- And Now, YOUR 2004 Montreal…uh, San Juan, uh Monterrey…Expos!: Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, none face as much uncertainty as the two clubs at opposite ends of well, pretty much every spectrum–the Yankees and the Expos. With far more money to spend than any other team and an owner looking to clean house at the slightest sign of weakness, the Yankees are expected to completely revamp their roster this off-season. The Expos’ roster is equally full of uncertainty, though for very different reasons:
- Their best player is a free agent whose salary demands will make him a long shot to return
- Nearly every other significant player on the 25-man roster is arbitration-eligible, which will sorely test the club’s limited budget
- That budget is in limbo as Major League Baseball, as always, is taking forever to decide on the Expos’ future
To get an idea of the challenge Omar Minaya will face constructing a contender for next season, here’s a rough sketch of what the club would look like if it kept every player from its big league roster at the end of the season, with a couple tweaks thrown in. Projected salaries are taken from a combination of this always helpful player contracts site, and best guesses at arbitration awards:
C: Barrett ($3M), Schneider ($0.3M) 1B: Cordero ($1M) 2B: Vidro ($7.75M, $7M base plus incentives kicking in) SS: Cabrera ($5.5M) 3B: Zeile ($0.5M) IF: Carroll ($0.3M), Mateo ($0.3M), Macias ($1.0M) LF: Wilkerson ($0.3M) CF: Chavez ($0.3M) RF: Guerrero ($15M) OF: Sledge ($0.3M), Calloway ($0.3M) SP: Vazquez ($9.5M), L. Hernandez ($6M), O. Hernandez ($4M),
Armas ($2.5M), Ohka ($1.5M) RP: Biddle ($1.5M), Stewart ($1M), Eischen ($1M),
Ayala ($0.3M), Cordero ($0.3M), Tucker ($0.3M)
Keeping almost everyone in place, you get an estimated payroll of just under $64 million. Expos’ players made about $51 million in 2003, but about $6 million of that figure came from other clubs covering the salaries of Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez. Given the Expos’ severely restricted revenue stream, even with 22 “home” games likely to be played in Puerto Rico or Mexico this year…not gonna happen.
We’ve already assumed the Expos don’t make the dumbest move in the history of pro sports and pick up Fernando Albatross‘ 2004 option. This roster also assumes they don’t bring back Edwards Guzman or Joe Vitiello, and do bring back Wil Cordero and Todd Zeile to man the corners. Hmmm…this team needs help, and we’re already about $20 million over budget.
A few obvious non-tender candidates help some. Jose Macias should owe the Expos $1 million for his awful performance last year–bringing him back at a $1 million salary makes no sense. There are dozens of Rocky Biddles and Joey Eischens on the secondary talent market, no need to pay more than necessary for the real McCoys. A healthy Scott Stewart is worth keeping at $1 million; an unhealthy one isn’t. El Duque’s a sure non-tender coming off a $4.1 million salary and a lost season. Michael Barrett‘s failed to live up to the hype and is coming off an awful season; he’s expressed interest in coming back for less money, and the Expos may oblige him.
Assume those non-tenders, plus Barrett at a reduced rate, and the Expos shed about $9 million over what they’ll pay replacement minimum wage talent. That still leaves about $55 million, meaning $10 million still needs to be cut, assuming MLB even approves a static payroll–far from a certainty.
To roughly meet that target, the Expos could go the simple route and subtract one, obvious player. That’s right, Javier Vazquez. As the top prize in this year’s free agent market, Guerrero stands to make far more than anyone else projected on the roster. These aren’t the Mariners of the 90s though, a team that can replace superstars with multiple above-average players and not lose a step. No meaningful free agent has come over from an another team to play for the Expos since the late 70s. If the team’s sub-par offense (12th in the NL) from last year loses Vlad, they’re screwed: With a barren farm system, Minaya doesn’t have the minor league trade bait to restock the offense, and 24 years of history bode ill for the Expos’ chances of grabbing a Jose Cruz Jr. or Reggie Sanders, let alone two or three.
Trading Vazquez for a young hitter (Nick Johnson? Alfonso Soriano? A non-Yankee?) would give the offense a much-needed boost. While Vazquez finished 7th in the majors in Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement-level and would be missed, the team has able replacements in Claudio Vargas and Zach Day to take Vazquez’s spot, as well as El Duque’s. Internal options like Chad Bentz and Dan Smith could fill the back of the pen in lieu of departed non-tenders, with Chad Cordero moving into a more prominent role alongside Luis Ayala. That still leaves the matter of a horrific bench in need of improvement and a shrewd scrap heap bullpen snag similar to Ayala last year or Eischen and Stewart the two prior years to help in the late innings. But that’s (relatively) small potatoes if it means keeping the team’s solid core intact.
Will it happen? Given last year’s Bartolo Colon trade fiasco–the result of Omar Minaya’s poor preparation and MLB trumpeting the Expos’ desperate salary-dump position and thus weakening its leverage–as well as Minaya’s recent public statements all but kissing Vlad goodbye, don’t hold your breath. Vlad leaving for greener pastures and a trade of Vazquez and Vidro for Stubby Clapp and some magic beans looks more likely.
- Wait ‘Til Next Year: How quickly it all disappears. Going into October, the Giants were riding high off just their third 100-win season since moving to the West Coast, and they were looking forward to what appeared to be a very favorable first-round matchup against the NL Wild Card qualifier. Four games later, the bullpen had slumped, Jose Cruz Jr. had dropped a ball, Pudge Rodriguez had held onto one, and the Giants’ once-promising season had vanished into a haze of short-series randomness.
Seemingly just to rub salt in Giants fans’ wounds, the team waited less than 72 hours after J.T. Snow‘s ill-fated dash for home plate–OK, more a saunter than a dash–to announce that ownership would be reducing payroll by around $10 million next season. That was especially tough news for diehards who had been optimistically speculating about a 2004 season featuring a Vladimir Guerrero reunion with Felipe Alou, or Gary Sheffield joining his off-season training partner Barry Bonds.
But where exactly does the payroll reduction leave the Giants? After all, the team is losing a fair number of players–along with their hefty salaries–to free agency this off-season. Will the cash freed up by those departures be enough to let Brian Sabean dip into the free agent market to plug the team’s (significant) holes, even with the lower payroll?
The simplest way to get a picture of the club’s 2004 payroll is to start with the 2003 numbers and look at the upcoming changes from there. We’ll only look at the big-ticket players, and we’ll assume that the sub-million dollar player portion of the payroll will be more or less the same in 2004 as it was in 2003. Here’s the money the Giants will save from their end-season 2003 figure of $85 million from their impending free agents.
Rich Aurilia $6.25M Marvin Benard $4.0M Jose Cruz Jr. $2.2M ($2.5M salary - $0.3M 2004 buyout) Sidney Ponson $4.25M Benito Santiago $1.5M J.T. Snow $6.1M ($6.85M salary - $0.75M 2004 buyout) Tim Worrell $2.0M Eric Young $1.0M ($2.0M salary - $1.0M 2004 buyout) ------- $27.3M
(The Giants didn’t pay Ponson or Young their entire 2003 salaries, so this is probably artificially boosting their “savings” by a small amount.)
On the other side of the ledger, here are the Giants holdovers with their raises for 2004:
Edgardo Alfonzo $1.0M Barry Bonds $3.5M Jason Christiansen $0.1M Ray Durham $2.0M Robb Nen $0.4M Neifi Perez $1.25M Felix Rodriguez $0.05M Kirk Rueter ($0.9M) (Reported 2004 salary lower than 2003) Jason Schmidt $2.75M ------- $10.2M
So a decent starting point for the set portion of the Giants’ 2004 payroll (contract commitments plus the minimum and near-minimum salary guys) is $85M – $27.3M + $10.2M = $67.9 million. Since the target 2004 payroll is $75 million, that leaves the Sabean only around $7 million to fill the holes at first base, shortstop, right field, catcher, and the starting rotation.
Can he land any first-tier free agents, or even second-tier ones, with that kind of a salary picture? Maybe, but it would have to involve one or more of:
- Salary dump trades. Sabean has taken a lot of grief for last off-season’s Russ Ortiz deal, but that trade did free up some of the money that was used to ink key 2003 figures like Durham and Cruz. Felix Rodriguez, with his $3.05 million salary, is the most frequently mentioned name here.
- A Pudge Rodriguez-style contract, with lots of deferred money.
- Fudging the payroll target. Sabean has had lots of success in recent years convincing Peter Magowan to loosen the purse strings when contention is at stake. He may have to turn on the charm once again to get another few million or two added to his off-season budget.
- Filling some of the holes with minimum salary players. Yorvit Torrealba has a good chance to be the Giants’ 2004 Opening Day starting catcher–and he deserves to be. Todd Linden is a possibility, albeit a remote one, for right field.
This may be Sabean’s toughest off-season yet, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat yet again.
- AFL Report: As Arizona Fall League play moves into its final week, Blue Jays properties are putting up the following performances in Arizona:
Player Pos AB AVG/OBP/SLG Russ Adams SS 79 266/352/329 Ty Godwin OF 62 290/343/435 Gabe Gross* OF 35 343/395/686 Dominic Rich 2B 64 281/304/453 Player IP BB K ERA Pete Bauer 19.1 2 13 5.59 Jordan DeJong 17.0 11 18 7.41 Cameron Reimers 24.1 3 9 4.44 * Team USA
Keeping in mind the important caveat that AFL performance has little predicative value compared to a full season of professional baseball, the overall performance of the Jays’ AFL properties does provide a pretty accurate depiction of the relative strengths of the hitting and pitching prospects in the organization.
The guys you know here are Russ Adams, who has overcome a putrid AFL start by hitting well lately, and Gabe Gross, who went bananas in his limited exposure to AFL pitching as part of Team USA. (After Team USA failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics last Friday, Gross will have plenty of time to continue refining his swing this off-season.)
Ty Godwin is a speedy left-handed outfielder who hit .309/.325/.431 in 123 AB with New Haven at the end of the 2003 season. He’ll be 24 next year, and his 27/3 K/BB ratio isn’t very encouraging. Dominic Rich spent all of 2003 at New Haven and put up a .259/.311/.349 line with the team.
Obviously, neither of these guys is going to contribute to the Jays any time soon, which is kind of the problem the AFL has been having with most of its players lately.
- Early Off-Season Shopping: The dust had barely settled on the 2003 season before the Blue Jays inked catcher Greg Myers and left fielder Frank Catalanotto to 2004 deals for similar money to what the pair made in 2003. Myers and Catalanotto were two of the Jays’ most important role players on offense in 2003, and bringing them back to augment the Carlos Delgado/Vernon Wells/Eric Hinske core gives the Jays some of the additional depth they’ll need to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox in 2004. Myers, in particular, had a fantastic season, and it’ll be interesting to see what the 38-year-old has left in the tank for a follow-up to his career year.
With the Jays looking to stick to a $50-million payroll in 2004, don’t hold out for a massive free-agent influx into SkyDome. The two early signings help cement the offense, so look for progress to be made on the pitching side of the equation over the off-season. If the Jays can make Kelvim Escobar happy, they’ll have 4/5ths of a starting rotation (albeit one of varying consistency and talent, as we noted last time) in Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Escobar, Josh Towers, and Mark Hendrickson. Slotting another free agent or trade acquisition in the #2 spot would give the Jays a pretty fair chance in 2004.
Expect to see some bargain shopping in the bullpen as well, where the expectation of an extreme buyer’s market makes plug-ins of the Rod Beck mold look like they’ll come pretty cheaply.