By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (83-79) - Fourth Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: 3B - Tony Batista, RP - Randy Choate, OF - Carl Everett, RP - Jeremy Fikac, 1B - Nick Johnson, OF - Juan Rivera, C - Gregg Zaun
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: C - Michael Barrett, 1B - Wil Cordero, OF - Vladimir Guerrero, SP - Orlando Hernandez; INF/OF - Jose Macias, RP - Britt Reames, RP - Scott Stewart, 3B - Fernando Tatis, SP - Javier Vazquez, 3B - Todd Zeile
PROJECTED LINEUP: Endy Chavez (CF), Jose Vidro (2B), Orlando Cabrera (SS), Carl Everett (RF), Brad Wilkerson (LF), Nick Johnson (1B), Tony Batista (3B), Brian Schneider (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Livan Hernandez (RHP), Tony Armas Jr. (RHP), Zach Day (RHP), Tomo Ohka (RHP), Claudio Vargas (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Rocky Biddle (RHP)
MANAGER: Frank Robinson
Even though the Montreal Expos were the most traveled team in baseball last season, they managed to finish above .500 for a second straight year. They were actually in the National League wild card hunt until losing eight of nine games in a stretch from late August to early September. Attaining a winning record will be an arduous task in 2004. The gusto is gone from the team, as Javier Vazquez was traded to the Yankees and Vladimir Guerrero signed a $70 million contract with Anaheim.
The team figures to be in limbo again in 2004, as this will be the Expos' final season in Montreal. Operating under the ownership of Major League Baseball, the Expos will play 22 of their home games in San Juan for a second straight year. We may know by the All-Star break where the Expos will be relocated for the 2005 campaign. Several cities are in the running to have the Expos. Las Vegas, Nev.; Monterrey, Mexico; Norfolk, Va.; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington, D.C. are all being considered as the future home of the team.
Last season the Expos had 144 home runs, the fourth-fewest in the National League. Guerrero had 25 of those and Wil Cordero had 16. Both players are gone, but manager Frank Robinson will now look to third baseman Tony Batista, first baseman Nick Johnson and Carl Everett for the power numbers this year. Everett joined the Expos as a free agent, inking a two-year, $7 million deal.
The corners of Montreal's infield will be an upgrade, at least offensively, compared to last year. In 2003, Cordero and Jamey Carroll combined for 17 homers and 81 RBI. Johnson and Batista had totals of 40 homers and 146 RBI last season. The 25-year-old Johnson, who had 14 homers and 47 RBI in 96 games for the Yankees last year, finally gets an opportunity to be an everyday first baseman as he's out of the shadow of Jason Giambi. Batista spent the last 2 1/2 seasons with the Orioles. In 161 games last year, he batted .235 with 26 homers and 99 RBI.
The middle of the infield lends to a familiar duo with Jose Vidro at second base and Orlando Cabrera at shortstop. They form a lethal double-play combination and both have potential offensively, as they combined for 32 homers and 144 RBI last year. Vidro hit .310 in making his third All-Star appearance, while Cabrera batted .297 and didn't miss a game for the second time in three seasons. Both players could be free agents after this season and it will be hard for the Expos to keep either one, so expect Vidro and Cabrera to excel again.
Brian Schneider will be given the opportunity to be the every day catcher, after the team traded Michael Barrett to Oakland in the offseason. Schneider spent most of last season as the starting catcher anyway, hitting .230 with nine homers and 46 RBI. He also sparkled defensively by throwing out a major league best 52.9 percent of baserunners.
Everett certainly won't make up for the loss of Guerrero in right field. Brad Wilkerson will be in left field again and Endy Chavez is likely to patrol center, but could be moved in a platoon position there.
As of late spring training, several players were battling for spots in the outfield, including new acquisition Juan Rivera, Peter Bergeron and Terrmel Sledge, so the lineup may change by opening day.
The 26-year-old Chavez is an asset at the top of the lineup though because of his speed and that's what Robinson may want to focus on for this season if Vidro hits second. Chavez was the starting centerfielder last year and hit .251 with 47 RBI and stole 18 bases.
The 32-year-old Everett, who was an All-Star last year, batted a combined .287 with 28 homers and 92 RBI for the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox. Everett started the season in Texas before being dealt to the White Sox in July. A career .278 batter with 161 homers and 637 RBI, the switch-hitter pulled in $9.15 million last season.
This marks the first time since 1999 that Everett will play in the National League. That season, his last one in Houston, he had 108 RBI, which is tied for a career-high.
The left-handed hitting Wilkerson saw extensive time in all outfield positions last year and even played 27 games at first base. He's more likely to stay in one spot this year though and hopes to continue his offensive improvement. Last year, Wilkerson hit .268 with 19 homers and a career-best 77 RBI.
Montreal's starting staff is once again all righthanders, just like last year. In fact, the last Montreal left-handed starter to earn a win was Matt Blank, June 21, 2001 against the New York Mets.
With Vazquez gone, the focus on the pitching staff switches solely on Livan Hernandez, who will try to repeat his performance from last year when he went 15-10 with a 3.20 ERA. Hernandez also threw 233 1/3 innings, the most in the National League. The righthander has an impressive streak, pitching without a big injury the last six seasons.
Tony Armas Jr. is slated to be the No. 2 man, but could be sidelined at the start of the season due to a sore shoulder. Armas was Montreal's Opening Day starter last year, but has not pitched in a game since last April 20. Shortly after that game, he had an operation to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder. In 2002 Armas went 12-12 with a 4.44 ERA in 29 starts.
Japanese righthander Tomo Ohka was a workhorse last season, going 10-12 with a 4.16 ERA in a career-high 34 starts. However, he allowed 233 hits, fourth-most in the National League.
Zach Day, also hurt by a slightly torn rotator cuff last season, is expected to be in the No. 4 spot. Day went 9-8 with a 4.18 ERA in 23 games in 2003.
Claudio Vargas will likely hold down the final slot in the rotation. The 25- year-old went 6-8 with a 4.34 ERA last year, his first in the majors.
Righthander Rocky Biddle gets a shot to close games for a second straight year. Last season, he had 34 saves to go along with a 4.65 ERA in 73 appearances. Righthander Luis Ayala and lefty Joey Eischen will be the primary setup men, although Eischen is expected to undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow and may not return to the team until late May. Chad Cordero has a powerful right arm and can also be used in a setup role.
T.J. Tucker and Randy Choate, who came over from the Yankees in the Vazquez trade, will be in long relief. Righthander Dan Smith, overcoming shoulder surgery last season, may also be counted on in middle relief.
Outfielder Matt Cepicky has had a wonderful spring training and could be on track to nailing down a job on the bench, even though he appeared in just five games for the Expos last year. Carroll, who hit .260 last season, moves into a reserve role in the infield. Henry Mateo, who hit just .240 in 100 games last year, has the ability to play the infield and outfield. Ron Calloway will also come off the bench for more help in the outfield.
The Expos face a big battle just to get to .500 this year. General manager Omar Minaya is again operating with a paltry payroll and he's been unable to sign high-priced free agents. The starting staff must remain healthy the entire season for the team to avoid a free fall. This may be the year the bottom falls out for the Expos. Don't be surprised to see a last-place finish, a spot the Expos have been in just once (2001) in the last eight seasons.