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.
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."
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."
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 21/2 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."