They have made do without much, squeezing together a roster of players nobody wanted. But the bigger issue hovering over the franchise that used to be the Expos is survival.
Survival of the organization.
Survival of everybody's jobs.
That's why it was impossible to build anything long-term around this team. The executives were too busy trying to make their mark, showing that they deserved a chance at running their own team, that they could be big league executives. And there was little time to have much patience. The loser was the farm system.
Omar Minaya did big things as the Expos general manager in their final years in Montreal. In many ways, he kept the franchise alive and he filled the roster with many players who would become the nucleus of the Washington Nationals. But in that desperation to win quick, he gave a lot away as well.
A lot has been made of the Expos who left the chaos, the stars who couldn't wait to get out of Canada or who grew too big for Montreal to afford. This is how Vladimir Guerrero and Orlando Cabrera were lost. Yet there is also a different group of young players who didn't necessarily want to leave, who could have been the framework of something even bigger than what is going on right now.
Yes, the Nationals have managed to hang in the pennant race this far, but as the cracks start to show, imagine how good they could be with an outfield of Jason Bay, Grady Sizemore and Jose Guillen. Or imagine a rotation with Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza, John Patterson, Carl Pavano and Cliff Lee. Instead of working Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero to near exhaustion, picture Guillermo Mota trotting in to pitch the eighth. Maybe drop Texas's nine-game winner Chris Young in somewhere as a spot starter.
The race in National League East could be over right now.
Bay realizes he was a low priority for the Expos three winters ago. He was a rising outfielder in the organization but Minaya was a new general manager, he didn't know the farm system and didn't have time to learn. Now the Pirates' all-star outfielder, Bay said he thinks Minaya needed to make moves and since he had good numbers in the Montreal farm system, he was attractive to several other teams.
And in the winter before the 2002 season, he was traded to San Diego for Lou Collier, a journeyman backup infielder who hit .091 in 13 games for the Expos last year. Bay, is of course, hitting .291 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI.
Grady Sizemore was a prized Expos draft pick in 2000, shocking many in the baseball and college football worlds when he turned down a chance to play quarterback for his hometown Washington Huskies to play minor league baseball for an organization perpetually on the brink. Two years later, he was shipped off, along with Lee, to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon in a trade that gave Montreal some instant credibility. Alas, Colon turned out to only be a half-year player with the Expos and was traded the next winter to Chicago for three players no longer with the team.
Meanwhile, Sizemore has blossomed into one of the bright young outfield stars in the majors, hitting .279 with nine home runs, 43 RBI and 11 stolen bases. And he makes just $318,000.
Pavano came to Montreal in the trade for Pedro Martinez and showed enormous promise, going 8-4 with a 3.06 ERA in 2000. But he regressed the next two years and when the Expos -- thinking they were in the 2002 pennant race had a chance to get Cliff Floyd, they quickly dumped Pavano to Florida for Floyd and Claudio Vargas.
Of course Vargas is a whole different story in Nationals lore.
Mota was a bright prospect who threw 100 mph, but the Expos had their eye on Matt Herges, a more polished reliever for the Dodgers so they made a deal not long before the 2002 season. Mota thrived in Los Angeles while Herges has drifted.
Lee, the other half of the Colon trade, is now 10-4 with a 3.88 ERA for the Indians.
Young was acquired for Herges, so it would have been impossible for the Nationals to have both he and Mota. But his Montreal tenure didn't last long as he was dumped two years ago for backup catcher Einar Diaz. Young has now grown into a big winner for Texas with a 8-5 record and a 3.95 ERA.
And for a cost-conscious team like this one, the group of Bay, Sizemore, Lee and Young is being paid a total of $1.4 million this year. Mota is making just $2.6 million and while Pavano signed an enormous contract with the Yankees this offseason and might not have been a part of what the Nationals are building, he was making less than $4 million (a bargain for a top starter) as recently as last season.
Sure every organization has players like this, the ones who were dumped off that everybody regrets losing. But for an organization like Washington's, where savvy matters more than anything else, a lot of holes could be filled right now.