Originally posted on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 7/12/12

The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals (formally the Montreal Expos) have been two of the more irrelevant teams over the past score (a score is 20 years. If it was good enough for Abe Lincoln, then it’s good enough for me). While the Expos tragicly traded away Pedro Martinez, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore for  a return of Carl Pavano and Bartolo Colon, they kind of got what they deserved in terms of setting themselves back and eventually moving down to D.C.. When the Pirates lost Barry Bonds in 1992, it was the straw that broke the camels back, and they haven’t had a winning season since. On July 12, 2012, the day baseball returns from the All Star Break for the second half of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals sit atop their respective divisions. And both have legitimate playoff hopes for the first time in a long, long time. How did they turn it all around?

Last season, the Pirates were in first place as late as July 18, but eventually lost their ground and finished below .500. This was largely in part to a lack of pitching as well as youth and inexperience. While the Pirates are still a young bunch, the year in between seems to have made a difference. Especially for their star center fielder, Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was the Pirates’ 11th overall pick in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft. This 2005 draft was the beginning of the turn around for both the Pirates and the Nationals, who selected Ryan Zimmerman with the fourth overall pick. Both of these players have been featured in the All Star Game for their clubs and became their cornerstones in which to build around. Now, they have loaded up with even more prospects, scoured the bargain bin for free agents, and if they cannot compete for the postseason this year, they will be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Let’s stick with Pittsburgh for now. McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker have been their only first round picks to contribute in any major way for the Pirates thus far since the 2004 draft (when Walker was selected 11th overall as a catcher out of high school). The rest of this team has been assembled off of the scrap heap. Discarded players from other franchises league wide in order to form the 2012 Pirates. James McDonald and A.J. Burnett are prime examples of this as they have become a formidable duo atop the Bucs rotation. Garrett Jones and Joel Hanrahan have also become key contributors for Pittsburgh over the past few seasons, with Hanrahan becoming one of the more consistent closers in all of baseball since the start of 2011. As solid as this team has performed this season, they should be much stronger as we take a quick look at their misses since they selected NL MVP frontrunner Andrew McCutchen.

In 2006, the Pirates elected to draft pitcher Brad Lincoln three picks ahead of reigning CY Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Lincoln has become a reliable reliever for the Pirates, but they come a dime a dozen. I’m sure they’d like to have that one back. In 2007, the Bucs took another pitcher (Daniel Moskos) ahead of Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, Oakland Athletics rookie Jarrod Parker, San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, and Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. Again, I’m sure they’d love to hit the re-set button on ’07. The 2009 draft happened too recently to say whether or not the Pirates made the right call… until you see that Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was taken after catcher Tony Sanchez by the Pirates. While the jury is still out on Trout, the prospect of pairing him with McCutchen is too surreal to even ponder.

Sure, it’s easy to look back and assess draft picks after we have seen them play out and perform but the idea that a Trout-McCutchen-Heyward outfield was a real possibility has to hurt. Especially considering that outfield could have been paired with Clayton Kershaw as the ace of the Pirates’ staff. Then again, if the Pirates had selected those players, they would not have ended up with their current top two pitching prospects: Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Both Cole and Taillon pitched in the MLB Future’s Game in Kansas City this past weekend and have been touted as two of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. While both were taken in the past two drafts, they both factor in to the Pirates short and long term plans as both have a chance to be in the Pirates opening day rotation as early as next season. It would not surprise me at all if the Pirates used Cole in the same manner as the Tampa Bay Rays when they brought up David Price when they made their 2008 World Series run. But that is mere speculation. I believe the Pirates are a legitimate playoff contender this season, regardless of Cole and Taillon, but they will not be able to compete for a World Series until their pitching prospects develop into Major League front line starters. The true World Series contender in 2012 is the Nationals.

The Nationals stumbled into a bit more fortune than the Pirates. While the Pirates have had some number one selections over the past decade, none have been as franchise altering as the consecutive top overall picks the Nationals received. Stephen Strasberg and Bryce Harper were the Nationals 2009 and 2010 top picks. Next year, you’ll be lucky to land both on you fantasy team. But they’re not the only players contributing to the first place Nationals.

Former third round pick and starting second baseman Danny Espinosa has crushed 28 home runs over the past two seasons. Another former third round pick of the Expos (and yes, I meant Expos), starting shortstop Ian Desmond is on pace to set career highs this season as he currently sits with 17 home runs, 24 doubles, 51 RBI, and 46 runs scored all while touting a .285 batting average. 2007 second rounder Jordan Zimmerman, while only carrying a 5-6 record, has been an above average number three for the Nats as his 2.51 ERA is best on the team and fifth best in the National League in his first full healthy season back from Tommy John surgery. Gio Gonzalez has been the Nationals best pitcher this season, and while he was acquired via trade with the Oakland Athletics, the trade would not have been possible without a farm system loaded with desirable prospects.

Building off of the title of this piece, this is how it has gone down for these clubs so far. The Nationals won first place in consecutive years at the County Fair with Harper and Strasberg. They used some of their crops at the farmers market and acquired Gonzalez from a farmer who was turning his field into a corn maze for children to romp around in during Halloween. The Nationals now are reaping what they had sewn and look to be the most prosperous farm on the block. The Pirates, however, went to the swap meet on a few separate occassions and picked up Burnett and McDonald just by being at the right place at the right time. They mixed some of their crops with gummy bears and nuclear fission and came up with some sort of Tomacco like super crop in McCutchen. McCutchen’s yield was so potent it rubbed off onto withering crops Walker and Alvarez which were immediately rejuvinated and enough to feed the family. I believe the Pirates also sell Christmas Trees on their farm, meaning Cole and Taillon should just be about ready to be decorated and strung up in the household in just a few short months. Also, I hear Clint Hurdle makes a mean mince meat pie. At least that’s the word on the street.

Corny farmer references aside, the Nationals and Pirates are so easy to root for mainly because of how their teams were built. While the Nationals have gone out and spent an unnecessary amount of money on the likes of Jayson Werth, it was a mistake most teams in their situation make. Sure, they overpaid a middling talent who was most likely in the dwindling years of his career. But, if the Nationals make the playoffs this season and Werth comes back in time and, at the bare minimum, brings his experience and leadership into that clubhouse, could you call it a better signing than originally thought? Of course. Look at it this way. If Werth can come back and be slightly better than the player he was last season, that puts him in a lineup with Harper, Desmond, Michael Morse, Espinosa, Zimmerman, and the unheralded Adam LaRoche.

Would one of them have to sit? Maybe not. Maybe you move Harper to center for a few games and keep Rick Ankiel on the bench as one of your reserves. All I know is that is a deep lineup in the NL even if you’re not getting Werth at 100%. Also, when you consider this offense will get better next season when Wilson Ramos comes back from injury, can you really fault the Nationals for replacing Adam Dunn with someone who can at least play the outfield? Let’s say the Nationals make the World Series this season. Would having Werth be your DH for a few games be the worst option? Absolutely not. In fact most NL teams would love to be able to have that option. Definitely not at the price Werth signed for, but the Nationals aren’t the only team to ever sign someone to a bad contract. Plus, it’s not like his money is going to get in the way when it comes time to pay Harper and Strasberg.

The Pirates may not be World Series contenders this year but it would behoove them to open up the purse strings this offseason and grab another piece, because when Cole and Taillon finally do come up, you want to be able to strike quickly much like the Nationals are doing right now. Will they be able to attract the likes of a Josh Hamilton? Most likely, definitely not. But they should be looking to acquire another piece and not have their big free agent signing be Clint Barmes (who probably would have had a nice career if he didn’t, ya know, fall down a flight of stairs). The last thing Pittsburgh can do is waste McCutchen’s prime behind a rotation with Cole, Taillon, Burnett, and McDonald because they didn’t push enough in free agency. With the pieces in place and arguably the nicest home field in the Majors there is no excuse to be pushing hard for mid level free agents.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the 2015 Pittsburgh-Washington NLCS. Are you? @ColeyMick

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