2004 Montreal Expos Preview
Monday, March 08 2004 @ 11:08 AM EST
Contributed by: Craig B
Baseball's version of Ahasuerus will continue to wander in 2004.
A compact, pocket-sized preview by Craig B
|83 wins, 79 losses||711 runs scored, 12th in NL|
|4th place, NL East||716 runs allowed, 8th in NL|
|Pythagorean record : 80-82|
"May You Live In Interesting Times"
Thirty years from now, the Expos' plight will make a very entertaining movie, a Major League for our sons and grandsons. "Ownership" cancelling home games; a rundown, falling-apart ballpark (but with brand new FieldTurf for 2004!); a ward of the league with budgets being set and major business decisions being made by competitors; and a bizarre continuing role as the New York Yankees Retirement Home, with new arrivals seemingly every other month.
It's impossible to even touch on the Expos without analyzing their financial and management situation, and it's impossible to analyze the Expos' financial and management situation without either breaking down with uncontrollable laughter, collapsing into fits of bilious rage, or breaking into body-wracking sobs. I will spare you the emotionalism, which I will save for another day.
See, I have a lot of hate built up, and I would hate to misdirect it in a preview thread.
Anyway, the Expos are operating on the goodwill of the other 29 owners, who own the franchise and set the budget through a committee of MLB. This means that the team's resources are severely and strictly limited, although for appearances' sake last year's Puerto Rican odyssey meant that the budget was raised slightly. (The Puerto Rico experiment was a disastrous failure, though – Puerto Rico received most of the marquee games the Expos played, yet attendance was probably down slightly from what similar attendances would have been in Montreal. Mercifully, the team's money was guaranteed through arrangements with the promoter). Last year, GM Omar Minaya elected to stretch those resources to the limit early, meaning that the Expos didn't even have enough budget to make September callups.
Whither the 2004 Expos? One important fact that we know - there will again be 22 “home” games outside of Montreal, despite the failure of the previous experiment. Those games are to be in Puerto Rico again, and they include the Canada Day weekend games with the Blue Jays on July 2-4. So even if the Expos manage to put a good product on the field, they will be badly behind the 8-ball since there will be extra-long roadtrips on three separate occasions during the year, all before the All-Star Break. Ostensibly, this tight grouping of the Puerto Rico games was to avoid disadvantaging the Expos during a possible pennant race. A less charitable explanation would be that it is intended to diminish Montreal interest even further by ensuring that the Expos never get near a pennant race. At any rate, MLB have promised that the Expos' future destiny will be cleared up by the All-Star Break. Stay tuned for an announcement in late August that MLB is committed to resolving the Expos situation by Opening Day 2005.
What of 2004? We know that Vladimir Guerrero will be gone, having signed a longterm free agent deal with the Anaheim Angels. We know that Javier Vazquez will be gone, having been traded to the Yankees in exchange for Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Randy Choate. Otherwise, most of the team's core returns, but Guerrero and Vazquez between them are enough of a loss that it will be difficult for the Expos to post a third consecutive winning record. Consecutive 83-79 seasons in 2002 and 2003 marked the first time the Expos had has consecutive winning seasons since 1993-94.
|Players Acquired||Players Lost|
|Carl Everett, OF||Scott Stewart, P|
|Tony Batista, 3B||Orlando Hernandez, P|
|Gregg Zaun, C||Javier Vazquez, P|
|Nick Johnson, 1B||Vladimir Guerrero, OF|
|Randy Choate, P||Fernando Tatis, DL|
|Juan Rivera, OF||Todd Zeile, 3B|
|Pat Mahomes, P||Wil Cordero, 1B|
|Damon Buford, OF||Michael Barrett, C|
|Wilton Chavez, P||Jose Macias, UT|
|Ryan Church, OF||Britt Reames, P|
|Maicer Izturis, SS||Hector Almonte, P|
|Brad Cresse, C|
You wouldn't have known it to look at it, but the Expos' offense was by some measures the worst in baseball by a country mile. The Expos played in two very friendly hitters' parks (Olympic Stadium and Hiram Bithorn Stadium) and the 2003 park factors were extreme. In fact, the parks were probably not as extreme as the park factors show, but the fact remains that the Expos finished 12th in the NL in runs scored in a very generous hitters' park, had one of the worst benches in Christendom, and could easily have competed with LA and Detroit in punchlessness.
The bad news is that on top of that, the team lost two of its five real hitters, Guerrero and Wil Cordero, who has decamped to Florida. The good news is that there are several good hitters coming in, and much of the cruft that dragged down the offense in 2003 is likely to be replaced by better options. Because of the extremely friendly hitter’s parks the Expos played in, the raw numbers of the Expos’ hitters looked good. A stat like park-adjusted offensive winning percentage, though, tells the true (and ugly) story. An average hitter has a .500 OWP, and a replacement player around .350 to .400.
For the Expos, Endy Chavez (.268 OWP), Fernando Tatis (.130 OWP), Jose Macias (.222 OWP), Ron Calloway (.229 OWP), Jamey Carroll (.238 OWP), Michael Barrett (.257 OWP), Edwards Guzman (.135 OWP), and Jeff Liefer (.095 OWP), were nearly two hundred runs below average between them. All these players are all either departed, or likely to see their roles considerably reduced. This is where the potential gain for the 2004 Expos comes. What's nice about that group of hitters is that they make a nice little eight-man lineup, if you slide Jamey Carroll and Edwards Guzman into the middle infield. It's not that much of a stretch to imagine that team as a lineup; all played significant time for the ‘Spos. And they were horrible. That lineup, playing 162 games with average pitching and defense, would have a record of about 32-130 and score about 2.1 runs per game in a neutral park.
Of course, the newcomers taking over those roles are not necessarily great run producers, but to be a massive improvement they don't have to be. Brian Schneider (.230/.309/.394), who ran down badly in the second half in his first year as a starter, will need to handle even more of the load, and Gregg Zaun (.229/.309/.349 for Houston and Colorado) has been brought in as his caddy. (Minor-league free agent Brad Cresse, who has power but not a lot else, will compete for the backup job.) Nick Johnson (.284/.422/.472 for the Yankees) should be an improvement over Cordero at first base. Carl Everett (.287/.366/.510), newly acquired to take Guerrero's spot in the batting order, is a quality run producer is not at Vlad's level. New acquisition Rivera will battle with rookie Terrmel Sledge (.324/.397/.545 for AAA Edmonton) and a longshot candidate, hulking rookie Val Pascucci (.281/.419/.447, also in Edmonton) for the third sport in the outfield; look for Terrmel Sledge to finally be freed from AAA purgatory and to show why he should have been in La Belle Province all along. Only 3B Tony Batista (.235/.270/.393, .328 OWP in Baltimore), among the newcomers, is a question mark, but the home run park in San Juan, at least, should fit him to a T and a return to the National League, where the pitchers will be unfamiliar with his unusual stance (though probably not with his weakness for low-and-away breaking stuff), may help him turn a stagnant career around.
The other holdovers in the lineup besides catcher Schneider are Jose Vidro (.547 OWP), Orlando Cabrera (.471 OWP), and Brad Wilkerson (.522 OWP). All three are proving to be remarkably consistent players. Look for some of Vidro's power to return after having a chance to rest his oft-injured wrist. Joe Vitiello, who raked impressively last year, is back to give some pop off the bench but will have less to do with a lot of young outfielders around.
Defensively the 2003 team was OK, with Cabrera and Vidro holding down the middle infield effectively (Vidro, who just a few years ago was rather overmatched by the demands of second base, has turned himself into a smooth defender by good old-fashioned hard work, a tribute to his ultra-professional approach to the game). Third base was a problem all year; Batista, who is a talented defender but prone to lapses of concentration and effort, should at least be better than Todd Zeile, Edwards Guzman and an injured Fernando Tatis.
In the outfield, the 2004 Expos have an odd problem in that they have three centerfielders in their probable starting outfield, none of whom is actually a good centerfielder. Many are saying that Brad Wilkerson is likely to start in center, but Wilkerson is slow of foot for a centerfielder and not particularly good yet at running good routes to the ball. Terrmel Sledge, whose defensive work at AAA was well-received yet unremarkable, may be the best bet, as Carl Everett is unlikely to be given the big field. The team’s biggest defensive weakness will be in champ centre, and the outfield’s performance - which could be anything from pretty bad to very good - will go a long way to determining the eventual success of the pitching staff.
If ever there was a pitching staff that caught break after break after break, it was the 2003 Montreal Expos. Despite the fact that the offense is likely to be much-improved, the fact is the Expos are going to decline because they are likely to see the largest increase in runs allowed in baseball, primarily because the pitching staff cannot hope to be as successful in 2004 as they were in 2003.
Javier Vazquez, of course, has departed for New York, leaving a massive hole in the rotation at #1 starter and big shoes to fill. Livan Hernandez (233 IP, 3.20 ERA), who turned his career around with aplomb and established himself as a legitimate Cy Young candidate, has to be expected to take a step back. Righties Tomo Ohka (199, 4.16), Zach Day (131, 4.18), and Tony Armas Jr. (164 IP, 4.44 ERA in 2002) are expected to fill the 2-4 starter roles, and are all good pitchers for those slots. Ohka, in particular, has pitched very well for two years and needs only to take a small step forward to reach the #1 starter class – but he doesn't strike out enough batters to be convincing as an elite starter. Day, who had an excellent year aside from a torn rotator cuff (an injury which was not as bad as it sounds), is in the same boat. Armas, who is coming off surgery on his shoulder and his rotator cuff, does have a chance to burst forward if his injuries are behind him – he's got a million-dollar arm.
There are few fifth-starter candidates around; the Expos' tight budget doesn't lend itself to writing a lot of minor-league free agent contracts. Holdover Claudio Vargas, who surprised and impressed, has the inside track, but if his shoulder tendinitis flares up it will bring trouble. Promising young pitcher T.J. Tucker (80, 4.73) should find himself back in the bullpen. Other starter candidates include NRI Pat Mahomes, AAA righty Sun-Woo Kim, and lefty Scott Downs. The best shot may belong to Kim's fellow Korean, Seung Song, also acquired from the Red Sox and Edmonton's best starter in 2003.
The bullpen is where the Expos made the most hay in 2003, with a pile of terrific performances. Scott Stewart is gone, but Rocky Biddle (71, 4.65, 34 saves), Luis Ayala (71, 2.92), and lefty Joey Eischen (53, 3.06) return as the core of the pen, with Julio Manon (14 saves in Edmonton, 4.13 ERA in Montreal) challenging Biddle for the closer role and 2003 draftee Chad Cordero likely to be given a shot to show his lights-out September cameo (12 strikeouts, 2 unintentional walks, and 4 hits allowed in 11 innings) was for real. Cordero was widely viewed as a pure signability pick by the Expos and his terrific performance in the majors must have been sweet vindication for Omar Minaya.
But can that bullpen be expected to be fifty or more runs above average again? Certainly not. Depth is once again a problem, as Montreal is only able to sign the dregs of the available AAAA players. If Manon and Ayala slip back to being the pitchers they were before 2003, there's not much to bring up in their place, and the pen is very thin from the left side, with Choate the only experienced lefty behind Eischen.
The Expos scored 711 runs and allowed 716, which was indicative of the strength of the team they were last year. Despite the doom and gloom, .500 is again a possible goal, with a more balanced offensive effort compensating for the loss of Valdimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez. This team is not the 2001 Mariners, though... the remaining players behind the two departed stars aren't all very good. The Expos won't battle for the pennant, and given the concentration of road games early in the season, the team will likely play poorly in May and June and be out of contention all year long. The result of that will be a July selloff of much of the remaining talent.
Predicted record : 74-88