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Without a New Owner, Expos Sit in Limbo

Until Team Is Sold, Making Moves on and off the Field Are Difficult; Top Priority Is Hiring a GM

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page D05

Somewhere in the whirlwind of logistics surrounding the Montreal Expos' move to Washington for the 2005 season lies the following reality: The Expos are a baseball team that, for now, has baseball on the back burner. They are without a general manager. Their field manager and coaching staff are in limbo. They have one free agent they would like to re-sign. They have arbitration cases to prepare. They have a team to reassemble.

"We're moving on that part, too," Expos President Tony Tavares said yesterday. "We have conversations about those issues all the time."

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Since arriving in Washington last week, Tavares has spent most of his time on issues such as choosing a means to sell tickets and preparing RFK Stadium for its first baseball season since 1971. The first issue for the baseball side of things, Tavares said, is to hire a general manager, who will in turn have a significant say in whether Manager Frank Robinson and his staff come back for another season. Omar Minaya served as the club's GM from 2002 until last month, when he left for the same job with the New York Mets.

One interested party is Pat Gillick, the former GM in Toronto, Baltimore and most recently Seattle. Gillick said yesterday that he had not been contacted by the Expos, but that he would like a crack at being a general manager again, despite the fact that he stepped away from his post with the Mariners last fall.

"I'm still enthusiastic," Gillick said in a telephone interview. "I'm still competitive. I like a challenge. I like trying to build something. They've got a few players left there that you could build around. It'd be fun getting it up and running there."

Tavares said Gillick is "certainly a competent, capable guy" but said it was too early to say whether he would be an official candidate. Because the Expos are currently owned by the other 29 major league clubs, Tavares must consult with the MLB officials before making a hire. The situation is odd because any candidate must understand the potentially temporary nature of the assignment. Once the club is sold -- a process that began this week -- the new owners could completely overhaul the front office.

Tavares said he is having "internal discussions" with other club officials about potential GM candidates and reiterated that an announcement should be made shortly after the conclusion of the World Series, which will end no later than Oct. 31.

Gillick, who lives in Toronto, said he kept an eye on the Expos this season. He said he was disappointed that the club dealt star shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Boston Red Sox before a new owner -- one who might have had the resources to re-sign him -- could be found.

"He's a nice player, and you wish he was still an Expo as opposed to being a Red Sox," Gillick said. "But with the way things had to run there, with him being a free agent [at the end of the season], they had to move him. Middle infielders are nice pieces to have. I was hoping they'd have [the move to D.C.] finalized earlier so they wouldn't have had to trade guys."

Tavares said he spoke with Robinson, who went 233-253 in three seasons with the club, earlier this week and asked him "to be patient with this process." But members of the Expos' coaching staff said the indecision is putting a strain on their offseason.

"It absolutely causes stress, especially the later it gets," bench coach Eddie Rodriguez said by phone yesterday. "Obviously, jobs get filled in a hurry. Other organizations don't know whether you're available, and they make moves depending on what their needs are. You're kind of out there waiting."

Rodriguez said Robinson told the coaching staff, including hitting coach Tom McCraw and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, that they would return if Robinson was back as manager. Third base coach Manny Acta is one of eight candidates to be manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Before he hires a general manager, Tavares has assistant general manager Tony Siegle working on other baseball matters, including trying to re-sign third baseman Tony Batista, who hit .241 with 32 home runs and 110 RBI in his first season with the Expos, his best since a 41-homer, 114-RBI season with Toronto in 2000. Batista earned $1.5 million from a one-year deal last year. Players aren't allowed to file for free agency until after the World Series.

"He had a good offensive year in a lot of ways, and a year that was slightly deficient in other offensive ways," Siegle said. "He was excellent as a third baseman, a good guy to have on the club."

The Expos did not pick up the option on the contract of backup catcher Einar Diaz, but Diaz could still return. Siegle is also preparing the club for potential arbitration cases with players such as pitchers Tony Armas Jr., Joey Eichern and Tomo Ohka, as well as catcher Brian Scheider and first baseman-outfielder Brad Wilkerson. Siegle and Tavares said they are hopeful they can sign some of those players to new deals without going to arbitration.

The Expos' payroll, which was $41.2 million in 2004, could climb when a new owner comes on board. But until then, the club will operate on a tighter budget, Siegle said, and will be unable to pursue marquee free agents such as Houston outfielder Carlos Beltran.

"Let's face it," Siegle said. "We're not that type of club right now. We have to think realistically."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company