Expos' dilemma: United or divided

The Expos can control their home destiny next season. Unfortunately for the players, serious issues remain.

Originally Published: September 11, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Expos Rumblings
It's hard to believe it's the second week of September, and we still don't know where the Montreal Expos will be playing next year. Or the year after that, for that matter. All we know is where they won't be playing.

Expos Fans
The players aren't the only ones hoping for another season in Montreal.

They won't be playing any games next season in Washington, Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, Southern Virginia, West Virginia, Virginia Beach or Virginia Woolf's back yard. That, we've figured out.

But where will they be playing? Only the Expos' players can decide that. Their problem is that baseball is trying to "convince" them to play another season just like this one: 59 or 60 games in Montreal, the other 21 or 22 games in San Juan, or possibly Monterrey, Mexico.

The strategy for convincing them is to suggest that if they say no to that split schedule, MLB will have no choice but to slash the payroll. So the implicit message is: "Want to keep this team together? Better do it our way. Or else."

But if that's the actual message, this situation could get messier than ever -- as if anybody thought that was possible.

Asked if he thought MLB was trying to strong-arm Expos players, the Players Association's associate general counsel, Gene Orza replied: "That isn't my sense. But they'll have the opportunity to prove me right or wrong. And if, in fact, they prove me wrong and they're essentially trying to blackmail these players, that will be an ill-advised strategy on their part."

According to sources close to a number of these players, the Expos aren't as inclined to buy MLB's promise of higher payroll this time around as they were a year ago, for obvious reasons. They've played out a travel nightmare of a schedule. They were denied permission to add payroll to stay in contention. And MLB even balked at allowing them any September call-ups, who get paid in the neighborhood of $50,000 apiece.

It's now this team's preference to play all 81 games in Montreal, where they've gone 36-17 this year. There may be more revenues out there if they play that split schedule. But there also is massive skepticism that MLB can afford to let this club jettison Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez, Orlando Cabrera, etc., when the team is still for sale.

"Why would anyone," Orza wondered, "be interested in buying a team for the same price as it was interested in paying earlier, if the team were gutted? So if they believe (avoiding payroll-cutting) will be motivation for the Montreal players to adjust their stance, they'll be seriously mistaken."

Expos players met four times in six days in San Juan to try to hash this out, and still haven't made a decision. Their next move is to meet with Orza and union officials in the next week or so, while asking for more concrete answers than MLB has given them so far. And this insane story just gets nuttier and nuttier.

Barry Bonds Rumblings

  • Anybody who thinks there's any chance teams will let Barry Bonds dominate them in the playoffs will change his mind after reading this note.

    Bonds
    Bonds

    Jeff Fletcher, of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, has kept track of what the Giants have done this season following Bonds' intentional walks. And the facts say it all:

  • After Bonds' 56 intentional walks, the Giants who have come to the plate next are a combined 8-for-48 (.167), with eight walks and only 12 RBI. They actually started the season 0-for-21, going hitless until June 10. Worst of the bunch: Jose Cruz Jr. (0-for-15). Best of the bunch: Edgardo Alfonzo (3-for-10, with two walks and three RBI.)

  • In those 56 innings in which Bonds has been intentionally walked, the Giants have scored afterward only 19 times (41 total runs). They've been slightly better lately, scoring after 10 of his last 22 since July 5 (26 runs).

  • Bonds has been intentionally walked with the bases empty five times (four with two outs, once with one out). The Giants haven't scored following any of them.

  • Of the 17 times Bonds has come to bat with men on second and third, he has been pitched to once. The Dodgers let Kazuhisa Ishii face him June 23, with Andres Galarraga on deck. Bonds flew out to end the inning.

    All of which just proves the wisdom of one advance scout's report to his team on how to pitch to Bonds.

    "How do you pitch to Barry?" Oakland's Bob Johnson chuckled recently. "I just draw a picture of a little hand, with four fingers up. That's how."

    Padres Rumblings

  • It's amazing how many people think the biggest offseason lock in baseball is Greg Maddux winding up in San Diego. But it's far from a done deal. It's hard to see the Padres allowing Scott Boras to dictate one of those classic Boras three- or four-year contracts at $10 million a year for a guy who turns 38 next April and has averaged only 83 pitches a start. Great as Maddux is, if those are the conditions, we'd bet he'll be pitching somewhere other than San Diego.

    Maddux
    Maddux

    All GM Kevin Towers has said is that he's looking for a veteran starter "to mentor a young staff." The Padres think Jake Peavy and/or Adam Eaton have No. 1 starter potential, but they want a more experienced pitcher to front the rotation for a couple of years until those two arrive. That sure sounds like Maddux. But many GMs expect the trade market to be very active this winter. So Towers will have other options.

  • With Brian Giles on board, the top of the Padres' lineup (Sean Burroughs, Mark Loretta and Giles) is as patient as any 1-2-3 hitters anywhere. Then come right-left thumpers Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko in the middle. But the one last lineup piece the Padres are most determined to acquire this winter is a catcher.

    Brad Ausmus has told friends he would love to return to San Diego if the Astros don't bring him back. But Towers appears to be looking for offense. So while Javy Lopez and Pudge Rodriguez would certainly be on the menu, the most likely scenario still involves the Padres and Pirates reviving their deal for Jason Kendall, if they can work out how much of Kendall's contract the Pirates are willing to pay.

  • You've gotta love Rod Beck. Besides being a great story on the mound (20 saves, 0 blown saves, a 1.55 ERA), he remains one of the classic pieces of work in sports.

    Last week, he left the lights on in his Pontiac Sunbird (with the license plate 9ISMINE) during a game. So when he left the park, his battery was dead. He wandered up to some tailgaters to ask for a jump, then wound up hanging out in the parking lot with them for the next five hours. Tremendous.

    Phillies Rumblings

  • The Phillies continue to express optimism about re-signing Kevin Millwood. But rumblings continue to surface that Millwood is increasingly inclined to look around, particularly if Larry Bowa is back as the manager in Philadelphia. And Boras, Millwood's agent, continues to float signs that he expects the bidding to top Chan Ho Park dollars (five years, $65 million).

    TIEBREAKER RUMBLINGS
    You may have heard the news this week that baseball finally revamped its tiebreaker rules this year. Wrong, Players Association's associate general counsel Gene Orza says. Those rules actually were changed last year, after being agreed to during the labor negotiations.

    Whatever, the new rules make much more sense from a competitive standpoint -- but could easily cause a logistical postseason nightmare. Here's why:

    Suppose the Cubs, Astros and Dodgers all finish this season with the same record -- but the Cubs and Astros are tied for first in the NL Central, while the Dodgers have the best record in the wild-card free-for-all. Under the old rules, it would have been the Dodgers who were guaranteed a playoff spot, not the teams that tied for first.

    The Cubs and Astros would have played off for first place in the Central. That game, in keeping with tradition, would have counted in the standings. So the loser would have been eliminated, because the Dodgers would have been a half-game ahead of it in the standings.

    Now, however, it wouldn't work that way. Under the new rules, the Cubs and Astros would play on the Monday after the season for the division. Then the loser would get a second chance and play the Dodgers on Tuesday.

    On a philosophical basis, if you believe there should be some premium on finishing in first place, that makes sense. But imagine the practical side of that scenario.

    The Astros finish the season on a Sunday in Houston. Depending on coin flips, they then could face this itinerary: Fly to Chicago and lose to the Cubs in Chicago on Monday. Then fly to Los Angeles and beat the Dodgers on Tuesday. Then fly to Atlanta and play the Braves in the playoffs Wednesday. Then jump on a plane back to Houston after the game Thursday.

    Meanwhile, both NL Division Series are supposed to open on Tuesday. Instead, one would have to be pushed back a day. Which then pushes back the rest of the series a day. Which pushes back the NLCS. Which could slam into the World Series and mean no Saturday night game to open the Series. And boy, would that get nutty, after all of Bud Selig's talk about how impossible it is to get World Series hotel rooms on short notice.

    And don't even ask what happens if the Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, Marlins and Phillies all finish with the same record. Baseball doesn't even have a plan for that one. They would need a special meeting to figure it out.

    "It's all well and good to decide these things on the field," Orza said. "But everyone needs to be aware that doing that can clash with practicality on occasion. And people have to understand that. You can't decide everything on the field, or some year the World Series will be played in December."

    Another byproduct of this change is this bit of illogic: Everything about that Cubs-Astros game would count in the regular-season statistics, but not in the regular-season standings. Same with the game against the Dodgers the next day. On the other hand, if there is a tie for the division -- but no tie with a third club for the wild card -- the playoff game does count in the standings. Only in baseball.

    But one of the big questions teams will have to ponder, as they did with Park, is whether he's a true No. 1 starter.

    "We rank pitchers on a scale from 2 to 8," says one NL scout. "And for me, Millwood is a 7. That means he's a No. 1 for some teams, but not for all teams. If he's a 7, he's a pretty damn good starter, but he's not the cream of the crop. Teams can do a lot worse than him, believe me. But is he a dominating guy? It depends on the start."

    Asked for an example of an 8-rated pitcher, the scout names Eric Gagne, John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, Roy Halladay, Mark Prior and Pedro Martinez "when he's right." To be an 8, in other words, you need to be a dominator pretty much every time out. Millwood isn't that.

    Oh, he'll be able to afford that new microwave after he signs his next contract. But if he's looking for monster money, he might be disappointed.

  • The Phillies and Bowa continue to downplay reports that most of his players don't like playing for him. But GMs, scouts and agents all over the game continue to buzz about it.

    "It's obvious to me," says one GM, "that that club is not playing for Larry Bowa right now. They're playing for themselves."

    And a scout who ran into some Phillies players on the road says he "wouldn't refute anything" in Tyler Houston's account of Bowa's relationship with his team.

    Phillies GM Ed Wade insists that Houston is "not a good resource of information" because he's speaking as a guy who had just been released. Wade also says that suggestions of a player revolt against Bowa following his Montreal tirade are "overblown." But whether it was the tirade or the players' meeting that followed, the Phillies clearly refocused afterward.

    "I just think that some of our issues which had been lingering behind the scenes were brought out," Wade says. "People are now talking to each other in a dialog that should have been ongoing. And we're a better club for it."

    Marlins Rumblings

  • When people start discussing the impact of the wild card, they often forget its potential impact can reverberate beyond the standings. The existence of the wild card saved baseball -- and got a ballpark built -- in Seattle. It changed the face of the franchise in Anaheim. Now there are folks in the Marlins' organization rolling the dice that the same thing can happen in Florida.

    The Marlins gave up two legitimate prospects (Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Snare) to get Ugueth Urbina from Texas. Then, when Mike Lowell got hurt, they gave up another (Double-A flameballer Denny Bautista) to get Jeff Conine.

    But they're hoping the payoff is more than just a wild-card date with the Giants. What this team needs is a ballpark. And their only hope to get one is to make the playoffs, reignite baseball interest and then not unload most of the team the next winter, the way Wayne Huizenga did last time around.

  • The Marlins will be dealing this winter, though. Before they made the Conine deal, they reworked his contract to trade his $4.75-million salary for next year and a $4.75-million option (or $250,000 buyout) for 2005 for guaranteed salaries of $3 million in both 2004 and 2005.

    What that means is that they have no choice to deal one of their veteran bats -- Derrick Lee, Juan Encarnacion or Lowell -- to open a position for Conine over the next two years.

    It seems very unlikely they'll trade Lowell now, not after they held a press conference in midseason to announce they were keeping him for the rest of this year. So the most logical scenario is trading Lee, installing Conine at first for two years and grooming prospect Jason Stokes to take over first in 2006.

    Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • When the Red Sox won the Jeff Suppan sweepstakes at the trade deadline, it looked like Theo Epstein's finest hour. But seven outings into his Red Sox career, Suppan has a 5.67 ERA. And clubs that have spoken with Epstein report that before the Aug. 31 roster-setting deadline, the Red Sox were quietly calling around to see if teams that were interested in him in July wanted to deal for him in August.

    "It just goes to show you how easy it is to make a bad deal at the deadline, based on one game," says one NL executive. "Suppan went into St. Louis and shut them out, with all those scouts there. And give the guy credit. He was great. But that's one reason we're always cautious around the deadline about making a deal just to make one. It's too easy to make a mistake."

  • It's now turning out that the best pitcher available at the deadline who wasn't traded was (surprise) Pat Hentgen. Since the weekend before the All-Star break, Hentgen is 5-2 for the Orioles, with two more wins blown by his bullpen, a 2.85 ERA and nine quality starts in 11 starts. Eight of those outings came against the A's, Red Sox, Twins, Yankees and Mariners.

    "He's a warrior," says one AL scout. "His fastball is a little better now. It's up to 88-89 (mph), and that's all he needs, because his pitchability is awesome."

  • And allow us to join the chorus suggesting that of all the trades that were made before the July deadline, the one that's had the most impact on its team was Shannon Stewart's addition in Minnesota. Bobby Kielty will help Toronto over the long haul, but Stewart "is the guy who turned his club around," says one scout. "He's done for Minnesota what Ray Durham did for Oakland last year."

    The Twins were five games under .500 when Stewart arrived the day after the All-Star break. Through Wednesday, they were 33-19 since. In his first 48 games as a Twin, he had a multihit game in half of them -- and batted .341, with 34 runs scored. The only AL leadoff man with more runs scored than Stewart since the break is (surprise) the Royals' Aaron Guiel (with 35).

  • Speaking of leadoff men, is there any more astonishing statistic all season than Ichiro Suzuki going 15 for his last 89?

    "He's swinging at pitches I've never seen him swing at," says one scout. "He's expanding the zone like you can't believe. And the more you see them, the more it obvious it is he's their MVP, not Bret Boone. Ichiro keys that club. He just does so much. Besides what he gives them at the plate, he turns more doubles into singles than any outfielder in baseball. He just dominates out there."

  • Eric Gagne may have been the most dominant closer in baseball this year, but it's possible he hasn't been the most dominant closer in the second half. Anybody checked out Billy Wagner's numbers lately?

    From July 1 through Wednesday, Wagner pitched 31 innings, allowed 13 hits and only 20 baserunners, gave up exactly one run (on a meaningless solo homer by Reds rookie Ryan Freel), had a 0.29 ERA, whiffed 40 and went 19-for-19 in save opportunities. Whew.

    "He's starting guys with sliders now, and it's been devastating," says one scout. "He's got this little slider he throws at about 90 miles an hour. It looks like a fastball, but then it goes down around the ankles, and guys can't lay off it."

    Injury of the week
    Twins second baseman Luis Rivas has missed the entire series with the White Sox after straining his back Saturday -- by picking up his 7-month-old son.

    Their hair was perfect
    Finally, the death of the great Warren Zevon this week inspired loyal reader Maxwell Kates to remind us all that Zevon is one rock star who had a direct impact on professional baseball.

    The old London, Ontario team in the Frontier League was known as (what else?) the London Werewolves, in honor of the Zevon classic, "Werewolves of London."

    Triviality
    Question: Among pitchers with at least eight wins a season, Greg Maddux will almost certainly have his 16th straight season at .500 or better this year. But Tom Glavine, who had the second-longest streak among active pitchers (12), won't extend that streak this year. So can you name the three pitchers who will move into the No. 2 spot, now that all are guaranteed their ninth straight season of .500 or better?

    Answer: Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettitte and Al Leiter. (For those guessing Pedro Martinez, his seven-win season in 2001 eliminated him. And Randy Johnson, whose own streak will almost certainly end this year, won just five games in 1996.)

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Jayson Stark | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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