quite a bit about his popularity.

With all due respect to Jason Bay, McCutchen is the franchise's most recognizable player since Brian Giles and Jason Kendall were in their heyday. He's the guy the team counts on for everything from putting runs on the board to selling tickets and cultivating fans. His new long-term contract ensures he will continue to be the face of the franchise for the next half-decade, which will hopefully include the next Pirates team to get over the hump and finish with a better than .500 record.

Face(s) of the future: Gerrit Cole & Jameson Taillon

As if McCutchen was not enough of a building block, the Pirates have turned a pair of their recent high draft picks into two of the best right-handed pitching prospects in baseball. Considering how many high draft picks previous front office regimes squandered -- seriously, look at this -- the Pirates have finally gotten the draft thing right under GM Neal Huntington.

Cole, the first overall pick in 2011, had a 2.80 ERA with 9.3 K/9 in 132 innings during his first professional season in 2012, climbing from Class A to Triple-A. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion he will make his big league debut at some point this summer. Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010, reached Double-A last season while posting a 3.55 ERA with 7.4 K/9 in 142 innings. Both he and Cole are classic hard-throwers who project as front-line starters. Right-hander Luis Heredia, who was signed out of Mexico back in 2010, lags a bit behind Cole and Taillon as a prospect, but deserves to be mentioned here as well.

Grading the Pirates' Core: B+

McCutchen is one of the best players in the world and Cole and Taillon are two of the most exciting young arms in the game, but the Pirates also have promising and/or productive 20-somethings at second base (Neil Walker), third base (Pedro Alvarez), in the outfield (Travis Snider, Starling Marte), and on the mound (James McDonald, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson).

The rebuild has been a long and arduous process, but Huntington has the Pirates on the right track by securing young talent and bounceback candidate veterans like A.J. Burnett. His regime came under heavy scrutiny recently for their "Hoka Hey!" military-style training regiment for prospects and there has been talk about his job being in jeopardy since he is now in year six of the rebuild, but the Pirates just finished with their best record since 1997 and there is an obvious (and high-end) core in place. The franchise isn't all the way there yet, but things are definitely headed in the right direction.

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