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Play Ball!

Move to Washington Could Make Expos More Competitive

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page D01

MONTREAL -- It's Opening Day 2005. The stands are full at RFK Stadium. The new staff ace, signed as a free agent over the winter, is on the mound for the home team. The new slugger, also a free agent signee, patrols his patch of green grass. A substantial increase in payroll, made possible by the promise of skyrocketing revenues in the team's new home, has added depth to the bullpen and bench. And the lineup is full of young core players on the verge of stardom.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2005 Washington Unnamed-as-yets.

Everything must go: Souvenir dolls of the Expos mascot Youppi! await purchase this week during Montreal's final homestand. (Christinne Muschi -- Reuters)

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They look much like the 2004 Montreal Expos, but potentially much better.

Three years of operating as wards of the state -- owned by Major League Baseball, abandoned by most fans in Montreal, saddled with a bare-bones budget -- have left Washington's new team with the look and feel of an expansion team. Its core players are young. Its veterans are mostly cheap and have been rejected by other teams.

The franchise also is likely to remain under the control of MLB at least through the offseason and perhaps into the 2005 season, as the league goes through the process of selling the team.

That means team president Tony Tavares will have his contract extended and remain in control of the day-to-day operation of the franchise, with the majority of the Montreal front office also being retained. In all likelihood, it also means the team initially will be called the Washington Expos, leaving the privilege of renaming the team to its new owners.

Omar Minaya's announcement this week that he was leaving the Expos to return to the New York Mets as head of their baseball operations leaves the team without a general manager. According to league sources, former Baltimore Orioles general manager Pat Gillick has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Minaya.

Manager Frank Robinson has expressed a desire to return to the dugout next season, but his status is unclear. Tavares said talks with Robinson -- both men have contracts that expire after this season -- would wait until after the season.

As a Hall of Fame former player, Robinson commands respect in the clubhouse; however, according to team sources, he and Tavares have clashed over Robinson's past efforts to go over Tavares's head and negotiate his own contract extensions with Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig.

"Would I like to be manager of this team next year? Absolutely," Robinson said. "I like what we've done here and what we still can do. We're not very far away from something very exciting to happen to this ballclub."

Under the management team of Tavares, Minaya and Robinson, the Expos were remarkably successful the last three seasons, given their sometimes debilitating circumstances. Despite having one of baseball's lowest payrolls, the Expos posted winning records in 2002 and 2003, but are 65-94 this season.

"What you're getting is a team that's young and talented," Minaya said. "There is a good nucleus of good veterans and good, young players. The nucleus is very strong. Now it's just a matter of building around it."

The Expos' operating budgets the last few seasons were based on low revenue projections, with attendance at Montreal's Olympic Stadium averaging around 10,000. There is every reason to believe next season's payroll will be significantly higher in anticipation of burgeoning revenue, which would allow the front office to compete for top talent this winter.

"What I would ask for," Tavares said, "is an increase in payroll that is somewhat in line with the increase in revenue. I think it's important, in a new marketplace, to get off to a running start. It's not my call to make, but if you look at it, the increase in revenue should put the team in position to expand its payroll and be even more competitive."

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