To me this series against the Nationals is one of the more interesting that the Pirates have had this year. That may sound crazy at first, given that these two teams are the league's cellar dwellers, but I believe that no team should be more instructive for current Pirate fans than the Nationals. I thought a brief history of the Nats was in order in order to put our heads around how they got this bad and how their organization compares to the Pirates' (sorry, this is from my memory and perspective so feel free to point out any inaccuracies or things I've missed).
When the Nationals moved to DC from Montreal in 2005, they were in and state of absolute dissaray. Bud and his boys had attempted to contract and failed. Jeffrey Loria, the former owner of the Expos, was given the rights to start a new club in Florida, sold the Expos to MLB and took the entire baseball operations staff with him on his way out the door. Since MLB was the new owner, the focus was only on the bottom line so that no payroll could be added. It was unfortunate, because the Expos had some superstar talent with guys like Pedro Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero and very good talent in guys like Javier Vazquez, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera. A team that was in the running for the playoffs in 2003, couldn't even make standard baseball moves due to the constraints Bud had placed on the payroll. Ironically, the division rival Marlins and Jeffrey Loria went on to win the World Series.
By the time the Expos had made their move to DC, baseball had sold off nearly all of it's talent with deals focused only on saving money. There almost wasn't even a need to draft since no real payroll would be allocated. To make matters worse, the new team was handicappped by a ridiculous bidding process in which Bud held out long enough to make DC believe there was actually a chance that MLB would choose another city (Norfolk anyone??). Bud extracted every penny possible from the Expos, including getting the DC council to put themselves on the hook for much of the new stadium in order to make sure that the new owner's wouldn't have to lower their bid for team to include the necesary new stadium. The real slap in the face came when a deal was made in order to appease the ONE owner who was kicking and screaming his way into this jackpot of deal, Peter Angelos in nearby Baltimore. He was given television and radio rights over the Washington team and his own team. DC locals couldn't even watch their own team on TV for the first year because Angelos refused to fairly negociate with the cable providers (note that I still can't find the Nats on FM radio and I live in DC).
Pretty freakin' sad, huh? Well, most people here in DC quickly forgot about how hadicapped their new team was because 1) they had a team to root for 2) with a few short-term focused signing this new team did surprisingly well! First round pick, Ryan Zimmerman, moved immediately up to the big league club and was an instant success. Halfway through the year, this amazing team was in FIRST place and 20 games over 500! The future was bright, right? No, because the truth is that below this exterior of this outperforming team, there was no foundation. The minor leagues had been depleted by Bud and the current roster was outperforming in many aspects.
This is where I believe things went terribly wrong for the Nationals. They claimed to be focusing on rebuilding the organizational depth but they proceeded to trade for Alphonso Soriano, one year away from free agency. Soriano did tremendously well and when given the opportunity to trade him the following year (the team had swooned), GM Jim Bowden either didn't have the guts to pull the trigger on the best offer or was dumb enough to believe that Soriano could be signed by the club and would be a part of the new future. Bowden subsequently proceeded to make various deals, but either hestiated or never considered trading their best assets (Zimmerman, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson, Guzman, Vidro) but when he did trade made moves for guys that were supposed to be immediate improvements to the major league club (Austin Kerns, Elijah Dukes, Felipe Lopez).
So why is this relevant? The Pirates have had a concurrent streak of poor play to coincide with the Nats so what is the difference? Well, this series represents the Pirates at their worst but with clear direction and the Nationals in the midst of a lack of anything resembling focus (it's only fair to include the fact that the Nat's staff is all young, but the Buccos are starting 3 rookies in the rotation too). The Nationals failed to sign their first round pick last year but then proceeded to spend their offseason acquiring a slugger like Adam Dunn while Neal & Co kept focused on what appears to be the plan: 1) if overvalued, trade players at their peak value to build minor league depth 2) don't worry about how bad the team will be in the interim 3) if the right deal exists, make the trade, no matter how much you like the player 4) acquire multiple talented players instead of trying to hit the prospect jackpot 5) draft for talent. How can this be more clearly evident than in the Nyjer-Milledge deal? Milledge is a prospect (not technically, I know - but in terms of age) while Morgan is a short to medium term solution. The Nationals at best in the same spot as the Bucs development wise (debatable) and they made a move to improve their current roster!
In conclusion (long winded I know, sorry), this weekend series represents the epitome of what should not be done while improving the team and ballclub. Watch both teams and see the young players on the Pirates and compare them to the Nationals roster and think - this is what the alternative is - do we really want that? It's an easy call for me.