May 27, 2003
It's a little funny that on one of the distinctly American summer holidays, two of the best stories in baseball come from a place where Monday was just another day. The Montreal Expos took five of six on a brief homestand to come into Memorial Day at 32-18, just two games behind the Braves in the NL East. The Toronto Blue Jays? All they did was sweep a four-game series at Yankee Stadium for the first time ever, moving to 27-24 and closing within four games of first place in the suddenly very competitive AL East.
I admit going into this piece that it's a "write it while you can" job. While the Expos and Jays are currently among the hottest teams in baseball, and right there in their divisional races, I don't think either will be in such a lofty place in two months. For now, though, each is making noise, and doing so in completely different ways.
The Expos have allowed the third-fewest runs in baseball (189), behind only the freak-show Dodgers and the Oakland A's. It's a team effort: the Expos are fourth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, turning nearly 73% of the balls in play against them into outs. That's useful for a staff that's just middle of the pack in strikeouts (6.6 K/9). The defense and a league-low 141 walks allowed have enabled the Expos to hold opponents to a .310 OBP, the key to their run prevention.
All their success comes from keeping opponents off of the scoreboard, because their offense is average or slightly below in just about every category, with the four good hitters (Jose Vidro, Vladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cabrera and Brad Wilkerson) being weighed down by four sinkholes in Endy Chavez, Michael Barrett, Fernando Tatis and the first-base platoon of Jeff Liefer and Wil Cordero. The Expos' strong bench--four reserves have at least a .255 Equivalent Average--has helped them win the close ones: the team is 9-3 in one-run games, and 20-10 when the margin is three or less.
While the Expos have played well so far, I'm highly suspicious about their abilty to stay in contention. As I've argued from the beginning of the season, the games they'll play in Puerto Rico will add a travel burden to their schedule that will be hard to overcome. Beginning with last night's game in Florida, the Expos will be away from Montreal for almost four weeks, and for five of the next six, playing a brutal schedule (the Phillies, the AL West, the resurgent Blue Jays and the Braves).
On top of that, their pitching staff is a patchwork, missing two members of the planned Opening Day rotation (Tony Armas and Orlando Hernandez) and getting by on the contributions of three pitchers (Zach Day, Claudio Vargas and Livan Hernandez) with a combined 85 strikeouts and 58 walks in 157 1/3 innings. That's not a recipe for future success.
There's also the owned-by-MLB factor, although I have to admit that I was wrong about that last year, when Omar Minaya added Cliff Floyd and Bartolo Colon to the team in July. The deals to get those players left the Expos farm system in tatters, and while they still have some prospects, they lack the top-tier guys who can be dealt for difference-makers, and it's again unlikely that they will take on payroll to make a run. It's not fair to Expos fans--33,236 of whom showed up at Olympic Stadium Saturday night--but it's reality.
If the Expos can survive the next six weeks and be in the race come July 1, I'll be able to take them more seriously. Until then, as good a story as they are, I'm doubtful that this team has enough to stay with the Phillies and Braves.
One province over, Blue Jays are 18-8 since their six-run ninth inning beat the Royals on April 27. More to the point, they're 21-11 since a brutal season-opening stretch against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins, having taken advantage of a softer May schedule to get their pitching and defense in order:
ERA IP H BB SO HR April 6.08 237.0 302 98 190 41 May 3.78 212.0 199 62 130 29Lighting up the scoreboard hasn't been a problem for the Jays; they lead the planet in runs scored, and while Skydome is part of that, they're sixth in MLB in EqA, so it's not a fluke. They're second in the majors in batting average, ninth in home runs and ninth in walks, largely on the strength of two factors: Carlos Delgado, and no holes. Only Jayson Werth has performed below replacement level, and he's done so just barely (-0.3 RARP) in a mere 34 plate appearances. Lots of teams would love to have a low-profile, low-cost, productive middle infield of Orlando Hudson (.283/.339/.401, 262 EqA) and Chris Woodward (.268/.340/.391, .249 EqA). The shopping J.P. Ricciardi did in the free-agent pool this winter has paid off handsomely as well: Frank Catalanotto (.317/.345/.495) and Greg Myers (.337/.422/.547) have been productive left-handed bats for a combined cost of less than $4 million.
Of course, all this success is coming a bit early for the Jays, who expected to continue developing their young players this season while paring more payroll and adding talent to the organization. Their challenge will be to continue with their original plan and not get sidetracked by their current success. That likely means trading Cory Lidle and Shannon Stewart before August 1, despite both players' roles in the Jays' hot streak, and giving more playing time to Werth, who is still learning to hit right-handers.
Sometimes, success is as big a problem as failure. The Jays have to resist the siren call of a wild-card run and keep adding Jason Arnolds to the organization. The gap between them and the bullies in the division is closing rapidly as the Sox and Yankees age, and it's not hard to see a time when the Jays will be the 800-pound gorilla of the East.