June 24, 2002
Planning the Miracle
Those Expos sure are on fire, eh? Winners of nine of their last ten, Les Expos have regained sole possession of second place in the NL East, and rest just 5.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves.
Of course, many of you may not have noticed how well the Expos are playing. Who can blame you? The owners' representative supposedly signed the 'Spos' death warrant long ago, and the 2002 season is supposed to be a march towards extinction for the franchise that introduced Canada to Major League Baseball.
Whatever highlights show you're watching won't tell you much either. They're too busy cracking hilarious Expo attendance jokes.
Did you hear the one about the Expo fan whose friend showed up to watch the game?
He passed out from the shock of the big crowd. And, what game? Ha!
But we Expos fans have feelings too. If you cut us, do we not bleed Youppi! orange?
You don't think we remember the pain of Blue Monday in 1981? Twenty-one years later, a lot of people like listening to Rick Monday during Dodgers broadcasts. All I see is that bum smacking a Steve Rogers meatball over the center-field fence, quashing the Expos' shot at a World Series. Today, his voice grates like Fran Drescher on a Pixie Stix bender.
What about 1994? The Expos surged to the best record in baseball that summer. Fans packed the Big O, screaming like lunatics for Larry Walker and Moises Alou, Ken Hill and John Wetteland. Ads urged Expos fans to secure their playoff tickets now, before they disappeared. That August, the owners decided fighting for a labor-cost cap was worth pissing away the rest of the season, the playoffs and the World Series.
Seven years of awful owner after awful owner badmouthing the city, the team, the ballpark and the fans later, MLB took over the team, planning on pulling the plug after the 2002 season. The league may have meant well when it tapped Omar Minaya (mmmph! umpf!) as a lame-duck GM for the lame-duck franchise, but other than picking up Troy O'Leary for nothing, Minaya's done little to... (ummf!)
Sorry, Omar's just a little squirmy. You see, he's probably a good guy and all, but what does he know from the heart-wrenching lunacy that is Expo fandom? Yeah, OK, his former employer, the Mets, once employed Junior Noboa too. And sure, Minaya's trying to make his bones and earn a more stable GM job somewhere. But all he's done is rearrange deck chairs on le Titanic.
So with the help of some Expo die-hards from FanHome.com, I've taken the Expos' offices by force. Oh, I'm not going to do anything violent here. I'm just going to make the moves that will take this team to the playoffs for the second time in club history.
It won't be easy. MLB likely won't allow any huge added salary obligations. The Expos' farm system has only a few trade chits to offer. The big-league roster does have its share of holes. But I'm up to the task.
I wanted to share my plan with you, but first I had to get through BP's heavily-guarded lair. We weren't able to subdue gatekeeper Joe Sheehan, so instead we tossed him a 20-sided die and some tattered, old Don Mattingly Strat-O-Matic cards. That'll hold him for a month or two. Onward:
Call up Joe Vitiello, cut Wil Cordero. Yes, he's 32 years old and no Carlos Delgado, but Vitiello is more useful than Cordero and more likely to stay healthy than Andres Galarraga. Vitiello has put up a .276 major-league EqA at Triple-A Ottawa, dwarfing Lee Stevens' .249. He'll spot-start in the outfield and at first base and serve as the team's best right-handed pinch-hitter. Galarraga sticks around because frankly, he's a nifty good-luck charm who can still hit a little.
It's time to dial up our old friend, Chuck LaMar. The Rays have told teams they'll trade just about anyone for cash and prospects as ownership tries to shrink the lowest payroll in baseball. Steve Cox ($280,000) and Paul Wilson ($1.2 million) aren't making much this year, but they're both arbitration eligible after the season and could be had.
Despite some high draft picks spent on pitching in recent years, the Rays remain a little short in quality arms at the upper levels. The Expos' biggest area of depth? B-level pitching prospects who can fill the back of rotations. One such prospect, Zach Day, was recently called up. He becomes a Devil Ray. So does Justin Wayne, a prospect who's been compared to Mike Mussina (mostly because he's big and from Stanford, but never mind the details). We'll throw in some cash, plus Jorge Nunez, a Dodgers castoff playing decently in Triple-A who can be as good as any of the shortstops the Rays have started over the last few years.
Day, Wayne, Nunez and $500,000 for Wilson and Cox. Two projectable pitching prospects, major-league ready or close to it and years from arbitration; a starting shortstop candidate and cash for a new, competent starting first basemen (11th among regular major-league first sackers in VORP at 6.2) and a bonafide #4 starter. Both Cox and Wilson could be valuable in 2003 if the franchise sticks around beyond this year, even if their salaries go up along the way. Stevens' $4 million a year contract expires after this season, freeing up that cash to cover the raises due Cox and Wilson and then some.
Assuming the deal goes through at the season's halfway point, that's about $1.3 million in salary and cash to bear.
Trade Graeme Lloyd. Rumors out of Disneyland have the contending Angels shopping for a lefty. Lloyd's name has come up, and with Alan Embree now off the market, he's the best veteran lefty available.
To dump Lloyd, we'll accept no more than a PTBNL for him; no useful players, no token prospects, just a faceless figure for a bonafide veteran reliever. Assuming another deal midway through the year, we shed $1.5 million in salary, minus the three months' worth of minimum salary we'll pay to whatever mop-up man we slot to fill Lloyd's non-essential role. After two trades, we've acquired a legitimate starting first baseman and a solid fourth starter and given up nothing of value to this year's team.
Release Stevens. The numbers game forces him out. His salary makes him untradeable, but his game has gone to pot both offensively and defensively. Wish him well. Management goofed when it shelled out $8 million over two years for him, but he handled himself like a professional and deserves best wishes. If you're really lucky, the Braves pick up Stevens instead of trading for Jim Thome for fear of upsetting AOL Time Warner's accountants.
Maximize T.J. Tucker's value. According to Michael Wolverton's tools measuring relievers' performance, Tucker is the 22nd-best reliever in baseball this year, ahead of guys like Robb Nen. He's a former starting pitcher who flashed solid peripherals at every level.
Current fifth starter Masato Yoshii tossed a shaky but effective five shutout innings to beat the Royals in his last outing. If he keeps throwing up zeros, leave him alone. If he gets yanked early in future starts, have Tucker take his spot before the bullpen starts to wear down cleaning up Yoshii's messes. Wherever you can the most leverage out of Tucker, do it. For those hung up on having a set closer, remember that Scott Stewart has done a great job in that role and can manage fine with Tucker moving.
Brad Wilkerson starts in center field and leads off, every day. If he's nursing a bad hammy or playing his 14th straight game, fine, give him a day off. But don't even think about platooning him. You don't bench rapidly improving players with lines of .289/.386/.445 and emerging power.
The last and toughest call: what to do with Brandon Phillips? He posted a .246 MjEQA at Double-A Harrisburg before being called up to Ottawa. That handily beats incumbent shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who has struggled mightily at the plate and, surprisingly, in the field this year. Whether it's his bad back ailing him or his mind worrying about his daughters stuck in Colombia due to visa problems, Cabrera hasn't been the player he was last year.
Is Phillips ready for the Show? Should he jump into the starting SS spot? Spell Cabrera at short and the effective but fragile Fernando Tatis at third base while bolstering the bench? Or should Cabrera or Phillips be dealt?
It's tough to gauge the two players' trade value. Phillips is widely considered one of the top five prospects in the minors, a five-tool talent with improving plate discipline and a high ceiling. Cabrera is a Gold Glove winner with a lot more experience, some flashy RBI totals from last season and a heavier price tag.
If you're playing with an eye toward a future beyond this year, you deal Cabrera, looking for younger talent with more upside.
But if you're going for broke, you call former owner Jeffrey Loria and rekindle the trade talk that had Phillips going to Florida with Carl Pavano earlier in the year for Brad Penny. Only this time, make it Phillips, Pavano and promising pitching prospect Luke Lockwood for Cliff Floyd.
Yes, the deal will cost the team $2.5 million down the stretch. But the pressure on MLB to push the Expos toward contention will snowball as teams head to the wire. Even the most cynical estimates would still have a few thousand more fans coming out as the team piled up wins, easily making up for Floyd's added salary.
While the Yankees wait for Juan Rivera to rehab and re-emerge as trade bait, the Expos can land Floyd, thanks to the best combination of trade bait and go-for-broke attitude of any team around. If Floyd flees after three months for free agent riches, so be it.
CF Brad Wilkerson
2B Jose Vidro
RF Vladimir Guerrero
LF Cliff Floyd
3B Fernando Tatis
1B Steve Cox
SS Orlando Cabrera
C Michael Barrett
Rotation: Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr., Tomokazu Ohka, Paul Wilson, Masato Yoshii/T.J. Tucker
Bullpen: Scott Stewart, Matt Herges, Joey Eischen, Dan Smith, Yoshii/Tucker, Triple-A call-up Matt Blank
Bench: Troy O'Leary, Joe Vitiello, Mike Mordecai, Jose Macias, Brian Schneider, Andres Galarraga
A Serie Mondiale for Nos Amours. We're daring to dream.
Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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