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January 15, 2003

The Daily Prospectus

The Colon Trade

by Jonah Keri

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Fleeced by Kenny Williams. What's that like anyway? Getting beaten by Woody Allen in an arm-wrestling match? Losing a battle of wits to an inanimate carbon rod?

Today's Expos trade of Bartolo Colon and Quadruple-A infielder Jorge Nunez for Orlando HernandezJeff LieferRocky Biddle and an undisclosed amount of cash in a three-way deal with the White Sox and Yankees caps a two-month circus that's left fans of the Expos and plenty of other teams nauseous. The Yankees dealt Hernandez and $2 million cash to get righty set-up man Antonio Osuna and Triple-A pitcher Delvis Lantigua.

In the wake of the trade, Williams has instantly gone from embarrassment to weighing membership offers from Mensa in the eyes of many. George Steinbrenner was last seen drawing goat horns on his Larry Lucchino bobblehead doll while cackling maniacally. Omar Minaya's cell phone is eerily quiet - lotsa luck landing that GM job once the Expos move, Omar.

Should Minaya absorb all the egging and TP-ing for this awful trade? Not by a long shot. Step forward, Bud Selig, to claim your prize.

Every off-season, hordes of teams cut payroll. They didn't perform as expected, attendance wasn't as good as they'd hoped, and the owner wants to hold the line on salaries. No biggie. Get the GM working the phones, start talking to suitors, and see what you can do to chop salary while reloading the team's pool of young talent.

Not the Expos. Minaya had to sit through the World Series and several more weeks while the owners twiddled their thumbs over the Expos' 2003 schedule (so 22 "home" games in Puerto Rico won't put them at a disadvantage, right?) and the season's payroll. When the owners emerged from talks, they breathlessly told every wag who'd listen that the Expos would have to slice their payroll down to about $40 million before Opening Day.

And why not? As co-owners of the Expos, it was in their best interests to spread word of the Expos' plight, making it clear Minaya would have no leverage with which to negotiate. Not only could big-game hunters like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets hope to drop the price for prizes like Vladimir GuerreroJose VidroJavier Vazquez and Colon, but even secondary shoppers could get Orlando CabreraMichael Barrett and Tony Armas for a couple of tattered Andy Stankiewicz bubble gum cards.

They'd be chumps not to try. It was Selig who'd dragged his feet taking action on the Expos' future from Day One. Selig engineered the all-too-convenient Jeffrey Loria to Florida-John Henry to Boston-Expos to hell dance after the 2001 season. While embattled Montreal fans stewed and jilted fans in Washington and other potential future markets fumed, Selig hatched a brilliant plan to create a team whose identity would revolve around one overriding principle: conflict of interest. Every time another team made even the smallest deal with the Expos, it was doing so with an entity it partially owned. This was absurdly shady even by MLB standards.

The Colon deal, and all the public negotiations that went with it, was merely the coup de gross. GMs practice gamesmanship all the time while negotiating deals - it's an established part of the game. But by laying all the Expos' cards on the table before anyone else had to place a bet, MLB gave suitors a chance to take negotiating tricks to a new level.

The Red Sox, for one, didn't get their man in Colon, a fact that'll light up more than a few smiles in the Bronx. But throughout the Colon negotiations, freshly minted GM Theo Epstein showed he knows how to dance. The Yankees backing off and Minaya growing more desperate? Time to pull Casey Fossum off the table. Minaya trying to close the deal? Make sure the media gets wind of Colon's off-season condition, downgraded from portly to just-ate-Garces. Other teams also joined the information-leaking party. A few more days of waiting and someone would be checking into rumors of Vlad's leprosy.

Not that Minaya should get off easy. GMs like Ricciardi, Sabean, Beane and even Phillips came into the winter meetings with set plans of attack, and executed on those plans. Minaya instead invited all comers to place offerings before his feet, figuring he could easily sort through multiple offers in a short amount of time, find the best one and close the deal.

Whether he got greedy or simply failed to properly evaluate the talent in front of him, Minaya missed the boat. Plenty of rumors were overblown during the frenzy over Colon et. al. (Adam Dunn, anyone?), but Minaya did receive several legitimate offers. Talks of Shea Hillenbrand and either Fossum or Freddy Sanchez for Colon and the Yankees' superior offer of Nick JohnsonJuan Rivera and El Duque were widely reported.

When Minaya started negotiations on Colon and the Expos' other stars, he told anyone who'd listen he wanted young, major-league ready talent in return, with less than three years' service time in the bank. This made sense. Target promising young players who can help and not cost much now, with the potential to improve later. A worthy goal for a guy running a team with one of baseball's worst farm systems, that also has a win-now mentality as it faces the prospect of losing two of its best players to free agency after this season, plus a heap of off-field uncertainty.

Minaya might think he's found a group of players that fits that description with today's trade. He hasn't. You could defend last year's swap of top prospects Brandon PhillipsCliff Lee andGrady Sizemore (and Lee Stevens) for Colon (and Tim Drew) as a bold move toward going for a pennant in a season that may have marked the end of Expos baseball, or at least the end of the Expos in Montreal. A hell of a lot to pay, but Colon at least gave the fringe-contending Expos a shot for a while last season.

This latest Colon trade traps Minaya between desperately grasping at ill-founded hopes for contention and paying lip service to accusers charging him with razing the club's pool of young talent. Amazingly, the deal doesn't help the Expos now, or later.

Biddle is a 27-year-old soft-tosser with acute gopheritis. Hernandez will make ~$4 million in 2003 as a who-knows-how-old pitcher coming off injuries which limited his last two seasons of a combined 240 innings pitched, albeit 240 mostly solid innings. If the Expos only get the Yankees' traded sum of $2 million in the deal, that's $2 million more in salaries they'll have to jettison before all's said and done - roughly the equivalent of Armas or Barrett.

As for Liefer, gosh, this guy looks familiar.

 

					           AVG  OBP  SLG
Player A: .244 .301 .424
Player B: .251 .305 .457

Player A is Liefer, while Player B is Fernando Seguignol. Both guys read as minor-league mashers with erratic plate discipline who can't field but can hit some homers at rock-bottom prices. Of course the Expos had Seguignol before Felipe Alou ran him out of town in favor of overpriced veteran Stevens. So why not get Seguignol v2.0 by making him the centerpiece of a trade for a 20-game winner and staff ace? Makes sense.

The White Sox got a horse to anchor their rotation alongside Mark Buehrle. The Yankees traded one of their eight starters for a solid Ramiro Mendoza replacement without raising payroll. The Expos got screwed. Even if Hernandez's salary is paid in full, a $40 million payroll means either Vazquez or a combination of Cabrera and Barrett (or Armas) still needs to be dealt, given no one will touch the corpse of Fernando Tatis.

Stay tuned. This could get uglier.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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