The Expos are one team that is never safe at home. While the threat of contraction has apparently vanished, relocation after 35 seasons looms larger than ever. The team, which is owned by Major League Baseball, has already taken one step out the door with the decision to play 22 of its 81 home games in Puerto Rico. If this is not a naked cash grab—Montreal stands to make $7 million to $10 million in San Juan—it is lightly clothed, as befits the Expos' new tropical setting. "We're like an old barnstorming team," says reliever Dan Smith. "We'll go anywhere for half the gate-San Juan, Poughkeepsie, Toledo. I'm hoping we get a couple of games in southwest Missouri, close to my home."
The additional revenue should prevent further salary dumps such as marquee starter Bartolo Colon, who was in Montreal for half a season before being dealt to the White Sox in January. The problem is that the Expos will play what amounts to 103 road games, competitively unfair for any team but especially for one that does not travel well: Montreal was 34-47 on the road last season but thrived in the privacy of Olympic Stadium, finishing with the second-best home record in the division. "You can call those 22 games [in Puerto Rico] home games," general manager Omar Minaya says, "but when you sleep in a hotel, they're road games."
Minaya worked with one hand tied behind his back in 2002—a $38 million payroll—and still figured out a way to acquire Colon from the Indians on June 27 and rightfielder Cliff Floyd from the Marlins two weeks later, bolstering manager Frank Robinson's run at the National League wild card. (However, Montreal lost 11 of 14 during one July stretch and promptly traded Floyd to the Red Sox just 19 days after he had arrived.) The Expos wound up second in the NL East, with their first winning record since 1996. Now faced with a $40 million budget, the bold G.M. is ready to perform more magic with lead weights on his ankles. "I feel confident we'll be able to improve the team without taking on salary," Minaya says, "if we're in the hunt."
That is a long shot. The rotation is solid if not glitzy and will benefit from the addition of 33-year-old Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, who was acquired from the Yankees in a three-team trade. The Expos have starting pitchers from Puerto Rico ( Javy Vazquez), Cuba ( Hernandez), Venezuela ( Tony Armas Jr.) and Japan (Tomo Okha). Catcher Michael Barrett enjoys the diversity because it gives him a chance to use the six years of Spanish he took in school and the Japanese he picked up playing instructional ball in Hawaii.
Of course the centerpiece of any success will be 27-year-old rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who is in the final year of a five-year, $28 million contract and figures to be in his final season as an Expo. Minaya vows not to trade him as long as Montreal is in contention—"I suspect if someone buys the team in August, he might want Vlad on it," says Minaya. The free agent market was soft last winter, but it had no fabulous five-tool player entering his prime. Guerrero, who has struck out roughly once in every eight at bats in his career, a minuscule number for a power hitter, was one home run short of a 40-40 year. He led the league in hits and total bases and batted .336 without a reliable No. 5 hitter behind him for protection. Known for having one of the strongest outfield arms in baseball, Guerrero also tied for the NL lead with 14 outfield assists. "And he's not even close to being maxed out," Robinson says.
Guerrero could use help from Fernando Tatis, whose shoulder and knee are healthy enough that he is no longer submarining his throws from third base, and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who had a nightmarish season at the plate (.263 average) and in the field (29 errors). Right now the only other pencil-it-in offensive force is switch-hitting second baseman Jose Vidro, who hit .315 with 19 homers and 96 RBIs last season.
Vidro, like fellow Puerto Ricans Vazquez and first baseman Wil Cordero, will feel right at home in San Juan. Vidro's mother, Daisy, who has never seen her son play a major league game, lives about 46 miles southwest of San Juan. "We talk about it a lot," says Vidro, 28. "I'm looking forward to playing with my family sitting in the stands. I know a lot of guys on this team are excited about it." They will be frolicking at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a home away from their deserted home in a city that fell out of love with baseball.