- Ripped off!: It’s how a lot of Expos fans feel in the wake of an off-season marked by Vladimir Guerrero‘s departure. Guerrero fled La Belle Province for Anaheim, signing a five-year $70-million dollar deal with the Angels and leaving a black hole in the heart of the Expos batting order.
So, as the old saying goes, talent does what it can, genius does what it must. Only history will judge which category Expos’ General Manager Omar Minaya falls into, but, while he is being judged, bare in mind, he’s going about business in Houdini-esque fashion, both hands firmly tied behind his back.
- Magic & Miracles: The Expos will have 38 MLB-roster players and 13 non-roster players attend this year’s camp, including catcher Gregg Zaun, who’s expected to handle backup duties. One of the new faces is Carl Everett. Props should go to Minaya for landing the All-Star. His off-field rumblings aside, the health of Everett’s knees will play the biggest role in determining his success or failure in Montreal. The new FieldTurf surface at the Big O could be a big step in the right direction.
Minaya also acquired first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and pitcher Randy Choate from the Yankees for ace Javier Vazquez. Minaya saved money and solidified the right side of the infield. Sources within the organization say Rivera will be given every opportunity to earn a starting spot in left-field. But rookie Terrmel Sledge may have something to say about that. In 497 ABs with Triple-A Edmonton, Sledge posted a line of .324/.394/.545. These are impressive numbers for the 27-year-old from Fayettville, N.C. Look for Sledge to hammer his way into the line-up in ’04. Here’s a sneak peek at the ’04 Expos:
- CF Brad Wilkerson (unsigned, but expected to work out a deal during camp)
- SS Orlando Cabrera
- 2B Jose Vidro
- RF Carl Everett
- 1B Nick Johnson
- 3B Tony Batista
- LF Juan Rivera / Terrmel Sledge
- C Brian Schneider
The line-up is not all that bad, scrappy and capable of banging around some teams. But the caveat here is depth. The bench is thin. The departure of Wil Cordero to Florida hurt. The club is hoping Joe Vitiello, Andy Fox and a cast of thousands can pick up the slack.
- Snakes & Ladders: Roll the dice and hope for the best! This is how the staff will go in ’04. While Minaya is looking for bullpen help, don’t expect any drastic changes to the starting staff. Here’s what the rotation is shaping up to be:
Look for Zach Day and Tony Armas Jr. to do most of the climbing in ’04. Day is coming off of a productive campaign where he won nine ball games for Montreal in 2003. While Armas Jr. wants to forget 2003. A shoulder injury sidelined the young right-hander for 142 games. In fact there is talk of moving Armas Jr. to the back end of the rotation early in the season to ease his workload early on. Livan Hernazdez led the staff in ’03 with 15 wins. And will be asked to lead in ’04.
The bullpen, like the bench, is thin. Rocky Biddle will close. The Expos are high on Luis Ayala and hope Randy Choate can soak up innings. Look for Chad Cordero to eventually emerge as the bullpen’s ace.
- All Quiet on the Ranch: Over the years, Brian Sabean has preferred to build the team through trades, signing the better pick-ups to long-term extensions and filling the other roster spots with temps. Any prospects which come up through the system are flipped to feed the veteran trades. Looking back on notable Giants from recent years, Jason Schmidt, Jeff Kent, Bill Mueller, and Livan Hernandez all joined the team this way… even J.T. Snow was brought over from the Angels way back when.
Exceptions were made for 2003, with Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo brought in to replace Mueller and Jeff Kent. But this offseason brought a return to form, as the only significant player to don an SF uniform for the first time will be A.J. Pierzynski. The Pierzynski-Yorvit Torrealba tandem has as a clean shot at being the best catching tandem in the league, all for the low low price of Joe Nathan and a couple of (sadly) fungible minor league arms.
In fact, this offseason has seen an exodus of talent rivaled only by recent U.S. trade deficits. Sir Sidney Ponson is gone, replaced by Brett Tomko: according to PECOTA, that’s a difference of almost 12 runs, on par with trading Billy Wagner for Brandon Duckworth. Letting the door hit Jose Cruz on the way out in order to sign Michael Tucker, the very definition of a replacement outfielder, is another 12 runs down the tubes. And, of course, losing Rich Aurilia to let Neifi Perez is a clean 24-run deficit. If Perez has the decency to get hurt early in the year, quasi-prospect Cody Ransom might let them salvage replacement-level performance out of the shortstop position, but the team has already shed 5 wins in the standings. To be fair, the Pierzynski trade does offset about a third of that loss, but these free agents, plus re-signing the likes of Dustin Hermanson and Marquis Grissom, adds up to Sabean stashing payroll away for some midsummer pickups.
Meanwhile, back in Spring Training: Pitchers and catchers report with essentially no jobs on the line, as one of the advantages of a temp-heavy free-agent strategy is that you don’t have contracts bogging down the back end of the roster. The 25-man roster should have room for 3 lefties if Alou is so inclined, or if Robb Nen is start the season, though as he’s throwing 180 feet on the line, that’s unlikely to be a problem. The only intrigue in the rotation is whether Kevin Correia can force his way past Hermanson, but if Nen doesn’t rebound they can easily stash the loser of that battle in the pen.
The story isn’t much different in the lineup, where the biggest mystery is whether 2004 will be the year when Barry Bonds manages to produce over half the lineup’s combined VORP. Alou has been making noises about giving Pedro Feliz a chance to win the shortstop job, but failing that, the only chance for an upset is if Dustan Mohr has a monster spring to force Tucker onto the bench, which he’s entirely capable of, but Alou doesn’t really think that way.
- Stuck in the Middle: what are the boys in Toronto to do? Few teams had more constructive off-seasons. The Jays tidied up their rotation by signing Miguel Batista and acquiring Ted Lilly, rewarded Cy Young winner Roy Halladay with a contract that will keep him in Toronto for the next four years, and received praise from the Top-Selling Baseball Annual by garnering six slots on the soon-to-be-released Top 50 prospects list. Hell, the team even changed its uniforms again (though if you ask us, things haven’t been the same since the cuddly, ornithologically-incorrect version of B.J. Birdy was sent to the Big Aviary in The Sky.)
The trouble, of course, is that the Jays have the misfortune to be stuck in a division that is occupied by two nuclear superpowers locked in a full-scale arms race, and a third that harbors delusions of such grandeur. Canadians have a long tradition of pacifism, but in this division, that approach ought to work about as well as Belgian Neutrality.
Do the Jays have a shot of reaching the playoffs this year? Up until about seven days ago, it was possible to envision a bloated Yankee hegemon collapsing under its own weight, opening up the wild card door. Then the bastards went out and acquired the best player on the planet. The Red Sox, curses and all, look like they should finish with a win total that reads like a Riyadh temperature reading. The Orioles? Well, they’re eminently beatable, but nobody is competing for third place.
As a quick benchmark of the status of the AL East, ca. 2004, let’s take a look at the team VORP totals as projected PECOTA. For the time being, we’ve taken as simple an approach as possible, simply adding together the VORPs for all players who received a positive score for each franchise (we’re presuming that a player who received a negative VORP isn’t likely to receive much playing time–though surely that’s a dubious assumption in the case of the Devil Rays).
New York 359.7 Boston 323.9 Toronto 285.1 Baltimore 264.9 Tampa Bay 210.1
Boston 372.7 New York 300.4 Toronto 250.3 Tampa Bay 221.9 Baltimore 199.0
Boston 696.6 New York 660.1 Toronto 535.4 Baltimore 463.9 Tampa Bay 432.0
The Blue Jays are approximately 150 points of VORP behind the division leaders. Since VORP is denominated in runs, and ten runs are equivalent to approximately one win, that represents a fifteen game deficit to make up. Certainly, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that things could come together just right. The team is younger and deeper than its division rivals. For the most part, it plays better defense (which the VORP scores do not account for) And, needless to say, the projections aren’t wrth anything once the games get underway; there are a couple of teams every season that overperform or underperform their projection by fifteen games or more.
But it’s a big deficit to make up.
The silver lining is that the Blue Jays have adopted a sustainable model of development. The team will have a significant amount of payroll flexibility next season once Carlos Delgado‘s contract expires. Attendance at Skydome is on the upswing again as fans come to respect the new management team and the exciting team the Jays will have on the field. Even the Canadian economy appears poised to pick up again after a couple of false starts. It must surely be frustrating for Jays fans to find their team placed in a division in which brawn seems to triumph over brains, but the Jays’ approach gives them the best shot to ensure that someday the spotlight will be theirs.