-- Jim Bowden, general manager of the Major League Baseball franchise scheduled to move to Washington next spring, said he made progress Wednesday in "setting the groundwork" for trades and possible free agent signings, but that nothing is imminent. Expos President Tony Tavares said he is continuing to work on a deal to put season tickets on sale, but an announcement was delayed again.
"It was a busy day," Bowden said, "but an unproductive day."
That could be said for the entire franchise, though Bowden is under less time pressure than his boss, Tavares. Teams cannot talk to free agents from other clubs about financial terms until Friday, and Bowden said he doesn't expect much to happen until everyone gets a sense of the market.
Still, the former general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, who has been on the job for a week, spent Wednesday meeting with the representatives for six free agents, as well as with officials from six teams, trying to get an idea of what players might be available, and what the Expos might have to offer in return.
Tavares, working out of his office in Washington, expressed frustration that a season-ticket plan has not been finalized. An announcement was scheduled for Wednesday and has been described as imminent for more than a week, but lawyers and MLB officials are fine-tuning the language in a contract with a ticket agency. Tavares badly wants to wrap up this deal so that he can move on to other projects, such as hiring staff and planning renovations to RFK Stadium. All this comes with the backdrop of the D.C. Council's vote on a new stadium plan -- a vote that was scheduled for Tuesday but delayed two weeks by Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp.
"Yes, we're working on it, and yes, it's frustrating," Tavares said by telephone of the delays with the ticket announcement.
More than 1,000 miles away, Bowden has expressed nothing but optimism about the Expos' position. The club is owned by the other 29 MLB franchises, and MLB officials still haven't told Bowden and Tavares how much they can spend on players. Two sources, however, said that MLB will almost certainly allow the Expos to spend more than $50 million -- and one said perhaps as much as $55 million -- which would be at least an $8.3 million increase over the team's payroll for the 2004 season.
Bowden has identified third base, shortstop and pitching as priorities. A source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because negotiations aren't allowed yet, said the Expos are likely to pursue shortstop Barry Larkin, who worked with Bowden in Cincinnati but will be 41 next April.
Bowden is known as a wheeler-dealer -- "I don't ever want to say that nothing will happen," he said -- but he expects far more activity at next month's winter meetings in Anaheim, Calif.
"The way the discussions are coming out, it seems that there's some more groundwork to do," he said. "There are other factors involved. There're a lot of free agents on the market right now, and I think that plays into it a lot.
"A lot of clubs say, 'Instead of trading someone, let's see if we can't sign someone on the free agent market, where we don't have to give up a player.' Those are the people who end up coming back to you. They say, 'If we can't sign the players we want, we'll come back and make this deal with you.' "
In 101/2 seasons in Cincinnati, Bowden made more than 100 trades. The Expos, who are up for sale, won't be able to pursue front-line free agents, such as Carlos Beltran of Houston or Adrian Beltre of Los Angeles. So Bowden said he is studying the rosters of other teams, not to mention their minor league systems, figuring out what trades might work.
"There are things we can do [through trades] that we can't do in the free agent market," he said. "That's one thing you know about a deal [with another team] -- you know the contract you're getting back. You know the player is signed, and for how long. Your cost is kind of fixed. In free agency, you don't know what the cost will be."
Several general managers and agents described Bowden as aggressive in his approach to meeting with clubs and pursuing players. Omar Minaya preceded Bowden as the general manager with the Expos before accepting the same position with the New York Mets. Minaya said Wednesday that the person in that position must pursue deals with other teams aggressively.
"In Montreal [and now Washington], when you don't have [money], you really need to think outside the box," Minaya said. "It's challenging. . . . If we wanted to survive, if we wanted to compete, we had to be aggressive."
Bowden said he will try to mix aggression with patience.
"The important thing is never timing," he said. "We don't even play 'til April. The important thing is to try to make a transaction where your team gets better and they get better."