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March 22, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Montreal Madness

by Joe Sheehan

Regular readers know that we don't have much time for the bleating about how "small-market teams" can't compete in today's game. The argument might get a listen if MLB's braintrust and owners would stop trying to call places like Houston and Detroit small markets, but since it's more about public relations and political blackmail than economics, no one's holding their breath.

Sure, any team in the city of Montreal works at some disadvantages. It's part of a province, Quebec, that is linguistically and culturally fractured. Its team operates at an economic disadvantage due to the current monetary exchange rate, and the team's lack of success since 1994 has dimmed interest in baseball in the city.

Enter new owner Jeff Loria, as part of a group that bought the team last fall and committed to keeping it in Montreal. Since buying the Expos, Loria has gone out of his way to spend money on baseball players, as a way of spurring interest in the franchise and re-establishing the team as something more than a poor cousin to the rest of MLB.

But does he have to be so silly about it?

This weekend, the Expos made two moves that can generously be described as "questionable." In the first, they jumped into FirstBasemanFest, a three-team trade with the Blue Jays and Rangers in which they traded Brad Fullmer and picked up Lee Stevens. Stevens is older than Fullmer, more expensive and, like most bipeds, a better defensive player. Here's their 2000 projections, from Baseball Prospectus 2000:

                  BA/ OBP/ SLG/ EqA
Brad Fullmer:   .304/.356/.415/.283
Lee Stevens:    .262/.327/.462/.257

Fullmer is 25, just entering his prime, while Stevens is 33 and has just had the best stretch of his career, one that still made him a below-average first baseman from 1997-99. As BP's Michael Wolverton put it, " The Expos clearly could have gotten Segui for Fullmer if they had wanted him, and I can't see any reason to prefer Stevens to Segui." He's right: Segui is one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, about as expensive as Stevens and projects to post a .275 EqA this year.

But what the Expos really should have been doing is keeping and playing Fullmer. I think that projection is inflated, but trading him after a down season for an older version is a waste of resources. There's at least the chance that he could revert to his 1998 level, at which point he'd have real trade value.

That move cost the Expos money without making the team better. The other one cost them a lot more. They sent left-handed pitcher Ted Lilly to the Yankees as one of the players to be named in the Hideki Irabu acquistion. Lilly is one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in the game, even with shoulder surgery on his record. Like the Fullmer deal, it's a case of the Expos selling their prospects low for players who won't push them towards October. Lilly isn't recovering rapidly from his October surgery, but it wasn't major and he's expected to be pitching later this year.

The disappointment here is that the Expos had a chance to make some real progress. Simply spending the money to keep the talent they develop in house would go a long way towards making them good. Instead, they're wasting resources on the likes of Irabu, Stevens and Graeme Lloyd, players who will provide the illusion of competitiveness and cash paychecks without mixing in too many of those pesky wins.

When the Expos don't reach .500 this year, and the city of Montreal responds accordingly, there's the chance that Loria and/or Bud Selig will blame the city, using these spurious investments as evidence of Loria's good faith and opening the door to a relocation. That would be a shame, because if Loria can just funnel his money into actual talent and the Expos' player-development program, he can build a winner in Montreal.

Differentiating between money spent to make noise and money spent to make money: if Loria can make that distinction, or hire people to make it for him, the Expos can again become a contender.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Montreal Expos,  Lee Stevens

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