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March 3, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Trivia Manufactured While You Wait

by Jim Baker

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A favorite trivia question goes like this: who was the last player from the (fill in transferred franchise here) who was still active in the major leagues? There is something inherently interesting about this last surviving member of a lost tribe, still carrying on while all those who once wore the same colors and shared the Gotterdammerung of the franchise have fallen by the wayside.

Which brings us to the Washington Nationals. Having just departed Montreal, we can begin speculating which man who was once among them will, someday, be the answer to the Expo portion of this question.

The Expos didn't have any kids in the lineup last year. The youngest regulars were 26 and one of those was Endy Chavez. It's very hard to picture him having the kind of shelf life this sort of thing requires. Outside of that, the youngest position player that got any significant playing time was Nick Johnson (25), but his injury history is giving off a 31-and-done vibe. Among the pitchers, the youngest was Chad Cordero at 23. As promising as the start to his big league career has been, so many bad things can happen to a pitcher along the way that it's kind of hard to pick one to be the guy we're looking for.

And should youth be the only consideration? Not necessarily. The player also has to be someone worth keeping around for years after the Expos fade from memory. Before we speculate further, let's look at the ten men who most recently became the answer to this trivia question for their respective relocated franchises and what clues they might give to our ultimate answer:

Team (last year in city): player (last year of career)

  • Boston Braves (1952): Eddie Mathews (1968)
    Mathews was at the right place at the right time - a 20-year old future great in the last year of National League baseball in Boston. Even though he was just 36 when he retired it was good enough to outlast the rest. Had Hank Aaron showed up a year earlier, though, the title would have been his.

  • St. Louis Browns (1953): Don Larsen (1967)
    He was a 23-year old rookie in the last year of Browns baseball. Giving him another advantage was the fact he was the third-youngest player on a team that only won 54 games. Bob Turley, the youngest, lasted until 1963 while reserve outfielder Roy Sievers lasted until 1965. On a side note, if you took Larsen's career record and removed the years, you might mistake him for a modern pitcher. His complete game record doesn't jibe with someone who was a contemporary of Robin Roberts.

  • Philadelphia A's (1954): Vic Power (1965)
    Power was 26 when the A's headed west. The trick here was, he was surrounded by a team full of players who barely made it out of the '50s and with good reason: they won seven fewer games than the final-year Browns. Only six of the '54 A's had careers that lasted past 1959 and, of them, only Art Ditmar and Bobby Shantz were any kind of threat to Power - in spite of his late start. Most were like starting second baseman Spook Jacobs - he of the .025 Isolated Power.

  • Brooklyn Dodgers (1957): Bob Aspromonte (1971)
    Aspro really snuck this one in. He was an 18-year old getting a cup of coffee in 1956 - a strikeout on September 19. In fact, he's the only player on this list who failed to appear with the club in its last year in its former city. Two of his teammates that year were a 19-year old Don Drysdale and a 20-year old Sandy Koufax. Talent-wise, one would have expected one of them to outlast Aspromonte who was only a regular for seven seasons. They didn't throw like Jim Kaat or Phil Niekro, though, except in their first couple of warm-up tosses.

  • New York Giants (1957): Willie Mays (1973)
    Mays was 26 when he departed for San Francisco and probably provides us with the best template for the last Extant Expo, as we shall discuss.

  • Washington Senators (I) (1960): Jim Kaat (1983)
    Kaat was not the youngest man on the '60 Sens. That was Zoilo Versalles, but he barely made it out of the '60s. Kaat outlasted the second-to-last Senator by eight seasons, that man being Harmon Killebrew.

  • Milwaukee Braves (1965): Phil Niekro (1987)
    If the Expos had a knuckleballer, this wouldn't even be open to discussion. 13 of Niekro's teammates on the last Milwaukee team were younger than he was. The season before, another six were. Only one other player born after him appeared with the Braves between 1960 and 1963, making for a total of 20 younger men that he outlasted.

  • Kansas City A's (1967): Reggie Jackson (1987)
    Jackson, along with Mathews, is the perfect candidate for this sort of thing: a rookie or great promise in the final year the team is in the city. The Expos didn't have anyone that fit that description, though. The '67 A's were an extremely young team. They only had one position player over 30 (Ed Charles) and they shipped him to the Mets after a month. Only two other players were over 27 and they combined for just 134 plate appearances. On the pitching side, only four games were started by pitchers older than 25. Rick Monday and Bert Campaneris made it into the '80s as well.

  • Seattle Pilots (1969): Fred Stanley (1982)
    Stanley is easily the most obscure player on this list, although he was well-known in New York for being on hand for the 1976 to 1978 title runs. In his career, he never came to the plate more than 306 times but hung around for 14 years. Isn't it possible that Maicer Izturis could do as much? Stanley benefited from being the second-youngest player on a fairly old expansion team. (The only one younger was Gary Timberlake and his big league career lasted a week.) Had Jim Bouton's comeback taken hold in 1978, he stood a good chance of being the last active Pilot. After all, he was only a month older than fellow-knuckleballer Phil Niekro and Niekro lasted until 1987.

  • Washington Senators (II) (1971): Toby Harrah (1986)
    If you had made a bet five years after the Senators left for Texas as to who the last active Washingtonian was going to be, chances are your money would have been on Jeff Burroughs. He was in his prime and the sky was the limit, especially after he bombed 41 homers for the Braves in 1977 while still only 26. It didn't happen, though. As it was, Harrah still only outlasted him by a year.

So, based on what we've seen with these teams, we're looking for the Expo most likely to be active 14 to 16 years from now -- unless one of their pitchers turns out to be the next Jim Kaat. Let's start with the five youngest living former Expos:

  • Chad Cordero (turns 23 this month)
    Based on his start and his age, he's got to be one of the realistic favorites. Basically, you're asking this: can you picture this man still pitching at 37 or 38? From what we've seen so far, we have to answer "yes" with an emphatic "hell" in front of it.

  • Shawn Hill (turns 24 in April)
    Can Hill survive one of the most stunningly bad debuts a pitcher ever endured to carve out a 15-year career? Three starts for a total of nine innings and an ERA of 16.00 -- doesn't seem likely, does it? Maybe he'll come back from Tommy John surgery to become Tommy John. If that's the case, he's a lock.

  • Maicer Izturis (turns 25 in September)
    See Fred Stanley comment above. I'm guessing Izturis is going to have a couple seasons as a regular along the way, unlike Stanley.

  • Brendan Harris (turns 25 in August)
    If Harris is going to get the chance to pick up where he left off on his rise through the minors, it's going to have to be elsewhere. Fate - in a Jim Bowden mask - has delivered Vinny Castilla to muck up his campaign to become the Last Active Expo.

  • Chad Bentz (turns 25 in May)
    He's now property of the Marlins. He's a lefty, so maybe he'll live up to the myth and bloom late and become the guy.

Let's go to the next group -- those who are talented but not quite so young - and see what the future might hold for them.

  • Livan Hernandez (turned 30 two weeks ago)
    Well, why not? He sure seems indestructible, doesn't he? Pitch counts don't seem to affect him the way they do others of the species. Perhaps he can keep throwing 230 innings a year for the next decade and a half. Probably not, but Livan has surprised us before. Javier Vazquez at least has to be mentioned, although he's turning 29 before too long and may retire after two or three starts with the woeful Diamondbacks behind him.

  • Juan Rivera (turns 27 in April)
    If given the chance by the Angels, this could be his breakout season. If it's a truly monstrous year, he could milk it for bench jobs until he's 41.

  • Brad Wilkerson (turns 28 in June)
    Another long shot because of his age, but he sure is a solid sort and a healthy one so far.

  • Nick Johnson (turns 27 in September)
    If you're a half-full sort of person, you can rationalize that he's gotten his injuries out of the way early and is now free to resume the long career someone of his talent should, by all rights, have. Probably the best combination of talent and youth - not as talented or young as Reggie Jackson and Eddie Mathews, of course. It's all mitigated by the health issues.

  • Vladimir Guerrero (turned 29 last month)
    Using the Willie Mays model, Guerrero - easily the most talented active player ever to wear a Montreal uniform - stands an excellent chance of being the answer to the trivia question that will begin its life in the year 2016 or so. In the season before relocation, Mays was younger than Guerrero by a couple of years, though. Apart from his back glitch in 2003, Vlad has shown up for work quite regularly. If he plays until he's 42 - not an outrageous proposition for a Hall of Fame caliber outfielder - he's right there in the running.
For lack of an obvious young phenom, I'm going with the older phenom -- Guerrero -- as the favorite. It's not very daring, but I'd rather be right than adventurous.

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