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4 montreal Expos
Ian Thomsen
March 27, 2000
Reversing their old practice, the Expos spent some bucks in hope of contending
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March 27, 2000

4 Montreal Expos

Reversing their old practice, the Expos spent some bucks in hope of contending

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1999 record: 69-94 (fourth in NL East)

Batting average

.265 (11)

Opponents' batting average

.270 (11)

Runs scored

718 (14)

ERA

4.69 (9)

Home runs

163 (13)

Fielding percentage

.974 (16)

On the first day of spring training Felipe Alou reintroduced himself to his young Expos. In the past the players might have likened their skipper to a postgraduate career counselor, as if his main duty was to help them find jobs with richer ball clubs. Now times have changed. Nobody was going anywhere, Alou said, and he expected the players to fulfill their promise in Montreal.

"The word is out from the front office that it's no longer business as usual," says the 64-year-old Alou, who's in his ninth season with the Expos. "This is what we were waiting for. The entire organization is being challenged."

Throwing down the gauntlet is new general partner Jeffrey Loria, a 59-year-old New York art dealer and longtime Yankees season-ticket holder who took over the Expos in December. Loria has promised to keep the team in Montreal and is putting together the financing for a new 36,000-seat downtown stadium that would open in 2002. By then the Expos may be ready to contend, because Loria has vowed that Montreal will end its practice of letting good young players like Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, Moises Alou and John Wetteland leave for more well-heeled environs.

Though Loria has budgeted a fairly paltry payroll of about $28 million this year, the sum is still a significant increase over the $16 million the Expos had committed at the start of 1999. For now the Montreal front office will continue to till its rich farm system while making modest forays into the open market.

In the off-season Expos general manager Jim Beattie focused on the pitching staff. He obtained Hideki Irabu—who can earn up to $6 million in the two years remaining on his contract—from the Yankees in December for a prospect and two players to be named later. A day earlier he'd landed reliever Graeme Lloyd, Montreal's first significant free-agent signee since Oil Can Boyd, in 1989. "I really didn't think I'd be an Expo," says Lloyd, who was persuaded otherwise by a three-year, $9 million offer. That amount has been criticized as too generous for a lefthanded setup man, but Loria believes he needed to sign a decent free agent to spell out the Expos' new sense of ambition. Top starter Dustin Hermanson, who had balked at signing a long-term deal until the team's future became clearer, was also locked up for three years at $15 million.

After going 14-11 with a 3.13 ERA in 1998, the 27-year-old Hermanson responded poorly to the expectations of being the team ace and was a disappointing 5-12 going into last September. "Then I started throwing from different arm positions, different angles, the way I used to," says Hermanson, who was 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA after Aug. 31. With a rotation that also includes promising righthanders Javier Vazquez and Carl Pavano, and a deeper bullpen, the Expos should make even better use of closer Ugueth Urbina, who won or saved 47 of Montreal's 68 wins last year.

The other phases of the game—fielding, hitting and running—are still in doubt. The Expos were the worst defensive team in baseball last year. In lieu of significant personnel changes the Expos hired infield coach Perry Hill away from the Tigers, who in 1997 became the first American League team to leap from worst to first in fielding percentage. In '98 three of Detroit's four infielders finished among the top four in their league at their positions.

The Montreal offense is built around right-fielder Vladimir Guerrero, who set seven offensive club records and finished in the top 10 in the National League in 11 categories in 1999. Best of all, the Expos have locked him up through 2003 as part of a bargain five-year, $28 million deal they struck in September 1998. But who's going to protect Guerrero in the middle of the order? Montreal failed in its off-season attempts to deal for hard-hitting third basemen Vinny Castilla and Jeff Cirillo. Now the most likely candidates are newly acquired Lee Stevens, who's coming off the best season of his career, and Michael Barrett, who hit .293 last season as he shuffled back and forth between catcher and third base. This year Barrett will probably stay at third. "Playing one position is going to give me a chance to work on my hitting a little more," he says.

The Expos also need to set a more appetizing table for Guerrero. They had the second-worst on-base percentage (.323) in baseball and went through nine leadoff hitters last year. The candidates for the top of the order are unproven centerfielders Peter Bergeron and Milton Bradley (who's obviously a gamer). Whoever wins the job must set an aggressive example on the base paths—only two teams in the majors stole fewer bases than the Expos last year.

Montreal is talking about contending for the wild card immediately, but it's asking too much of Alou to reverse misfortune overnight. A .500 finish would be a nice start.

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