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April 4, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Last Expo Standing
A bit less than two years ago, I noted that it had been nearly six years -- a long time, in baseball -- since the Montreal Expos had been a thing in Major League Baseball, and I wondered who was likely to be the last active player to have worn an Expos uniform. I chose Vladimir Guerrero-- who was in the midst of a momentary resurgence--in a fit of something like nostalgia.
Well, now, in a little more than 24 hours, the team that once was les Expos will kick off its eighth season as the Washington Nationals, and it seems a good time to revisit the question: Do we have a better idea now of who will be the last Expo standing?
Well, if nothing else, the opening field has gotten a lot smaller. Here’s a table of all 13 hitters and 13 pitchers who played for the Expos, who Baseball-Reference still characterizes as active, and who played in the majors at some point in 2010 or 2011; with their 2012 seasonal age, where they spent 2011, and their stats or other relevant notes. (You can see the original lists from the site here and here):
There’s your entire list. We can immediately eliminate retirees or apparent retirees Bradley, Cabrera, Cordero, Stairs, and Vargas. It’s also easy to throw out Batista, Colon and Blum because of age; Colon might be excellent again this year, but he doesn’t likely have five solid years left, and it’s hard to imagine that no one else on this list does. I’ll reluctantly knock Jamey Carroll out for the same reason; he’s been getting better with age, but he’ll be 40 when his current deal ends. Pascucci and Harris seem unlikely ever to make it out of the minors again, so they’re out.
How about your middle relievers? Ayala’s pretty 2011 ERA earned him a contract with the Orioles, but as was written in our 2012 annual, his peripherals were little different from his most recent seasons, which include a 5.43 major league ERA in 2009 and a 6.42 minor league ERA in 2010. Mota has become one of those workhorses teams can always use to take the pressure off the rest of a tired bullpen, and he could be one of those freaks who keeps doing that into his mid-40s, but that’s not the kind of thing you should ever bet on.
For the same reason, I’ll dismiss Livan Hernandez. With a fastball that no longer touches 85 and relying more than ever on that huge, loopy, ridiculous curve, you could say Livan has a bit of the Moyer in him. Moyer, 12 years Livan’s senior, has a job. But Moyer was considerably better through his mid- to late-30s than Livan has been, and anyway, he’s a once-in-all-of-baseball-history kind of story. So, no, Livan isn’t the guy.
Chavez is a fun player to watch and root for, but he depends on his legs and athleticism, which figure to fade rather quickly now that he’s lost most of two years to injuries (and FRAA already suggests his defense may have taken a step back in ‘11). So, so long to him and Brian Schneider; backup catchers are forever, but PECOTA sees him struggling to a .240 TAv in 2012 and falling off from there.
My pick from just 22 months ago, Vlad Guerrero? Gone as well. That hot streak he was in the midst of in 2010 masks what otherwise might have been a perfectly steady decline from 2007 through the present day. I’m a bit surprised no one could use him as a platoon DH or pinch hitter, but that’s likely all he is, and he’s unlikely to be even that in 2013 and beyond. It’s not happening.
Knock Juan Rivera off, too. He’s one of the younger players on this list and he has a 2012 job, but he’s a bat-only guy whose bat isn’t even particularly good, and can’t have much longer to go. Ditto Nick Johnson. I like Johnson and would love to see him get some luck, stay healthy for several years in a row and be the kind of star hitter he once could have been, but this is a guy who has played 100 games just once since 2006 and who doesn’t really figure into the Orioles’ plans in 2012. You have to figure this year is his last shot, and the odds are long.
Four of the remaining seven are starting pitchers aged 35 or 36. Vazquez is the most talented of them and might be the one with the most gas left in the tank, but he’s currently unsigned by choice and could decide to retire any day, so we can probably drop him. Bruce Chen has carved out a nice, late-blooming career for himself and is a Royal for at least two more years, but he’s been doing a lot of it with smoke and mirrors, and I suspect he’ll have a hard time finding other suitors when this contract is up. As for the remaining two, both Lilly and Pavano have been durable and reasonably effective in recent years, but Lilly’s been better, and his peripherals have stayed more or less constant, while Pavano has watched his strikeout rate plummet to the point where it’s big trouble if it gets any lower. PECOTA’s long-term forecast sees Lilly remaining reasonably effective (above replacement level, at least) through 2016, two years longer than either Pavano or Chen, and it’s possible to see him keeping it up for even longer than that. Only Lilly stays in the competition.
That leaves us with a final four of Downs, Lilly, Rauch and Izturis. I can see it happening with any of the four. Downs is one of those lefty relievers who gets by mostly on command and by dominating fellow lefties, and he hasn’t lost any effectiveness with age yet, so it’s easy to see him going strong for another five or six years, into his early 40s. Rauch is three years younger than Downs, and could certainly have many more years left in big-league bullpens if he can get over the knee and back injuries that slowed him down in 2011.
But I think the biggest change to this race (such as it is) over the past two years is that Macier Izturis -- the commenters’ favorite on the initial piece -- has emerged as the even clearer favorite. Still just 31, Izturis has established himself as a superutility player who can handle second, third and short, with at least an average glove and average or better offense at any of those positions. He’s had some injury problems, and middle infielders seem to burn out more quickly than most, but Izturis’ bat is good enough that he should be able to hang on to big-league benches even after shortstop has to drop off his resume and he’s limited to, say, first, second and third; he’ll almost certainly be better at that role than Blum or Ty Wigginton is today. I’m not going to put a percentage on it, but I’d say Izturis has to be the overwhelming favorite to be the last Expo at this point, followed by Downs, then the field, then Lilly, then Rauch.
That’s a pretty dull, sad way for a franchise’s history to come to a close. Nothing against Izturis as a player, but his Expos career consists of a 53 OPS+ in 32 games as a 23-year-old rookie. If some enterprising GM (perhaps the Nationals, or the Blue Jays) wanted to throw Guerrero (or, better, Tim Raines) a one-day contract after Izturis is done, well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.