Five Questions: Montreal Expos

I’m one of those rare Yankee/Expo fans – have been since the days of Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Willie Randolph and Dave Righetti. It helps me to see both sides of the economic spectrum, kind of like having a doctor and a mechanic as siblings… both can be great people and you love them just because you’re related, of course. From an economic perspective, you can use them for different things, which is great! The doctor can take you to his beach house. The mechanic will fix your car just because it’s fun — it’s not as flashy as the beach house, but it can be just as important: you need to get to the beach house before you can enjoy it…

Anyway, I think the Expos were for real last year, and they were a fun team to watch. During a regular season in which the drama associated with the Bombers making the post-season was negligible, the Expos provided me with a real, live pennant chase. Well, it was a wild card chase, but it’s the same damn thing when it’s your squad involved — especially when you have friends that are Phillies fans. Too bad we both (and the Yanks!) lost to the evil incarnate and a team without any fans.

The ‘Spos were actually better than their surprising 83-79 record. I don’t know why it was surprising when they were 83-79 the year before too — all they lost of significance was Bartolo Colon — but it was surprising. How can I say that they were better than their record when their Pythagorean record was 80-82? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that. This year their over-under is 73 wins, which is laughable. Sure they lost 10 wins with the migration of 2/3 of the Killer V’s, but they replaced some of them with Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera. Tony Armas Jr. should be back too, and Brad Wilkerson will be a year better. Even though they were 3 games ahead of their Pythagorean pace, I don’t see why the team can’t repeat their record, if not improve it. Actually, I see one reason why…

1) Were there any obvious signs of wear and tear from playing in Puerto Rico in the Expos record?

After starting the season with 9 games on the road (bouncing from Atlanta to New York to Chicago), the Expos went “home” to Puerto Rico from April 11-20 without even getting an off day. They swept the Mets (4 games) and went 6-4 overall, getting swept by Atlanta and taking 2 of 3 from Cincinnati. Then they went home for real, and after a night off, they went 4-2 vs. the Diamondbacks and Astros.

The next trip south was June 3-8 — this time following a trip to Miami and then Philadelphia. You’d think MLB could have flipped those series, instead of making them fly Montreal-Miami-Philadelphia-San Juan while playing 7 games in 7 days, including two double-headers. They did get a day off before Anaheim came in and pasted them 15-4 and 11-2. The Expos went 1-8 during this run, dropping their record from 32-18 to 33-26.

After beating Anaheim in 14 innings in the finale of that series, the Expos swept Texas. They were then given an off-day — and a flight from San Juan to Seattle for a much-needed AL West Coast swing (actually, the trip was Seattle-Oakland-Pittsburgh). They won the first two before dropping 6 in a row, finally taking the last game of the Pittsburgh series. At that point, without a day off, the ‘Spos flew to Montreal for a 6-game homestand.

The trip turned out to be Montreal-Miami-Philadelphia-San Juan-Seattle-Oakland-Pittsburgh-Montreal over 3 1/2 weeks. They went 8-14 on the trip — obviously, they just weren’t a good road team.

The final trip to San Juan was September 5-11, once again following a Montreal-Miami-Philadelphia swing. But that’s not the whole of it. The Expos went from Montreal to Los Angeles (without an off-day) August 19, and then hopped down to San Diego. From there they flew home for four games with the Phillies, and then they went to Miami and Philadelphia (and lost 6 straight) before finally getting an off day that they used to head back to San Juan. There, they split 6 games with the Marlins and Cubs. At that point the Expos finally returned to Montreal. Over these 3 1/2 weeks, they played 4 games in Montreal with just two days off (one in the middle of the San Juan stretch), and predictably went 9-13.

The problem with the scheduling is that the Expos got very few true off-days last year — off days where they didn’t have to travel. These two stretches saw the Expos go 17-27 (.386); over the rest of the season they were 66-52 (.559). I can’t help but conclude that this awful scheduling had a serious negative impact on their play.

I don’t really know what Frank Robinson can do about it… perhaps he could make sure to rest his guys more during these stints to offset the wear and tear. This is especially important for the hitters — the pitchers aren’t playing every day anyway. Vlad Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Wilkerson, Brian Schneider and Wil Cordero all saw their OPS+ drop significantly last season. Only Orlando Cabrera had a better year with the stick in 2003 than in 2002 (after adjusting for the change in parks). Endy Chavez and Jamey Carroll are simply awful, which makes it tough to decipher if their declines were fatigue-related or simple Doug Flynn-level suckitude-related…

This also could be impacting Montreal’s park factor — and making their pitchers look better than their ERA+ would indicate. If road fatigue is hurting the hitters, they’re going to hit better at home and it will look like the offensive environment is better than it really is. Expos hitters scored 436 runs at home last year and just 275 on the road — a 59% increase — but their pitchers only allowed 21% more runs at home. There may be something to this. Hiram Bithorn Stadium is a great home run park, though it’s not good for much else because the small outfield is easy to cover. But the overall environment probably wasn’t as good as it looks based on the park factors.

The traveling issues won’t be any better this year. Sure, they start in Miami and then hop down to San Juan for 6 games, which isn’t bad. Then it’s off to Philadelphia and New York. From there they head home for 3 games and then fly (without an off day) to San Diego and jump to LA. During this entire stretch they get exactly one off day — in the middle of the 6 games in San Juan.

The next stint in San Juan follows a trip from Montreal to Milwaukee to Phoenix. At that point, it’s 6 games in San Juan, then they head back to Montreal (without an off-day) and play 6 more at home before heading on a 14 day trip through Atlanta-Cincinninati-Kansas City-Seattle. All of those frequent flyer miles earn them a 9-game homestand.

The final San Juan swing isn’t too bad. After the big homestand, they take their 1993 World Series tour through Toronto and Philadelphia before playing the final 10 games before the All-Star break in Puerto Rico. Of course, they play 20 games in a row and head to Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New York immediately following the break, but they’ll take what they can get — 24 of their first 98 games in Montreal and 3 trips into the Mountain or Pacific time zones.

At least this year, the entire second half will be San Juan-free — if the team manages to survive the rugged first half schedule, the hometown fans could see exciting baseball down the stretch for the first time in awhile. Last year they played just 6 games in Montreal in September, and by the time those game rolled around the Expos were basically out of it.

2) Did Livan Hernandez deserve the 2003 Cy Young Award? Can he do it again?

Livan was more valuable than Eric Gagne, but so were at least 5 or 6 other starters. Among them, it was close. I voted Hernandez 2nd last year, behind Mark Prior. But if I had to do it over again, I would probably vote for Livan, although it’s tough tell how distorted the park factor is. Figuring park factors normally, Montreal played as the best hitters environment in baseball last year, even better than Coors Field. This makes Hernandez’ 3.20 ERA quite impressive (an average pitcher in that context would have a 4.97 ERA).

Hernandez also led the league in the innings pitched with 233 — 22 more than anyone ahead of him in ERA+ (Prior was the closest with 211 IP). I believe either Hernandez or the recently-departed Javier Vazquez (3.24 ERA, 231 IP) was the most valuable pitcher in the NL last year.

As to whether or not he can do it again, normally I would say, “I doubt it.” However, Livan’s walk rate was down considerably, and his strikeouts skyrocketed. He wasn’t what you’d call “hit-lucky” either — his average allowed on balls in play was only slightly lower than in 2002. Hernandez simply had great command; he just pitched great in 2003. He’s flashed some of this greatness before. In both 1997 and 2000 he sustained it. For some reason, I think of him as being 35 years old or something, but he’s listed at just 29. If that figure is anywhere close to accurate, Livan is a lot younger than most people think.

Assuming he stays healthy (a big risk) I think he’s turned the corner and should be pretty effective, although he likely won’t be as good as he was in 2003. It appears the Expos do have a solid rotation anchor who they can count on for 33 starts and 220-230 innings and ERA+ between 115 and 145, which is more than a lot of teams can say they have.

3) What will the changes bring? Did les Expos come out ahead with their off-season moves?

Losing Guerrero and Vazquez is devastating. But adding Johnson, Rivera, and Carl Everett should help to offset it. The Yankee fan in me has absolutely fallen in love with Johnson over the last few years. Johnson hit .422/.472 last year — he is no longer a prospect; he’s a player. Per plate appearance Johnson nearly matched Vlad in Win Shares (14/406, 18/467) and Johnson spent 1/3 of his time as a DH, limiting his defensive value. He also hit .389/.437 (22% of his total AB) vs. lefties, showing that he’s not just a platoon player.

If healthy, Johnson is just behind Albert Pujols, Todd Helton and Jim Thome among NL first-sackers. He’s only 25, and likely to be the best non-Pujols 1B in the NL within a few years — if he stays in the lineup. It’s hard to believe, but if Johnson can stay healthy (a major if, which is why I’ve mentioned it in each of the last 3 sentences), you can almost call the Guerrero/Johnson “swap” a wash — with Guerrero’s back problems, it’s at least within the margin of error.

Johnson for Vazquez or Guerrero is reasonable, especially when you consider the salary implications. And while Carl Everett and Rivera don’t offset the loss of the other, they aren’t Doug Flynn either. (My thesaurus lists Flynn as a synonym for “chopped liver” so I went with it.) Everett posted a 124 OPS+ last year, but that was coming off two terrible years, and he’ll be 33 in June. Omar Minaya has no idea which Everett he’ll be getting. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d imagine it’s closer the 2001-02 version.

Rivera is a player that I like a lot; I’m glad he’ll finally get a chance to play. His major league numbers aren’t terrible — .302/.427 (93 OPS+) isn’t great, but it’s not like he has been overmatched, and it’s just 280 PA. He’s only struck out 37 times, so we know he can make contact. He hit .374/.461 in Columbus. Baseball Primer’s Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS projections show Rivera hitting .310/.358/.488 for Montreal this year, which would be great for the Expos. Defensively, he’ll be more than adequate in right field.

Overall, I’d say the Expos have about a one in three chance of winning the combined swaps outright, both short- and long-term. Basically, an injury to Guerrero and/or Vazquez would accomplish this. They might have a 1/3 shot at breaking even, too. If Vazquez turns out to be a Jimmy Key and not a Whitey Ford (see below), Johnson becomes one of the best 1B in baseball, and Rivera has a productive career, I’d call the deals (including the loss of Guerrero) even. But they also have a chance of getting crushed in the deals — if Vlad continues to be Vlad, Vazquez becomes Pedro or Ford, and Rivera flames out. Sean Forman has always said that we like to think of trades as 90/10 in terms of the odds of a team winning, but really, it’s more like 60/40 most of the time. I have to agree with Sean — this series of moves isn’t nearly as bad for the Expos as most think. If they keep Vidro, I think the Expos will be strong contenders for a playoff spot. In all likelihood, the moves cost the Expos 2-3 wins this year — wins that can be made up elsewhere. Even if they move Vidro (which is likely), they can be better off in the long run if things break right. For a team in their position, you can’t ask for much else.

Now if we could just get back Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee — all of which were exchanged for 17 Bartolo Colon starts in a hopeless pennant quest. Sigh.

4) How valuable was the commodity the Expos gave up in Javier Vazquez?

Vazquez was arguably the best pitcher in the National League last year, and he was just 26. His upside is Pedro Martinez, and in context their age 26 seasons are very similar.

         ERA+ SO  BB IP  HR
Pedro    160  251 67 234 26
Vazquez  153  241 57 231 28

I realize Pedro won the Cy Young Award in his age 25 season, and Vazquez had an ERA+ of 106. I’m not saying he’ll end up as Pedro Martinez, but it’s not impossible, and that’s saying something. I used Win Shares to find pitchers with a similar age 24-26 progression to Vazquez. I removed pitchers from the list who didn’t have a similar “up-down-up” ERA+, and who weren’t of the same quality Vazquez (the old-time pitchers who had similar WS but were pitching far fewer innings than their peers). The resulting comparables:

Bob Rush, 1950-52
Whitey Ford, 1953-55
Ernie Broglio, 1960-62
Juan Pizzaro, 1961-63
Jimmy Key, 1985-87
Brad Radke, 1999-97

Their ERA+ from age 24-26 was a composite 129-111-146; Vazquez’s numbers were 135-106-153. We all know about Ernie Broglio — I suppose this trade does have some possibility of being as great for the Expos as Brock/Broglio was for the Cards. Broglio had fired off ERA+ of 149, 107 and 142 and followed it up at age 27 with an 18-8, 119 ERA+ campaign. He was traded for Brock the following June. Broglio fell apart the next year, and he was out of baseball in 3 years (after going 10-24 for the Cubs).

Bob Rush was the Brad Radke of the 1950s — a pitcher who was pretty good early, but never progressed, though he still had a decent career. He and Radke even have the same initials… Juan Pizzaro had one more great year left in him and then he fell apart. Obviously, Key and Ford went on to have excellent careers.

The other interesting thing is that every one of the six had some major injury problem that led to them pitching less than 150 innings in at least one season sometime in the age 27-29 range. Of course, it’s likely that any list of pitchers will show a great percentage of them suffering injuries. Still, it’s a point in favor of the trade (from an actual baseball standpoint!) looking at the Expo perspective — dump him for a less-risky alternative while his trade value is high.

5) We all know he’s likely to be traded, with LA, Boston, and the Yankees likely destinations. Who should the Expos target as compensation for Jose Vidro? What should they be looking for?

Obviously, the Expos should sign Vidro medium-term. He’s 29 and he’s one of the a handful of baseball’s best second basemen. But it’s not the end of the world if they can get a decent return for him. He’ll be on the wrong side of 30 by September, and he’s missed an average of 19 games a year over the last five years. Second-basemen do not tend to age well.

If they are dealing with the Yankees, they should ask for catcher Dioner Navarro and pitcher Jorge DePaula. I think DePaula is major league-ready, and Navarro posted great numbers in A-ball (.364/.467) and AA (.388/.471) last year — numbers that are amazing for a 19-year old catcher. For perspective, in 2002 — in A-ball — Joe Mauer hit .393/.392, also as a 19-year old.

To be honest, I’d trade Vidro for Navarro and DePaula right now, wouldn’t even talk to anyone else, and I’d consider it a relatively good long-term baseball move on it’s own (though it would hurt them this season), but a great one considering that Vidro won’t be back next year anyway. The Yankees are desperate for a 2B, so I don’t see how they could pass this one up. As a fan of both teams, I see it as the type of deal you’d make if it were a fantasy league and you owned both teams or something — a classic win-win.

If the Yankees get tough, it makes sense to start talking to the Red Sox, even if it’s for nothing other than driving up the price. I’d ask for Kelly Shoppach and Hanley Ramirez. Shoppach, who turns 24 this month, is a solid catching prospect — he hit .353/.488 at AA last year. Ramirez’s status slipped a little last year, but he still held his own (.327/.403) in the Sally League as a 20-year old SS and is still a top prospect.

These are the types of deals the Expos should be looking for an A prospect and a B prospect, or at least two high B prospects preferably ones that play key defensive positions. Vidro is a very valuable commodity, even moreso when you consider the top two teams in the game – bitter rivals to boot – have pretty big holes at 2B.

The NL is a crapshoot. The Expos should be right in the thick of it. Robinson has done a great job resurrecting teams from the dead. See the 1982 Giants, the 1989 Orioles and the 2002-03 Expos. I’ll be shocked if this team isn’t competitive (at least .500) in 2004 – and if it wasn’t for the first half schedule, I’d see them as a borderline playoff team.

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