- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

The next three days will go a long way toward determining whether the Montreal Expos will be a buyer, seller or a window shopper in this year’s baseball trade market.

With the July 31 trade deadline looming and the Expos (53-50) standing in sixth place in the National League wild card chase, big decisions await. Do the Expos, owned by Major League Baseball, go after another player to accelerate a postseason push, a move that almost certainly would require the team to ask MLB executives for a budget increase? Do they begin to trade off players that will be eligible for either free agency or are poised for big raises after this season, including star outfielder Vladimir Guerrero?

Either way, the ramifications are huge. Though the odds are now getting long, MLB still wants to find a new home for the Expos by the 2004 season. And to reap the high-end sales price for the franchise that baseball covets, the Expos will need to remain at least close to the scrappy, competitive, pitching-rich team that now exists.

Complicating the issue further is that since the Expos’ home city or cities, owner and tentative budget for 2004 all remain uncertain, making any deals with long-term economic impact is particularly complex.

“We’re still sitting on the fence right now. We still don’t know whether we’re a buyer or a seller. But this weekend series against Atlanta will really tell us a lot,” Expos president Tony Tavares said. “Two things right now are certain. First, we’re not in a position to give up a lot of minor league players. We gave up seven last summer [in trades], and our best talent right now is still at the single-A level. Second, we’re insisting on getting back full value in any trade. Right now, we’re listening to offers, but nothing has blown us away.”

The Expos are playing host to the NL East-leading Braves for a four-game series. Atlanta had won six of the first 10 games between the two before Montreal’s 9-8 win last night.

As has been the case for nearly two years under the leadership of Tavares, general manager Omar Minaya and manager Frank Robinson, the Expos continue to perform small miracles in their aggrieved position. The club’s payroll, most recently tallied at $45.8million, is the second lowest in baseball, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And this season’s unusual split home schedule, complete with 22 games in Puerto Rico, required the Expos to embark on a 25-day road trip in May and June spanning from Seattle to San Juan and covering more than 11,000 miles.

The Expos are operating as an independent franchise, or as close to that as possible, meaning any significant deviation from their budget requires approval from MLB’s central office but not other team owners. The other 29 teams also have no say in Montreal’s personnel matters.

Trades, however, still require the unusual, and some say chronically conflicted, situation of making deals with other teams that are at once competitors and owners of the Expos.

Last season, the Expos engineered a flurry of midseason trades that brought in pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielder Cliff Floyd. When the anticipated bump in the pennant race did not materialize, Minaya quickly turned from buyer to seller and moved Floyd to Boston for two pitchers.

And just a month ago, Minaya almost landed slugger Juan Gonzalez before the two-time American League MVP exercised a no-trade clause. Even with that deal scuttled, Robinson has made his wish known for another bat to improve the team’s .399 slugging average, good for just 12th in the NL.

The Guerrero situation in particular promises to be one of the most-watched stories in baseball over the next several months. As many fans already know, Guerrero’s rare blend of speed and power already has made him just one of five players in history to post a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored in five straight seasons.

Those lofty numbers have not materialized this season. A herniated disc in his back has forced him to miss 48 games and much of the recent marathon road trip that diminished the Expos’ postseason chances.

But with his prodigious talents when healthy already on record, his salary of $11.5million actually does not match other players of his caliber, and he certainly will command premier offers from high-revenue teams this winter.

Even with their uncertain state and Guerrero’s preference to play on natural grass — unlike stadiums in both Montreal and San Juan — the Expos still are pursuing a new deal with the Dominican star. The team acknowledges that without a certain future for the club in place, early conversations to date have been hamstrung.

“It is still our intention to sign him to a long-term contract,” Tavares said.

Guerrero’s agent, Fernando Cuza, said firm discussions on the outfielder’s future remain “premature.”

Local baseball advocates are watching the Expos’ situation with particular interest as the trade deadline approaches.

“The Expos have an outstanding management team, and I have no doubt they will do what’s right for the organization,” prospective team owner William Collins said. “We certainly hope they convince Vladimir to re-sign with the club and do so on the promise of a bright future in Virginia.”

Tavares said he has not received any hint from MLB executives on the team’s status for 2004. Most industry insiders expect baseball to return the Expos next season to Puerto Rico, where promoters are seeking as much as the team’s full home schedule. The players union, however, is not interested in a split schedule that would replicate this season’s slate.

“[MLB executives] haven’t given up on doing something permanent for 2004, but the clock is ticking on that very, very rapidly,” Tavares said. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone really knows yet, including them, what the answer is going to be. But sooner or later we’re going to start dealing with the structure for 2004. We can all get frustrated with [the lack of an answer], but we have a job to do.”

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