Building the 2004 Expos

Sunday's decision by the Montreal Expos to not offer Vladimir Guerrero salary arbitration signaled the departure of one of the best players in franchise history. It also means a second straight year of scrambling at baseball's winter meetings for general manager Omar Minaya.

Guerrero turned down Minaya's last-ditch recruiting effort, rejecting a five-year contract offer worth about $70 million before the Sunday midnight deadline. The deal was reported to be heavily backloaded, with about $35 million due in the last two years of the contract, and Guerrero was said to be offered considerably less than his $11.5 million 2003 salary for the coming season, possibly as little as $8 million. The structure would have allowed the Expos to maneuver through a tight, MLB-imposed budget in the contract's early years, with payments ballooning at the tail end, when the team hopes to be relocated and run by new owners.

With the offer turned down, the Expos opted to non-tender their star player and move on. Had the team offered arbitration and Guerrero accepted, the Expos could have been faced with a situation similar to the one the Atlanta Braves encountered last year, when Greg Maddux unexpectedly accepted arbitration rather than signing elsewhere, forcing the club to work out a one-year, $14.75 million deal for their erstwhile ace.

Of course, the notion that no team would sign the most valuable free-agent commodity since A-Rod is nuttier than Mark Fidrych on a Pixie Stix bender. The Orioles and Angels are Guerrero's leading suitors, and it's expected he'll soon sign a multi-year deal with one of those two teams. As a reward for their poor judgment, the Expos lose out on future compensatory draft picks, something the already decimated farm system can ill afford to be without.

So where does that leave the Expos? From a geographical standpoint, they'll repeat the 59/22-game split between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico, that they staged in 2003. On the field, Vlad's departure makes contention in 2004 seem as likely as your boss giving you a raise after catching you downloading Paris Hilton tapes at the office.

Though the team has kept its exact 2004 budget quiet, it's unlikely to exceed the $45 million it shelled out last season. On the other hand, MLB might want to avoid the appearance of bad faith it could trigger if it slashed payroll from last season's total.

Assuming then another $45 million budget, let's look at the Expos' current salary commitments for next season, with arbitration question marks, best guesses for rookies likely to crack the club, and likely salaries included:

C: Michael Barrett ($2.5M)/Brian Schneider ($350,000).
1B: Nick Johnson ($2M).
2B: Jose Vidro ($7.75M, includes various performance bonuses kicking in).
SS: Orlando Cabrera ($5.5M).
3B: Jose Macias ($1M)/Jamey Carroll ($350,000).
OF: Brad Wilkerson ($350,000), Endy Chavez ($350,000)/Terrmel Sledge ($300,000),
Ron Calloway ($350,000)/Juan Rivera ($350,000).
Bench: Henry Mateo ($350,000)/Scott Hodges ($300,000).

Total for 14 position players: $21.8M.

SP: Livan Hernandez ($6M), Orlando Hernandez ($4M)/Tony Armas Jr. ($3M), Tomo Ohka ($2M),
Zach Day ($350,000), Claudio Vargas ($350,000).
RP: Rocky Biddle ($2M), Joey Eischen ($1.3M), Scott Stewart ($1M), Luis Ayala ($350,000),
Randy Choate ($350,000), T.J. Tucker ($350,000)/Chad Cordero ($300,000).

Total for 13 pitchers: $21.35M.

Total: $43.15M.

Carrying what could be the worst starting outfield in baseball if the team sticks with out-machines Endy Chavez and Ron Calloway, an offensive black hole at third base, a thin bench, a starting rotation rife with injuries and uncertainty, and a questionable bullpen, the Expos are nearly at their payroll limit already. Makes you wonder how they could have afforded to keep Vlad in the first place.

A few moves stick out as obvious ways to clear salary space and make way for other acquisitions. While his half-brother Livan was one of the majors' 10 best pitchers as measured by Baseball Prospectus' Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement level and Value Over Replacement Player metrics, El Duque missed the entire season after having shoulder surgery. That, plus the oft-rumored possibility that he's a lot closer to 40 than he lets on, makes him a bad re-up, even after the maximum-allowed 20-percent pay cut from last year's $4.1 million. He's gone.

Jose Macias had a 2003 season so wretched it made Expos fans long for Chris Truby. Macias finished 9.7 runs below replacement-level (for a complete list of Expos' VORP ratings for position players, click here). He's another easy non-tender.

The Expos signed Joey Eischen to a one-year contract before the '03 season with a $1.3 million option for 2004. They'll pay him the $50,000 buyout instead, especially after the club snagged lefty specialist Randy Choate as a throw-in to last Thursday's Javier Vazquez trade.

With a torn labrum, knee problems and inconsistent performances in his past, retaining Rocky Biddle makes little sense to a cash-strapped team. That he might earn as much as $2 million in arbitration by flashing his empty 34 saves around makes the decision to let him go even easier.

Scott Stewart was one of the best relievers in the National League in 2002 and one of the few strong pickups made by former GM Jim Beattie in his tenure with the Expos. With concerns over his surgically-operated elbow, Stewart might also be expendable if the team feels he won't return to '02 form.

Michael Barrett was the team's No. 1 draft choice in 1995. But after multiple position switches and a promising rookie season, he hasn't turned into the hitter the Expos hoped he'd become. Barrett's expressed interest in coming back next year, even at a lower price than the $2.5 million or more he might earn in arbitration.

Subtract Hernandez, Macias, Eischen, Biddle, and Stewart and lop $1 million off Barrett's projected salary, and you recoup $10.3 million, for a total payroll of $32.85 million. That leaves about $12 million to spend on filling three empty roster slots and improving other positions.

Time for a free agent spending spree, right? It would be, but for one problem: For all the noise Minaya's made about making moves to upgrade the team, good players simply don't want to play for the Expos. Never have.

With the Expos in the thick of a pennant race last season, Minaya reached a deal with Texas to acquire Juan Gonzalez. With Gonzalez a couple months from agency, Minaya figured the chance to bolt a last-place club for a contender, mixed with the chance to play in front of friends and family in his native Puerto Rico would surely convince the mercurial slugger to drop his no-trade clause and come aboard. No dice, said Gonzalez.

For years, players have seen Montreal's high tax rate, a perceived language barrier and a general feeling of being lost in a foreign country and looked past the city's natural and architectural beauty, vibrant nightlife and celebrity-friendly laissez-faire attitude. Memories of former pitcher Bryn Smith's wife and her complaints over the scarcity of Doritos at the local grocery store linger.

Given what Expos players face on a day-to-day basis, though, it's hard to blame any player for shying away. The team remains in constant limbo, with relocation and contraction ever-present threats. The travel schedule will be tough for the second straight year. Though they're planning new turf for Olympic Stadium in 2004, the last effort to replace the majors' worst playing surface only compounded the problem. With their best player now gone, it'll be hard for Minaya to pitch the Expos as a contender to boot.

Looking beyond recent history, Minaya's odds start to look astronomical. The Expos have signed free agents here and there over the years. They've even jump-started the careers of scrap heap finds like Pascual Perez. They've signed players like Pete Rose near the end of their careers to grab a few headlines, knowing the on-field impact would be slim to none. They've occasionally retained some of their better players, including Dennis Martinez and the collusion-driven re-signing of Tim Raines.

But the closest the team has come to a legitimate free agent signing from another team might have been the insane three-year, $9 million contract they handed Graeme Lloyd in 1999, apparently thinking the lefty reliever could hit cleanup and masquerade as Youppi! twice a week, too. The last time the Expos signed an impact free agent -- one comparable to the Jose Cruz Jr./Jose Guillen class that could upgrade the team, never mind the Kevin Millwood/Bartolo Colon/Miguel Tejada class -- was January 1979, when the club signed Elias Sosa away from Oakland. In other words, it'd be a shock if the Expos managed anything more than bottom-fishing, even with money to spend and starting jobs to offer.

That leaves the Expos with only one option for upgrading their thin bullpen: the trade route. Minaya has shown a willingness to work deals, whether by mortgaging what's left of the farm system for a playoff run (Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips in a 2002 midseason trade with Cleveland for Colon) or by speculating on an unwanted commodity (Jim Brower and change for Livan Hernandez and Edwards Guzman, one of 2003's best deals).

But even by trade, Minaya's choices are limited. The Expos' farm system lacks impact prospects close to the majors. Players like Larry Broadway, Clint Everts and Michael Hinckley are years away from making a major league impact, assuming they even get that far.

If the Expos want to hang onto young, core players like Brad Wilkerson and the newly-acquired Nick Johnson, as well as post-2004 free agents Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez and Orlando Cabrera, Minaya's only recourse might be to take fliers on contracts other teams might want to unload.

Look for Minaya to try and get creative as the winter meetings get started later this week in New Orleans. The most attractive targets may be talented players who underperformed last season. Richard Hidalgo? Maybe. Edgardo Alfonzo? Possible. Pat Burrell? Doesn't hurt to ask. With a (largely misguided) win-now approach and a giant hole in the lineup, the Expos could make plenty of noise in the Bayou.

Don't count on the Expos chasing players with no-trade clauses, though. Not unless they've got enough Doritos in tow to last a long time.

You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. You can e-mail Jonah Keri at: jkeri@baseballprospectus.com.