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May 25, 2000

NL East Notebook

Some Expos-ure

by Derek Zumsteg

While the Braves occupy their familiar place atop the division, winning a league-best 70% of their games, the rest of the division features a resurgent Montreal, a Mets team playing well over .500, a Marlins team playing a little under .500 and an ugly Phillies team that would be in the league's cellar if not for the mysterious Astro collapse.

Montreal's rise is the most interesting, a baffling study in contrasts. The team is scoring runs in a way that, frankly, grates on me, but probably thrills fans: they're not drawing walks (dead last in the NL) except when they don't want to (22 intentional walks lead the league). Instead they're hitting for average (tied for fourth in the NL) and power (second in the league to the Cardinals in slugging). The Expos lead the league with 96 doubles, but they're not hitting home runs, ranking in middle of the pack. They're not stealing bases (14, dead last), and getting caught when they try (14 times, for a weak 50% success rate).It's just eerie...it's "little ball" without the run-manufacturing. Can it work? I guess so, but it freaks me out.

Their pitching has been OK, led by decent performances by their crop of young pitchers. The staff is giving up the sixth-fewest runs per game in the league, walking the second-fewest batters (130) while striking out the third-fewest batters (260), with an average number of hits allowed (396) and the third-fewest number of home runs allowed. They don't pitch for power, and don't strike out their opponents much.

This kind of play comes with great risks: a reliance on putting the ball into play on both sides of the inning relies on luck and good defense on your side and, to the same extent, both of those deserting your opponent. How lucky are the Expos? The Expos, having scored 235 runs and allowed 222 with this ball-in-play strategy, should have a 51.4% winning percentage and be three games back of where they are. This would put them even with the Mets in the standings. Their good start has been due in large part to a weak schedule combined with good fortune. But good fortune over the course of a season is fickle, which bodes ill for the team.

What's worse is that Vladimir Guerrero is not going to hit .394/.466/.755 all season. While Peter Bergeron seems to finally be coming around, his OBP just now topping .300 on its way to .350 and higher, that's not going to make up for the returns to earth of Guerrero, Jose Vidro (.400/.445/.661), Rondell White (.320/.370/.571) and Lee Stevens (.255/.355/.531). Vidro may have finally broken out at age 26, but even so, he's going to cool off some. The offense is off to a great start, but just as we understood that Randy Johnson wasn't going to out-hit Ken Griffey all year, we know the Expos aren't going to be this amazing offensive force.

Can their young pitching make up the difference? Maybe. While Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez are having almost identical seasons so far, Hideki Irabu is getting shelled to the tune of more than seven runs every nine innings. He may eventually come around to be his usual toad-like self and a ERA around 5.00.

Felipe Alou has moved Dustin Hermanson out of the rotation, which is a weird move, temporary or not. Tony "Or Antonio" Armas Jr. is getting a chance in the rotation as part of this madness. Armas is a great talent and should be a great help to Montreal if he is indeed ready so early in the season.

So there is room for improvement, but what is more likely is that the two young aces will tire as the season goes on, Armas will go through some struggles at some point and as a whole, the starting rotation will be slightly above league-average at season's end. There's a serious risk, however, that Irabu is toast, Pavano was only teasing again and the young arms start a wild roller-coaster ride. Call it a 20% shot.

What may doom the Expos, though, is not a cooling offense or a collapsible rotation, but poor roster management. Their bullpen is in disarray and their bench is awful, filled with no-bat types. As the season wears on, these are the things that can keep a team from contention, one loss at a time: an inability to capitalize on late-inning opportunities against bottom-of-the-pen pitchers, demoralizing blown saves, wear-and-tear injuries avoidable through rest and over-reliance on starting pitchers, forcing them to work too long in games and risk injury themselves.

I wish the Expos all the luck in the world, I really do, because they were robbed in 1994. I would love to see what a World Series celebratory riot in Quebec entails (five guys drinking Molson? 50,000 burning local government buildings while chanting, en Francais?). But a risky, weird run-scoring and run-prevention strategy combined with probable performance declines by key players over the rest of the season and confused and badly-executed personnel decisions make it sure that when it comes to the Expos' winning ways, well...appréciez le maintenant.

Derek Zumsteg can be reached at dzumsteg@baseballprospectus.com.

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