August 27, 2003
The Improbable Expos
The Expos, down 8-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, scored 14 runs in their next four ups to overtake the Phillies 14-10 and move to within two games of the wild-card slot. The win was the second-largest comeback in Expos history, the biggest comeback in the majors this season, and the biggest blown lead in Phillies history.
It was just another night in the National League, where all but four teams are within nine games of a playoff spot, and just 2.5 games separate eight teams battling for the Wild Card and the NL Central title.
Phillies 70-61 -- Marlins 70-61 -- Astros* 69-62 -- Diamondbacks 69-63 1.5 Cubs 68-62 1.5 Cardinals 68-63 2 Expos 69-64 2 Dodgers 67-63 2.5
Those eight teams are 98-89 in August, by the way. Remember, it's not necessarily a great race, just an interesting and fun one.
I've been saying for weeks now that I'm going to get to an analysis of this zoo, but every time I sit down and try to do so, the situation changes. The Phillies had control. Then the Diamondbacks made a run. The Marlins tried to become America's darlings. The NL Central's lead changes hourly on some days. The Expos lost a bunch of heartbreakers on the West Coast and seemed ready to join the Rockies in the bleachers, but have battled back to start a season-defining 17-game stretch 2-0.
These next two-and-a-half weeks are the whole ball of wax for the Expos, who play no one but the Phillies and Marlins through Sept. 7, then host the Cubs in their last four Puerto Rico games. It will be the Expos' last crack at teams ahead of them in the Wild Card chase, and it's essential that they come out of this stretch no worse than second or third in the group and a couple of games back. Any further behind, and it may be too hard to climb over multiple teams who will be playing many, many head-to-head games in September. If they can somehow climb to the top of the pack, however, their lack of games against other contenders will make them hard to catch in the season's last two weeks.
Can they do it? I have to admit that I'm having a hard time looking at this in a detached manner. I would absolutely love to see the Expos, repeatedly given up for dead and handled like an unwanted stepchild, be part of a postseason they supposedly had no hope of reaching. Moreover, as an analyst, I know that the true differences among the eight teams in this thing aren't as significant over 30 games as they are over 162. It doesn't matter whether the Expos are as good as the NL Central runner-up or the Phillies or Diamondbacks; it only matters that they win a few more games than those teams do over the next five weeks.
A glance at the Current Adjusted Standings shows me that the Expos are lucky to even be where they are; they're more an under-.500 team that has been fortunate to score as many and allow as few runs as they have. They're a lousy offensive team, better than only the Dodgers in the NL as ranked by Equivalent Average. Michael Wolverton's tools show that they have a lousy bullpen. Their defense ranks in the middle of the pack in the NL, as sorted by Defensive Efficiency. Only their rotation ranks solidly above average--sixth-best in the majors as rated by SNVA.
How are they doing it? Without resurrecting the "clutch" debate, it is fair to point out that the Expos have performed better when runs were immediately at stake. Overall, their pitchers have allowed a line of .265/.327/.430. With runners in scoring position, that drops to .248/.338/.382. While an unimpressive .260/.327/.402 on the season at the plate, they're better--.273/.360/.420--when they bat with RISP. That's worth some runs that don't show up in the usual formulae; it doesn't mean they're better men, but it does mean they've won some extra baseball games.
Worth mentioning is that the Expos have neutered the running game, allowing just 38 steals all season, at a 56% success rate. That's spectacular, and probably worth a win on its own.
It would be nice if Omar Minaya could make a move to address the team's shortcomings. Picking up Todd Zeile helps a little, but a hitter to play the outfield or third base, as well as another starting pitcher and a bullpen arm, would make a bigger difference. You'd think that no player added at this point would have an impact on the team's payroll that doesn't fall into the category of "rounding error." But when the Expos tried to acquire Rondell White recently, they weren't able to pay the pro-rated freight of $926,000 needed to bring him in, and lost out to the Royals for his services. Though finances will remain at least something of a concern, the main question is whether Minaya can find the right guy who cleared waivers and make a deal.
More likely, Frank Robinson will have to continue to make do with his current roster. That means faking third base on a nightly basis, and rotating long relievers through the #5 starter slot, and micromanaging Jose Vidro to get as many at-bats out of the aching second baseman as possible. It means getting Endy Chavez untracked for a month so that he can provide a .330 OBP.
It's worked so far, and if it can work for 15 more games, we may have an early candidate for baseball story of the century.
The Pirates and Padres finally made their long-rumored trade Tuesday. To my surprise, though, the deal only included one player going west, Brian Giles. Jason Kendall was left behind as the Padres sent Oliver Perez, Jason Bay and a player to be named to Pittsburgh.
I don't think we're heard the last of this. The package the Pirates received was light, and I see no reason why they would trade Giles and his bargain contract and not get Kendall packaged into it somehow. I think that there will be a follow-up this winter, with Kendall joining Giles in San Diego and some package, largely money or contracts, going to Pittsburgh.
Regardless of whether the Padres get Kendall, they made out very well. Giles teams with Sean Burroughs, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin to form a superior lineup core, perhaps the best in the division. They still need some work up the middle and on the mound before they can be considered a contender, but this trade launches them into the NL West muddle.
Last November, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Baseball HQ Arizona Fall League Fantasy Baseball Symposium. It was my first trip to the Symposium, and I had a great time attending AFL games, picking the brains of top fantasy baseball analysts and getting to meet and talk baseball with some BP readers and winter newsletter subscribers.
Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ has cordially invited me back to this year's event. I'll be participating along with BP's Rany Jazayerli, ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, Baseball America's Jim Callis and Kevin Goldstein, and a number of the best minds in the fantasy baseball world. This year's Symposium, the ninth Shandler has produced, will run from Nov. 7-9 in Phoenix. I'll be involved in a couple of panel discussions, including one on everyone's favorite topic: TNSTAAPP!
The Symposium will again be structured around trips to AFL games, and the AFL is the best place to see future All-Stars up close. Come to the Symposium and you can sit 25 feet from Joe Mauer while talking about the checkered history of high school catchers with prospect gurus.
For more information on the Symposium, or to sign up, check out the First Pitch Arizona Web site (there's an early-bird discount available through Sunday), or drop me a line directly. It's going to be a fun, informative weekend, and a great way to deal with post-World Series detox.