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Play Ball!

The Expos' 2004 payroll was about $38 million at the end of the season. Factoring in raises that some players will receive, it could go up to around $45 million if all players are retained. However, Tavares said it was not unreasonable to expect a payroll of more than $50 million next season in Washington.

"If you could make two significant additions to this team, you could change the entire complexion," Tavares said. "Those would be a bopper who is truly a number four hitter, and a pitcher who can reliably give you 200 innings."

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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Had circumstances been different, the Washington team might already have those two pieces in right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and ace right-hander Javier Vazquez.

Instead, Guerrero was allowed to walk away via free agency after last season when the team could no longer afford him, while Vazquez was traded to the New York Yankees in a salary dump. Among other players who were traded away during Minaya's tenure were right-hander Carl Pavano and shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

The Expos' current nucleus thus consists of players such as 27-year-old outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson, who broke through with 31 homers this season; 26-year-old first baseman Nick Johnson, a product of the New York Yankees' farm system who had an injury-marred 2004 season; 27-year-old outfielder Terrmel Sledge, who is second in the league among rookies in home runs; 30-year-old second baseman Jose Vidro, who signed a four-year, $30 million extension with the team in May; and 29-year-old pitcher Livan Hernandez, who is among the league leaders in innings, strikeouts and complete games. Vidro and Johnson are both on the 60-day disabled list. Vidro missed all of September after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He is expected to rehab the knee for three more months and be ready for spring training. Johnson has been out since August with a broken cheekbone and is also expected to be ready for the spring.

Barring trades, all will be with the team for some time: Hernandez is signed through 2007, Vidro through 2008. Wilkerson and Johnson are eligible for arbitration, along with pitchers Tomo Ohka and Tony Armas Jr. and catcher Brian Schneider.

Veteran third baseman Tony Batista has put up huge numbers this season (including 32 homers and 110 RBI through Tuesday) for a relatively small salary of $1.5 million, and Tavares confirmed the team is in negotiations with him on a contract extension for next season.

There is very little immediate help in the Expos' farm system, which has finished dead last in baseball in aggregate record the past two seasons -- 300-386 (or a winning percentage of .437) in 2003, and 288-392 (.424) this season. Prior to the 2004 season, Baseball America ranked the Expos' farm system 30th out of 30 teams.

Although that farm system has produced major league-ready prospects for the Expos this year -- including outfielder Ryan Church and shortstop Maicer Izturis, both of whom Minaya acquired from Cleveland in January in a trade for veteran reliever Scott Stewart -- it has had just as many setbacks, including reconstructive elbow surgery for top pitching prospect Clint Everts this month.

"I can't see them becoming a contender for at least two more years, given what's in their farm system," said Jim Callis, the executive editor of Baseball America. "Their farm system was pretty bad coming into the year, but through trades and a good draft -- well, it's not awful anymore, but it's definitely in the bottom half in the game.

"The problem is, you don't have anyone with the upside of a Vazquez or a Guerrero. What they have to do is rebuild a couple more years. But the good thing is, whoever takes over can put some money into the organization."

When the Tavares-Minaya-Robinson management team took over prior to the 2002 season, it was with the understanding that the Expos would be contracted following the season, a reality that, as Minaya acknowledged, shaped his strategy that season.

In July 2002, for instance, when the Expos were within striking distance of the playoffs, Minaya made a bold move, giving up three top prospects -- left-hander Cliff Lee, outfielder Grady Sizemore and shortstop Brandon Phillips -- to the Cleveland Indians for Bartolo Colon. A week later, Minaya sent a package of young players, including Pavano, to Florida for Cliff Floyd. Both deals featured creative structures that allowed the Expos to avoid adding payroll.

But the deals failed to produce the desired results. Although Colon won 10 games for the Expos over 2 1/2 months, Floyd had problems with the artificial turf at Olympic Stadium and the team faltered down the stretch. Minaya eventually traded both Colon and Floyd for less in return than what he gave up in the first place.

"No other GM could have done what he did," said Cabrera, the Expos' primary shortstop from 1998 until Minaya traded him to Boston this July. "Any other GM would have been waiting for something to happen. Omar didn't wait. He tried to do something. Nobody can blame him for nothing. He made it a winning team for two years. People look at those trades and say he gave up all these [young] players. But you have to go for it when you have a chance."

Last season's run for playoff contention lasted even longer, as the Expos were leading the wild-card race as late as Aug. 29. However, in a move that drew howls of protests from Expos players, Minaya was denied permission by MLB to call up minor leaguers as reinforcements in September -- when teams are allowed to expand their rosters -- because of the team's financial constraints.

"One thing you know about this team," said Sledge, the rookie outfielder, "is that we can overcome some adversity."

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