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Friday, March 7
 
Expos at a disadvantage, but should stay competitive

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- There might not have been much order at the Montreal Expos camp a year ago, when baseball's orphans were considering the mixed blessings of having survived the threat of contraction. But there was certainly a batting order.

Looking around the clubhouse, it was easy to focus on what the Expos had. There was Vladimir Guerrero in one corner, and Jose Vidro in another. Scattered around the clubhouse were potential young stars like Orlando Cabrera, Brad Wilkerson, Michael Barrett and Peter Bergeron, not to mention Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr. and plenty of other pitchers with good arms.

This was a team that hadn't won even 70 games in any of the last four seasons?

Javier Vazquez
Javier Vazquez, one of four Expos players of Puerto Rican descent, is scheduled to pitch on Monday in San Juan.

Behind all the angst and self-pity, there was still a lot of talent in the organization. It was admirable, but not quite shocking, that Frank Robinson was able to coax 83 wins and a second-place finish out of the Expos in 2002.

If you want shocking, listen to Robinson talk about why he's back for a second year as Montreal's manager. He had said repeatedly he was leaving his cushy job as Major League Baseball's dean of discipline for one year, but couldn't walk away.

"After about two weeks of soul-searching, there was no doubt I wanted to come back,'' Robinson said. "I just felt like I wanted to be part of this thing this year. I wanted to be here because the job wasn't finished. Hopefully, we can get it finished this year.''

By "finished,'' Robinson is talking about doing the near-impossible. That is, putting an owner-less team overseen by MLB into the playoffs. This would be an amazing way to end a most remarkable career by Robinson, who has already made history as the only player to win MVP awards in both leagues and as baseball's first African-American manager.

Robinson, a notoriously difficult man to please, wouldn't have subjected himself to the most daunting schedule any team has faced since the Cleveland Spiders of 1898 and '99 if he didn't believe he had a shot at getting into the postseason. That's the one success that has eluded him.

In fact, Robinson had only one second-place finish in his 11 seasons as a manager with Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore. He doesn't wear his ambition on his sleeve, as others do, but he's always been ultra-competitive.

Robinson sensed the possibilities at the end of last season. The Expos were in fourth place on Sept. 12, but went 12-3 down the stretch to pass Florida and Philadelphia and finish second in the National League East. Few teams have ever been as proud of their runner-up checks as Montreal was.

"The effort was there all year long,'' Robinson said. "We had a tremendous September, which shows they hung in there. We just kept going, kept on focusing on the team in front of us at the time. I'm very proud of this team and staff. They worked their tails off last year for me. I appreciate that.''

Robinson also appreciated the approach that general manager Omar Minaya wound up taking in trimming the payroll. Montreal opened last year with about $39 million in payroll salaries. The midseason trade for Bartolo Colon would have caused that total to jump to beyond $50 million in 2003, and MLB authorized Minaya only to spend in the range of $40-45 million.

" This is really a joke. I said it last year and I'm still saying it. This is a joke. We should have an owner. We shouldn't be owned by 29 other teams. The way I see it is why would they want to do anything except beat us? "
Javier Vazquez, Expos pitcher

The obvious move was to trade Colon, who had come from Cleveland at the cost of highly regarded shortstop Brandon Phillips and two other top prospects, and Minaya spent more than a month shopping him. He came close to a three-way deal with Florida and Cincinnati, which would have allowed the Expos to restock their farm system, but wound up dealing him to the White Sox in a three-way deal that sent Orlando Hernandez from the Yankees to Montreal.

The key was that the White Sox and Yankees agreed to split Hernandez's salary.

"Having a chance to get El Duque for free keeps us competitive,'' Minaya said.

That's what he hopes, anyway. Minaya was widely criticized for not being able to get more than Hernandez, pitcher Rocky Biddle and first baseman Jeff Liefer for a 20-game winner. He admits he thought he'd be able to do better, too. But this was the wrong winter to be trying to move high-salaried players -- see "Millwood, Kevin" -- and Minaya was able to get Robinson a potentially valuable resource for the short run.

Robinson is genuinely enthusiastic about a starting rotation that includes Vazquez, Armas, Hernandez and Tomo Ohka, who was 13-8 with a 3.18 ERA last season.

"We have a lot less questions this year,'' Robinson said. "Last year, I just felt like it was Vazquez and Armas, and that was basically it. This year, we feel good, think we have all the spots filled.''

Vazquez, Armas, Ohka and Hernandez were 43-38 with a combined 3.78 ERA last season. That's a solid nucleus to build around.

Solid starting pitching is absolutely imperative in the NL East. No division in the majors has better starters from top to bottom.

While economics within baseball and the AOL-Time Warner ownership forced Atlanta to reshuffle a reliable pitching staff, teams like Philadelphia, the Mets and Florida were building up their staffs to compete with the Braves. That dynamic should create an intriguing playoff race.

Every team in the division has a rotation that could be somewhere between good and great.

Strictly judging from 2002 performance, the edge goes to the Phillies (Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brandon Duckworth were a combined 51-37 with a 3.68 ERA) and the Mets (Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Pedro Astacio and Steve Trachsel were a combined 54-44 with a 3.63 ERA).

But like the Expos' Hernandez, who hasn't made more than 22 starts in a season since 2000, the Braves' Hampton, the Phillies' Duckworth and Brett Myers and Florida's Josh Beckett and Brad Penny are X-factors who could tip the scales in other directions.

For the Expos, the other key questions are these:

Scott Stewart
Relief pitcher
Montreal Expos
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L SV SO ERA
67 64 4-2 17 67 3.09

1. Will the bullpen be able to protect leads? Left-hander Scott Stewart, who gave Robinson 17 saves in a three-month stretch last season, is questionable after elbow surgery in October. The guys who picked up the slack at the end of the season, Matt Herges and Graeme Lloyd, are gone. So Robinson must find a closer.

He's not quite sure where to look, either. Biddle, who throws in the low-90s with a nasty disposition, is a possibility, but he's been slowed by minor injuries this spring. Right-handers T.J. Tucker and Dan Smith and lefty Joey Eischen could also emerge in the role. April and May will be crucial as Robinson tries to establish a pattern of use for his relievers.

2. Is there any thunder at the corners? Minaya tried unsuccessfully to trade third baseman Fernando Tatis, so Robinson and his coaches must once again try to get him back on track. First base was a major weakness in 2002, with a platoon of Lee Stevens and Andres Galarraga, and there is no guarantee that the Liefer-Wil Cordero tandem will do better.

Don't be surprised if Minaya makes a move before Opening Day to get help at first base or in the bullpen. The name mentioned most in trade possibilities is catcher Mike Barrett, but a Vidro deal isn't completely out of the question, given Robinson's affinity for the versatile Jamey Carroll.

3. Is Vlad along for the full ride? With free agency pending, Minaya will be tempted to deal Guerrero at midseason. This might be determined by the Expos' play in the first three months. If they are still hanging around, it would be tough to trade the cornerstone of the lineup for a package of prospects.

4. How will the Expos be impacted by playing 22 games in San Juan? Their travel is brutal. But if you think that sold-out stadiums in San Juan could give them a lift, consider this: Despite the dreariness of Olympic Stadium, Montreal won 49 home games in 2002. The only NL teams that won more were the four in the playoffs.

Vazquez, a native of Puerto Rico, is among the Expos who are looking forward to the new schedule. But like other veterans, he gets more aggravated about the franchise's uncertain future with each passing year. He's two years away from free agency and has been hearing whispers about an impending move to Washington, D.C., his entire career.

Vazquez heads into the season with hope but, as always, worries about having the rug pulled out from under him.

"This is really a joke,'' Vazquez said. "I said it last year and I'm still saying it. This is a joke. We should have an owner. We shouldn't be owned by 29 other teams. The way I see it is why would they want to do anything except beat us?''

" The effort was there all year long. We had a tremendous September, which shows they hung in there. We just kept going, kept on focusing on the team in front of us at the time. I'm very proud of this team and staff. They worked their tails off last year for me. I appreciate that. "
Frank Robinson, Expos manager

If anyone can get his players to put on blinders, it is Robinson. He joined Roland Hemond in pulling off one of the greatest turnarounds in history in Baltimore in 1989. The Orioles contended for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the season one year after they set an all-time record with an 0-21 start.

However, it should be noted the Orioles fell to 76-85 a year after their 87-75 performance in '89. That fall illustrates the trend.

Montreal increased its victory total by 15 in its first season under Robinson. There were 44 year-to-year increases of at least 15 wins in the National League between 1970 and 2001. Thirty of those -- or 68 percent -- backslid the following season.

The 14 that were able to follow a giant leap with continued improvement won only an additional 3 games in that following season. That second, albeit smaller, step forward would give the Expos 85 or 86 wins this season. They'll need at least 90 to get in the playoffs.

That would be an improvement of eight victories this year, following the 15-win jump in 2001. How likely is that? Well, in the NL, only one team has grown by such strides in back-to-back seasons over the last 30 years.

That would be the New York Mets of the mid-'80s. In Dwight Gooden's rookie season, they went 90-72 in '84 after a 94-loss, last-place performance in '83. Then they added eight more wins in '85 (but still finished behind St. Louis) and another 10 in '86, the year the ball Mookie Wilson hit went under Bill Buckner's mitt.

That, of course, was a powerhouse built around top young talent. Are the Expos equipped to make such a sustained climb?

Doubtful. But they'll give it a shot.

"Everybody was picking us fifth last year, and we showed them,'' Vazquez said. "I imagine they'll be picking us there again so we'll just have to show them. We'll see.''

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.





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