5. Montreal Expos
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Some promising arms and the league's best young player, but not a lot more
By Michael Farber
The Expos, baseball's most star-crossed organization, continue to be trapped in their own bizarre space-time continuum. There's a past (Montreal constantly invokes touchstones of past success like Wallach or the 1994 team, which had the major leagues' best record before the strike), and there's a future (the eternal fretting over when and where the franchise will relocate), but there never seems to be a present. With apologies to Gertrude Stein's scouting report of Oakland: In Montreal there's no now now.
That's a shame because reveries of the past and fears for the future obscure the immediate excellence of Vladimir Guerrero, who -- along with Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams -- is one of four players to reach 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 runs and a .300 batting average three times before his 25th birthday. Guerrero's brilliance is understated, speaking loudest in the distinctive crack the ball makes off his bat and the low hum of the ball that serves as the sound track of his laser throws from rightfield. The famously free-swinging Guerrero was formally introduced to the new strike zone this spring, but he forgot it instantly, as if it were a stranger's name at a noisy cocktail party. His strike zone isn't letters-to-knee but sea-to-sea; in 2000 he took a hack at a league-high 59.3% of the pitches thrown to him. Yet in the past three seasons, he has struck out only 231 times in 1,992 plate appearances.
With the rise of switch-hitting second baseman Jose Vidro, who jacked up his production from the right side in 2000 and finished with 200 hits, the lineup is pocked with land mines for opposing pitchers. "I think everyone knows who those two are," first baseman Lee Stevens says of Guerrero and Vidro. "You better believe the rotations in the National League do, and that's all that matters."
Whether Montreal significantly improves its paltry offensive output of last season (4.56 runs per game) depends heavily on Tatis. Will the Expos wind up with the dangerous slugger who drove in 104 runs in 1999 and had a 13-game hitting streak interrupted by a groin injury last April? Or will they get the sullen, ineffective player who was benched by St. Louis manager Tony La Russa during last fall's Division Series? Tatis takes over third base from Michael Barrett, a former gilt-edged prospect who booted a two-hopper on the first play of Opening Day in 2000, made five more errors in his first five games and wound up batting .214 without a whiff of power. Barrett, who has caught in 90 of his 223 games in the majors, will be used exclusively behind the plate this season, though he threw out just three of 17 base runners and had five passed balls in 24 starts at the end of last year.
There are other questions for a team that never quite exists in the here and now. Will it be back in Montreal in 2002, especially in the wake of last year's decision by ownership not to renew its option on land earmarked for a new downtown ballpark? Blessedly, however, the days of Expos fire sales appear to be over, as principal owner Jeffrey Loria, the New York City art dealer who bought the team 15 months ago, has kept the payroll in the mid-$30 million range despite 2000 losses estimated at $20 million. But given the Jackson Pollocks such as Atlanta and New York ahead of them in the National League East, the Expos still look like Dogs Playing Poker.
Issue date: March 26, 2001