February 8, 2001
The Imbalance Sheet
Mooning Over Montreal
Baseball Weekly recently ran a Bob Nightengale column that focused on some of Scott Boras's ideas for improving competitive balance. Buried at the end of the article was an interesting quote from a major-league general manager that cited the most oft-repeated mantra of the small-marketeers.
As part of the argument, Nightengale quotes Kansas City GM Allard Baird (hardly a bastion of credibility these days) as saying, "Let's face it, Montreal has done as good a job as anyone in the game as far as producing legitimate impact players, but once they developed the players, they've had to move them. That's why there has to be a restructuring of the economic system of the game."
Is this really true? Everyone loves to talk about how Montreal has had to deal all of its top talent away, but in reality, Montreal didn't lose that much of value. Let's look at the 1994 Expos' top players:
C Darrin Fletcher 1B Cliff Floyd 2B Mike Lansing 3B Sean Berry SS Wil Cordero LF Moises Alou CF Marquis Grissom RF Larry Walker
Larry Walker and Pedro Martinez were clear losses for the team. John Wetteland was never as effective after he left as he was in 1993-94 but he has had over 200 saves since then, so it's hard to argue that that wasn't a loss for the team as well. Beyond those guys, though, the record is mixed. Here are some of the stats of the other players on that team (and the 1993 squad) since they left Montreal:
Name Yrs G AB R HR RBI SB CS BB OBP SLG Darrin Fletcher 3 361 1235 128 47 190 1 0 71 .336 .470 Mike Lansing 3 327 1233 169 27 141 20 5 84 .312 .397 Wil Cordero 5 476 1799 268 58 258 8 7 111 .321 .447 Marquis Grissom 6 883 3520 476 91 387 136 57 243 .317 .404 Moises Alou 4 435 1576 274 91 353 23 11 206 .396 .563 Delino DeShields 7 884 3209 488 49 333 243 74 387 .348 .386
Delino DeShields, Wil Cordero, Mike Lansing, and Marquis Grissom have all been lousy since leaving, and both Cordero and DeShields had to move to the outfield because of defensive woes. Fletcher, who wasn't a farm system product in Montreal (he came up with the Dodgers in 1989), has been good since his departure, but that's largely the product of his superb 2000 season. A catcher with a .336 OBP is hardly the kind of loss that breaks a team.
That leaves us with Moises Alou among the departing hitters, and while his stats above are excellent, they come with one caveat. Alou missed one entire season, 1999, due to a pair of weird knee injuries, and he has missed enough other games so that his average number of games played since he left Montreal is only 109. His 1997 season wasn't particularly special either, so since he left, he has had two spectacular seasons, a mediocre one, and one lost to injury. How much is that worth to most teams? Few but the highest-revenue teams could absorb that kind of four-year performance from an $8 million-per-year player.
You'll notice that I omitted Cliff Floyd. Floyd's future was still in doubt at the time that the Expos finally gave up on him before the 1997 season. In exchange for Floyd, the Expos received Dustin Hermanson, who proceeded to give the team four years of generally good pitching and who garnered Fernando Tatis in a trade this winter. Floyd, meanwhile, has played in just 414 games in those four seasons, and didn't crack a .500 slugging average until 1999. Of course, the Expos got something of value when they dealt DeShields as well.
Name W L SV IP H ER HR BB SO ERA Ken Hill 53 55 0 939 1005 482 95 449 557 4.62 Jeff Fassero 42 43 0 745 810 387 105 283 576 4.67 Kirk Rueter 56 36 0 770 829 361 95 230 398 4.22 Mel Rojas 5 8 17 157 168 111 30 75 144 6.35
The record of ex-Expo pitchers is even worse. Ken Hill had a great won/lost record in 1994, but his peripherals weren't sound, so moving him when they did was the right move for the Expos. Jeff Fassero had been worked pretty hard, and while he gave the Mariners about a year and a half of good pitching, he fell apart in 1999 and hasn't been the same since he left Montreal. Mel Rojas's disaster is well known and unsurprising. Of the pitchers on this chart, Kirk Rueter is the only pitcher who has had any success beyond Montreal, and he was the least expensive of the bunch by far. The Expos moved him because it looked like the magic of his 8-0 rookie year was gone, as his ERA had gone well over 4.00 (back when that was a bad thing).
So the breakup of the good Expos teams of the early 1990s wasn't necessarily the reason for the team's downfall, as most of the expensive players who got away did little after leaving. One could argue that the Expos did more damage to themselves by letting go of cheaper players like Kirk Rueter and Jeff Shaw (a reliever for the 1994 team who didn't distinguish himself until he arrived in Cincinnati in 1996) than they did via their "salary dumps."
This isn't to say that the Expos are inept in the player-development department. Vladimir Guerrero is on the short list of candidates for best player in the game. Javier Vazquez is a huge BP favorite who looks like he's on the cusp of several All-Star appearances. Jose Vidro came out of nowhere last year to become a doubles machine. Ugueth Urbina had been among the game's better relievers until elbow surgery knocked him out last year. Milton Bradley and Brad Wilkerson are both nearly ready for the majors, as is Donnie Bridges. And this ignores the prospects acquired in deals, like Peter Bergeron and Britt Reames.
However, the claim that Montreal was on the verge of a championship or a dynasty, only to be felled by a labor action and baseball's economic structure, seems spurious at best. The overachieving 1994 team would probably have gone to the playoffs, but after that season, the team's fortunes would probably have taken a turn for the worse anyway as the veterans came back to earth. That's just a matter of the natural cycles of the game. Blaming every small-market team's demise on money just won't work.
Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.