The meetings of Major League Baseball's general managers officially open today in Key Biscayne, Fla., though Jim Bowden -- the GM of the franchise that is supposed to depart Montreal for Washington -- arrived yesterday and has already begun maneuvering. His message for the Expos and their potential new fan base in Washington: Despite the uncertainty and political upheaval surrounding the move, he is pushing ahead with the objective of assembling a competitive team.
"We're going to be as aggressive as we can," Bowden said yesterday. "We're operating as if the payroll will be increased from last year, and we intend -- through trades and free agency -- to make improvements."
The task, Bowden and Expos President Tony Tavares stress, is completely separate from MLB's attempts to move the Expos to the District, attempts that have come across complications in the last several days. Unmoved by such developments, Bowden, who was hired last week, made his first move yesterday, when the club released closer Rocky Biddle.
Biddle, 28, saved 34 games for the Expos in 2003, his first season in Montreal, but struggled last summer. He went 4-8 with a 6.92 ERA, which cost him his job as a closer. Biddle, who saved 11 games in 15 opportunities before making nine starts, is eligible for arbitration. In five major league seasons, Biddle is 20-30 with a 5.47 ERA and 46 saves in 62 opportunities.
"I thought there might be more value for the money," Bowden said.
The loss of Biddle could give Bowden, the former general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, yet another position to fill. Chad Cordero finished the 2004 season as the closer and converted 14 saves in 18 opportunities with a 2.94 ERA, but there is still some sentiment among club officials that Cordero, a 22-year-old right-hander from Cal State Fullerton, needs more experience before handling the job full time. Bowden noted that the Reds won the 1990 World Series with a trio of relievers -- Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers, known as the "Nasty Boys" -- and said he likely will pursue help for Cordero as well.
"I'm not comfortable, ever, with having enough pitching," Bowden said. "I don't think you ever have enough. When you're in a small or middle market, you're not going to be able to have $10 [to] $15 million soaked into each starting pitcher. We have to have depth in the bullpen."
Typically, trade activity at the general managers' meetings -- which come just before clubs can sign free agents, a period that begins Friday -- is slow. But Bowden, who made more than 100 trades in more than 10 years with the Reds, has a reputation for being unafraid to pull the trigger on deals.
"He moves fast," Tavares said. "Don't be surprised if he's making moves down there."
Bowden, though, is limited by the Expos' budget. The team is owned by the other 29 major league clubs, and Bowden still hasn't received his allotted payroll for 2005 from baseball officials, who are caught up in the maneuvering of the club into Washington.
"At the moment, we are on track and Tony Tavares is proceeding to operate on the assumption that there will be an Opening Day at RFK in April of 2005," said John McHale, Jr., baseball's executive vice president-administration.
The sale of the team has started in small steps, with several bidders filling out applications to officially apply. Baseball would like the team to be sold for at least $300 million, and is charging $100,000 per application.
With the D.C. Council set to vote on Mayor Anthony A. Williams's proposed stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront today, and with D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp's stunning alternative proposal casting doubt on the vote, the Expos are, nonetheless, preparing to announce their plan to sell season tickets today. A club spokesman said that regardless of the Council vote, fans should have phone numbers and Web sites through which to purchase tickets available this morning. More than two-thirds of District residents oppose using public funds to build a baseball stadium in the city. (Story, Page A1)
Bowden is preparing as well. Teams can begin negotiating with other teams' free agents on Friday, the last day of the GM meetings. Bowden said the agent for the Expos' lone free agent of significance, third baseman Tony Batista, made a proposal to the team last Friday, but the sides aren't close to reaching an agreement.
"At this point, we're far apart," Bowden said.
Bowden said his other offseason goals are to find some power for the middle of the lineup and figuring out who will play shortstop; former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera was traded to Boston in July. Replacement Maicer Izturis began his career at second base and hit just .206 in 32 games in 2004.
Despite the obvious needs, Bowden wouldn't put odds on whether the team will make deals this week.
"We hope to at least build a foundation of working on things this week," he said. "We're going to work on the process. My experience is sometimes you can make a deal in four hours, sometimes it takes three days, and sometimes it can take a month. At least we can assess where we are and get discussions going. That's the goal, and that's what we've already started doing."