Vladimir Guerrero's hard-earned anonymity -- cultivated through years of turned-down interview requests, homebody behavior and the good fortune of playing in a hockey town north of the border -- is almost over. The Montreal Expos' right fielder now sits at the fascinating intersection of franchise relocation, free agency and superstardom.
Where will he be playing next season? For that matter, where will the Expos? In Washington, fans salivate at the thought of Guerrero, universally viewed as one of the five best players in the game, anchoring the city's first major league team in more than 30 years. It could happen if the Expos are moved to the nation's capital.
But that is far from guaranteed. A growing school of thought in baseball now believes the Expos will remain in Montreal in 2004 and perhaps the following two years as well, the theory being that baseball's owners, who purchased the team for $120 million from Jeffrey Loria a year ago, will wait until contraction becomes an option again after the 2006 season.
But even if the Expos remain in Montreal, it doesn't mean Guerrero will.
He hits free agency after this season, and his departure could come even sooner if the Expos are out of contention by July, in which case the team might trade him in order to save a portion of his $11.5 million salary, rather than lose him to free agency a few months later.
These things are certain: If Guerrero hits free agency, he and Oakland A's shortstop Miguel Tejada could be the most sought-after targets since Alex Rodriguez. And if the Expos let Guerrero walk away, it would be a crushing blow to a franchise that has absorbed plenty of punches in the face the past few years.
"This organization can't afford to lose him," said center fielder Brad Wilkerson. "He is this organization."
In February, Expos General Manager Omar Minaya said talks with Guerrero for a contract extension were dead because Guerrero's agent, Fernando Cuza, made it clear Guerrero wanted to see what the free agent market would bring him.
However, the Expos now say they intend to re-open negotiations soon.
"Our goal is to get him signed long-term," said team president Tony Tavares. "There will be active talks going on. The player doesn't want to be involved, which I can understand. But we will actively seek to try and cut a deal [with his agent].
"I think if [Guerrero] hears the right number, and if he has confidence the majority of the team is staying together, I think we'll be all right. But I can't guarantee it."
Guerrero, per his usual policy, declined to be interviewed. However, in a rare interview with ESPN.com this spring, he said: "I've been here in this organization for 10 years. This team gave me the opportunity to play every day in the big leagues. The rest is my agent's job. I really want to stay [with the Expos]. But this is part of the business."
Can the Expos possibly hope to keep Guerrero, especially since the team is owned by the other 29 teams, who will not be particularly fond of the notion of giving a giant contract to a player who routinely beats their own teams?
"It depends on who the [new] owner is," Minaya said, when asked if the team can re-sign Guerrero. "If we get an owner who comes in and wants to give him a good deal, we could do it."
But despite MLB's desire to have an ownership group in place this summer, there is no guarantee the team will be sold at all. And baseball insiders estimate that Guerrero's market value could be $15 million to $20 million per season and that he probably will seek an eight- to 10-year deal.
Can the Expos really come up with $120 million-$200 million for Guerrero?
"Are we going to be able to pay over market value for him? Not a chance," Tavares said. "But we're not necessarily looking to pay under market either. If we can make a market-rate deal, I think there's a chance we can get him signed."
Tavares points out the Expos don't have much payroll committed beyond 2003. "That's by design because we thought we were out of business [via contraction] last year," he said. "But now, knowing we'll be in business through the '06 season, it kind of changes your view of things."
It stands to reason that the presence of Guerrero on the roster increases the Expos' value at a time when MLB is trying to drive the price higher. However, as Tavares points out, a long-term debt commitment in the form of a hefty contract for Guerrero reduces the value.
"Here's the quandary I face," Tavares said. "I have to strike a balance between how much money we annually lose [by paying a large salary to Guerrero], and keeping a value to the franchise for a potential sale."
Even for a franchise that is used to uncertainty -- a franchise that was supposed to have been axed last spring, a franchise that will play 22 "home" games this season in Puerto Rico in MLB's attempt to produce more ticket revenue -- the Guerrero situation is unsettling.
Last season, Minaya was able to pull off a midseason trade for ace right-hander Bartolo Colon through creative financial maneuvering. But this winter, facing a reduced payroll budget, Minaya was forced to trade Colon, the team's best pitcher.
No one in the organization wants to see the same fate befall Guerrero.
"He's a guy you can build a team around," Wilkerson said. "If this team doesn't do it, someone else will."