- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

The Montreal Expos stand last in the National League East with a 65-94 record, but that mark shouldn’t spell doom and gloom when the team moves to Washington for next season.

The Expos look like a team whose parts may be stronger than its sum, one that could be competitive again with new ownership and a fresh start in a city starved for baseball.

And a little work, that is.

“They need another stud and a frontline pitcher,” one National League scout said.

“They have some key players, and they have a chance to have a decent team if they keep them together,” said Tommy Hutton, a Florida Marlins analyst. “They have had to deal with losing too many guys, but they still have some solid ballplayers. They were competitive whenever I saw them play.”

While it’s tempting to ponder all the players Montreal either traded away or let leave, there’s at least one familiar face, a former World Series MVP and one of baseball’s most anonymous stars for fans to root for in Washington next year:

Infield

Nick Johnson, who came over from the New York Yankees in the Javier Vazquez trade, is a solid if slightly untested first baseman. Johnson was one of the Yankees’ top prospects, a better-than-average defensive first baseman who showed some power last season, when he hit .284 with 14 home runs and 47 RBI.

Injuries, including a recent broken cheekbone, have limited Johnson, 26, this season.

“Nick Johnson, when he is healthy, is an on-base machine and has some power,” said Mitch Melnick, a sports talk show host in Montreal who also served as a radio analyst for many Expos games at Olympic Stadium.

The Expos’ best player is second baseman Jose Vidro, and unlike many players who rose to prominence with the Expos, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Superstar Vladimir Guerrero left during the offseason via free agency, but Vidro didn’t, agreeing to a four-year, $30 million contract extension earlier this season. However, Vidro also has been hurt, sidelined for the last month of the season with tendinitis in his right knee.

Over his eight-year career, Vidro, 30, has hit for average and a bit of power. His best year came in 2000, when he batted .331 with 24 home runs and 97 RBI. Two years ago, he batted .315 with 19 home runs and 96 RBI.

“Vidro is an outstanding player, an All-Star [three times],” said former major leaguer Tom Paciorek, a color analyst for the Atlanta Braves. “His numbers were pretty good, and he played hurt for a good part of the season before he shut it down.”

Orlando Cabrera began the year as Vidro’s double-play partner, but the Gold Glove shortstop, who was coming off a career year in 2003 and would have been eligible for free agency at the end of this season, was sent to the Boston Red Sox at the trading deadline in a four-team deal. The Expos got Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez — who was then traded two weeks ago to the San Diego Padres — pitching prospect Francis Beltran and infielder Brendan Harris. Since then, the Expos have been getting by with Macier Izturis, a 24-year-old rookie acquired from Cleveland last winter who has shown little at the plate so far.

The familiar face — at least for area baseball fans — starts at third base: Tony Batista. Those who remember him from his stint with the Orioles will see little change. He still hits for power — he has a team-leading 32 home runs and 110 RBI. But he strikes out a bunch, doesn’t get on base often and doesn’t have a lot of range at third base. He will be a free agent after the season.

Outfield

The Expos have an emerging star in 27-year-old Brad Wilkerson, an outfielder who has been filling in for Johnson at first base. Wilkerson, second on the team with 31 home runs, has scored 110 runs and walked 104 times.

“Brad Wilkerson swings the bat pretty good,” Paciorek said. “He has some potential to be a strong power hitter.”

Juan Rivera, a former Yankees prospect who came to the Expos in the same trade as Johnson, has mostly been in right field. In his first full major league season, the 26-year-old has hit .299 with 24 doubles, 11 home runs, and 47 RBI.

Endy Chavez, who leads the team with 32 stolen bases but doesn’t get on base much, has received most of the starts in center.

With Wilkerson playing a lot at first, 27-year-old Terrmel Sledge has filled in in left. He hit .324 with 22 home runs and 92 RBI with Class AAA Edmonton last year and has put up decent power numbers as a rookie.

Catcher

Behind the plate, the Expos are solid with Brian Schneider, 27, who has a decent bat. He went 166 games without an error before he made one in Chicago three weeks ago.

“Brian Schneider has turned into a pretty good catcher,” Hutton said.

Rotation

Pitching has been the Expos’ greatest shortcoming. Livan Hernandez, the 1997 World Series MVP, has been a workhorse. He signed a contract extension earlier this year through 2007 and finished 15-10 with Montreal last year. While Hernandez’s record won’t be quite so impressive this year, the reported 30-year-old has a 3.63 ERA and shows no sign of slowing down, leading the NL with 248 innings and nine complete games.

After that, the rotation gets shaky. Among a group of young but often-injured pitchers, 26-year-old Zach Day has shown the most promise, going 9-8 last year with a 4.18 ERA in 23 starts. Day has a 3.93 ERA this year despite tendinitis in his pitching shoulder and a broken right middle finger.

Tony Armas Jr., 26, has yet to reach his potential since his major league debut in 2000. In between flashes of brilliance, he has been erratic, with a 32-41 record in five seasons. A series of physical problems may keep him from being a frontline pitcher. He missed most of last season because of rotator cuff surgery and did not return until June.

Tomo Ohka, 28, posted a 13-8 record with a 3.18 ERA for the Expos two years ago but went 10-12 with a 4.16 last year. He has a 3.40 ERA this year but missed three months because of a broken right arm.

John Patterson, 26, was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks before the season has struggled with a 4.88 ERA. He also spent a while on the disabled list this season with a strained right groin.

Sun Woo Kim, 27, made 42 appearances and started 16 games with an ERA of 4.51. The only left-handed starter, Scott Downs, has a 5.37 ERA.

Bullpen

Chad Cordero, the team’s first-round pick last year, took over the closing duties at midseason. The franchise’s likely long-term relief ace, Cordero has 13 saves and a 3.00 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 81 innings.

Joe Horgan has pitched well since returning from back surgery for bone spurs in March, going 4-1 with a 3.32 ERA. Right-hander Luis Ayala, a former Rule V pick, has been a cheap-but-solid reliever the last two seasons. Beltran, part of the haul in the Cabrera deal, is a promising prospect who was expendable because of the Cubs’ ample supply of young arms.

Jon Rauch, a 6-foot-11 righty picked up from the Chicago White Sox this summer in the Carl Everett deal, could slide into the rotation next season. Gary Majewski, also acquired in the Everett trade, is likely to settle into a career as a middle reliever.

Former closer Rocky Biddle, who had 34 saves last year, saw his ERA balloon from 4.65 to 6.92 and ended up a part-time starter in the second half this year. His season ended a week ago because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Minor leagues

There’s little depth here and not much ready to step up from a once-proud farm system. The Expos honored their minor league players of the year this week — outfielder Ryan Church (.343 average, 17 home runs, 78 RBI in 98 games for Class AAA Edmonton) and left-handed pitcher Michael Hinckley (11-4, 2.77 ERA in 26 starts at Class AA and Class A). But the system that once produced Guerrero, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom has fallen on hard times.

“The farm system is just average at best now,” a National League scout said. “They were able to keep up when they were losing all those great players to free agency because they were getting draft choices for compensation, two at a time for some of them. But in the past few years they stopped getting those draft choices. They didn’t have the big free agents leaving that they used to and were forced to trade a number of players before they reached free agency, so they didn’t have to go through arbitration.”

And maybe now that the Expos are coming to Washington, maybe that grand exodus can be reversed.

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