CL Rocky Biddle/ Chad Cordero
Money can’t buy you love, but for those of you that haven’t been to Vegas recently it can buy you a lot of things. Out there, it can buy nice dinners, cheesy souvenirs, and tickets to Mystere without sitting through a timeshare “presentation” that may or may not involve both Jerry Mathers and Grandpa Munster (is that REALLY a plus?). In baseball, money can bring you many things–depth, two bobblehead nights in a season, a right fielder with power–but so far, using other people’s money hasn’t bought the Expos much of anything.
As the Expos continue to be baseball’s answer to homelessness, Omar Minaya and Frank Robinson make do with a team that, all things considered, could be a lot worse. Not many teams survive the loss of a superstar; just ask the Pirates. The Expos seek to avoid the Pirates’ cursed decade post-Bonds, but will they be healthy enough to make it?
If the Expos leave the Big O in the near future, few will miss it. Never a great baseball stadium, anecdotally, it is one that players feel strongly about. “That’s the worst stadium in baseball,” said one current NL outfielder. “It’s like being a kid and playing on the street. There’s no give, big [expletive] seams, and the dirt is like a rock.” The installation of a new FieldTurf surface this season–the same field used by the Devil Rays–could help.
Lately, the Expos have dealt with numerous injuries, keeping Ron McClain hopping. Despite the team’s injury frequency, the Expos seem to suffer few devastating injuries and even those more serious ones seem to come back more quickly than average. Only Tony Armas lost more time than expected against average for age and injury. There are certainly rumors about possible causes and Terrmel Sledge‘s positive result during the Olympic Trials won’t help quiet the whispers.
With Vladimir Guerrero gone, the Expos will need a broader contribution from their lineup if they have any hope of contention, but they don’t have much in the way of hitting depth. While Minaya has done well putting nine men on the field, he doesn’t have the resources to go 25 deep or even 40, meaning health becomes even more important. The most watched player will be the oft-injured yet tantalizing Nick “The Stick” Johnson. His pure swing and control of the strike zone have kept both scouts and analysts in his corner, but lingering wrist problems have kept him from reaching his potential thus far. He was a great, if slightly risky, acquisition when he came over with Juan Rivera in return for the out-of-budget Javier Vazquez. If Johnson can stay healthy for a full season, people will cease harping on the wrist and concentrating more on his lofty OBPs. He’s still a yellow light risk on extensive injury history, but the Expos did have him take a serious physical before signing him.
When talking of Wilkerson and Everett, you often have to start by saying “when he’s healthy…”, but so often they aren’t. Everett’s problems with his knees are well-documented, but he had a productive and healthy 2003 campaign. The Expos hope the new turf will help Everett, and the team’s outfield depth–with Sledge’s bat, Endy Chavez‘s defense and Val Pascucci‘s patience and lefty-mashing ability–should allow Robinson to spot him out as necessary. (One of my favorite stories from last season is BP’s Jason Grady on the cell phone with me as he informs Everett that he’s been traded. Always nice to hear that from a guy sneaking down to the box seats.) Wilkerson is fast becoming comparable to Jim Edmonds, but not in the way you’d like. Wilkerson seems to never be fully healthy, with his list of ailments ranging from a bad hip to an eye infection, from a bad shoulder to a sore knee. His hot and cold season can be tracked by injury and there’s no reason to expect that 2004 will be different from his extremely similar 2002 and 2003 campaigns. Both outfielders are solid yellows.
The rest of the lineup has its normal share of bumps and bruises, but none project to miss much time. Adding Andy Fox as a Rule 5 pick helps, as does adding Gregg Zaun on a minor league deal. Omar Minaya may not be the subject of books, but he’s one of the more interesting GMs in the game.
The pitching staff isn’t as solid as the lineup. Led by an abuse-sopping freak of nature in Livan Hernandez, they no longer have Vazquez to match up against the aces of the NL East. Instead, they’ll hope for the first healthy season from Tony Armas and no further problems in the pitching shoulders of Zach Day and Claudio Vargas. Closer-for-now Rocky Biddle has had so much surgery that he’s starting to sound like a doctor when he discusses it, and closer-in-waiting Chad Cordero is being pushed to the majors, which is always worrisome, even for a closer. The system seems to give Livan a yellow just on principle, not yet understanding why his arm hasn’t fallen off under abuse that draws letters from Amnesty International. If he’s really 28, his new mechanics could buy him another couple years at his 2003 levels. If not, well, your mileage may vary.
The Expos will go as far as their health will take them in 2004. Like last year, they could contend through Labor Day, or they could fall victim to a series of strains and tears. Banking on high-risk, moderate-to-high-upside players like Johnson, Wilkerson, Everett and Armas is a risk a team like the Expos must take to have a shot at a playoff run.
(Ed note: The batting order, identity of the team’s third starting outfielder and position of each starting OF remain unsettled at press time. The above represents BP’s best estimate based on a combination of player ability and likely managerial preferences.)