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Monday, December 9
Updated: December 11, 7:00 PM ET
Figuring out the best way for Expos to pare payroll

By Rob Neyer

Fire sale.

Those words constitute a hot button for baseball fans. Those words suggest that everybody's gotta go, best offer takes the prize!

Here's the problem: the Expos have approximately $40 million to spend in 2003, and the following five players are going to make nearly that much next season, all by themselves ...

      Salary (in millions)
Vladimir Guerrero  $11.5
Bartolo Colon      $8.25
Fernando Tatis     $6.25
Jose Vidro         $5.5
Javier Vazquez     $6.0

The contracts for the top four players on that list are guaranteed; Vazquez is arbitration-eligible, and $6.0 million is a rough estimate of what he's likely to make next season.

Well, that's $37.5 million right there, for only five players. That leaves $2.5 million for the other 20 guys on the roster, not even including various hangers-on who will spend part of the 2003 season with their new Triple-A affiliate in Edmonton. Given that the new major-league minimum salary is $300,000, the guys making more than $5.5 million next year can't all stay.

So can the Expos remain competitive with a $40 million payroll? I think that they can, but it's going to require some creativity. They've obviously got to trade one (or more) of their high-dollar players. And they've also got to make a decision with their catchers, Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider.

             Barrett  Schneider
Age             26        26
2002 OPS       749       798
Career OPS     701       732

On second thought, the decision doesn't look so tough. Barrett's got the name -- he was once considered a top prospect -- but Schneider's got the performance. By most accounts, he's also got a better glove, and he's cheaper. Barrett made $1.15 million last season, he's going to make roughly twice that next season, and he's a luxury the Expos simply can't afford.

Barrett is, in fact, a perfect example of the sort of player the Expos can't afford. He's certainly adequate and deserves a job in the major leagues. But he should be a backup for a rich team or a starter for a poor team that doesn't have somebody like Schneider on the payroll.

Another guy like that is Orlando Cabrera, who made $2.4 million last season. He's not a terrible hitter and he's an excellent fielder, but he's going to make something like $3.5 million next season and the Expos simply can't afford him.

The biggest problem, of course, is Fernando Tatis. But his contract and his reputation around baseball will make it very difficult to trade him, unless he's packaged with a more attractive property (Vazquez, for instance). For now, we'll assume the Expos are stuck with Tatis.

But they'll need a new shortstop, and they could use a new first baseman, too. Assuming the Expos spend about $750,000 on those positions, the lineup will look like this:

C  Schneider     .5
1B ????          .5
2B Vidro        5.5
SS ????          .25
3B Tatis        6.25
RF Guerrero    11.5
CF Chavez       1.0
LF Wilkerson     .5
      Totals  $26.0 million

No, it's not a great lineup. But it's certainly a good one, assuming of course that GM Omar Minaya can find that cheap talent at first and short.

Now, about the rotation ...

Colon     8.25
Vazquez   5.75
Armas     2.5
Ohka      1.0
Kim        .5
Totals  $18.0 million

So there's your problem. Add $18 million for the rotation to the $26 million for the lineup, and you're already at $44 million for 13 players, without even filling out the bench or the bullpen.

So it looks to me like the Expos have to trade either Colon or Guerrero, and Colon's the better choice. For one thing, Colon's contract expires after the 2003 season, at which point he'll probably take off. For another thing, Colon's not a great pitcher. He's very good and he did win 20 games last season, but he's not one of the dozen or so best pitchers in the game. And perhaps just as important, while the Expos do have other options at Colon's position, they do not have another right fielder at hand.

So if the Expos trade Colon, they're back down to $36 million for the lineup and four-fifths of the rotation. And in return for Colon, Cabrera, and Barrett, the Expos should be able to fill their holes at first base and shortstop with young (cheap) talent.

To fill the hole left by Colon's departure, the Expos have a number of viable candidates, including Seung Jun Song, Zach Day, and Tim Drew. Young pitchers being what they are, none of these fellows are likely to win the Cy Young Award or even post an ERA better than the league average. But it's quite possible that at least one of them is capable of holding down the fourth or fifth slot in the rotation.

You know, the trick is for Minaya to operate as if he's a position of strength rather than weakness. Too often, when payroll considerations force trades, we pity the poor general manager who must shed salary. But why not consider this an opportunity? Barrett and especially Cabrera have a fair amount of trade value, and of course a number of clubs are salivating at the prospect of acquiring Colon.

Three quality major leaguers, none of them particularly expensive, should bring back a substantial amount of cheap talent. As Expos assistant GM Tony Siegle told me, "Forget the fire-sale business. We're going to be a better club next season."

The Expos were actually a pretty good club last season, and the truth is that they're going to have a tough time getting better. But if Minaya and Siegle are reasonably creative, there's no reason their $40 million budget has to spell disaster.

But if you're going to make this work, you have to treat every penny as if it's precious. You can't, for example, spend $600,000 on Wil Cordero, whose talents can be found at half the price if you know where to look.

Now, you might be saying, "You're kidding, right? What difference could $300,000 possibly make?"

No, it doesn't make a lot of difference. But when your budget is $40 million -- or roughly a third what the Yankees will spend next year -- $300,000 can make a difference, assuming of course that you know what you're doing. Simply put, for $600,000 you can have either one Wil Cordero, or two players just as good as Wil Cordero.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is

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