Thursday, September 30, 2004

MONTREAL — The Montreal Expos franchise that will move to Washington is a shell of the organization that was long known for player development and just two years ago competed for the National League wild card.

The new owner of the Expos will be purchasing a team with serious problems:

• The Expos rank last in their division, the NL East.

• The roster is populated by a few talented players mixed with many others of minor league caliber.

• The farm system is ordinary.

• The player development department suffers low morale because of low budgets and the defection of many top scouts.

• The club’s spring training complex is located in a rural section of Florida that was abandoned by the Expos’ former owners and turned down by several other clubs.

Yet this is a major league club, one that soon will be competing in Washington. That means the Expos, despite their many and obvious flaws, likely will command a stunning sale price — perhaps as much as $300million for a franchise that Forbes Magazine recently valued at $108million.

Of the franchises in the four major sports — NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL — only four NHL teams were valued at less than the Expos.

If the move had occurred two years ago, Washington fans would have received a competitive team led by superstar Vladimir Guerrero.

The departure of Guerrero after last season — he signed a five-year, $70million deal with the Anaheim Angels — was the final blow to a franchise that was occasionally competitive and consistently developed stars.

“They are not the same team without Guerrero,” one National League scout said. “They are missing that one big star to build around and carry the team.”

Guerrero batted .323 with 234 home runs and 702 RBI over eight seasons. But the Expos have a $37million payroll this season — less than a quarter of the New York Yankees’ payroll — and Guerrero was a luxury they could not afford.

They also were forced to trade young pitcher Javier Vazquez, who went 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA and 241 strikeouts last year, to the Yankees because salary arbitration soon would have rendered him too costly as well.

Expos president Tony Tavares and general manager Omar Minaya had little choice in Guerrero’s case.

MLB and its 29 club owners also owned the Expos and set its budget for players — one of the most bizarre and questionable business relationships in the history of the game.

Three years ago, in a three-way franchise swap, Expos owner Jeffrey Loria sold the club to his fellow baseball owners for $120million and then purchased the Florida Marlins for $158million. That allowed Marlins owner John Henry to join a group that purchased the Boston Red Sox (in a deal that included Fenway Park and the New England Sports Network) for $700million.

The Expos were competitive under the arrangement for two seasons, finishing each with a record of 83-79. But this year it caught up to them.

Mitch Melnick, a radio analyst for Expos games at Olympic Stadium, said the team’s lack of depth was exposed when players were injured.

“What they need are experienced backup guys, and they would have that if they could have a larger payroll,” he said. “You have to pay more for experienced guys on the bench than Class AAA guys.”

Still, there are a number of solid players on the roster that could bring excitement to RFK Stadium in April.

Jose Vidro, who will be 30 on Opening Day, is considered one of the game’s elite second basemen. He is a career .300 hitter with 101 home runs and 471 RBI over eight seasons.

Outfielder Brad Wilkerson, 27, has emerged as one of the better young power hitters in the league, slamming 31 home runs. Former Orioles third baseman Tony Batista has 32 home runs and 110 RBI. First-year starter Brian Schneider is an outstanding defensive catcher.

Livan Hernandez has been a workhorse on the staff, making 33 starts with nine complete games, an 11-15 record and a 3.63 ERA.

In years past, the Expos had a steady supply of young talent replenishing the players they would lose because of rising salaries. But the pipeline slowed significantly after the bizarre franchise swap that resulted in Loria confiscating computers and scouting files and luring Expos personnel to the Marlins.

“A lot of the guys left, and files and documents were taken, scouting reports were taken,” Melnick said. “They have been playing catch-up the last couple of years, and it is not nearly the system that it used to be.”

Montreal used to share a state-of-the-art spring training facility with the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. But Loria demanded to keep the Jupiter site for the Marlins, sending the Expos north to the Marlins’ old spring training location near Melbourne.

In all, Washington is getting a bargain-basement baseball team with a farm system on the ropes. But it is far more than what Washington fans have had since the Senators left after the 1971 season.

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