A three-judge panel yesterday cleared a legal path for the Expos to move to Washington by ruling against an attempt by the team's former owners to keep the franchise in Montreal.

The New York-based arbitration board rejected a claim by several Canadian investors, who charged that their former partner in the Expos, Jeffrey Loria, masterminded a conspiracy to devalue the club and remove it from Montreal.

The ruling allows MLB's owners to formally vote on the relocation at a meeting Thursday in Chicago. The move is expected to be approved overwhelmingly.

The arbitration ruling likely means that a federal suit filed by Loria's former limited partners -- a suit that sought to stop the move -- will be terminated.

"We are obviously unhappy with the decision," said Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the limited partners.

"We think it's wrong and we think it's a sad day for Expos baseball. It's obviously good news for baseball fans in Washington, D.C. I don't believe that we are going to have a basis to continue this fight. I have to consult with my clients, but this appears to be the end of the road."

Fourteen limited partners -- mostly Canadian companies -- sued, charging that Loria actively tried to devalue the franchise so that it would no longer be viable in Montreal. The arbitration panel, based in New York, concluded that Loria did not commit fraud.

MLB purchased the team from Loria for $120 million in a complicated three-way transaction in which Loria bought the Florida Marlins for $158 million and John Henry, the Marlins' former owner, purchased the Boston Red Sox. The Expos are now up for sale, though the bidding process, which began last month, remains in its early stages.

"Technically, this could have been a hurdle," Expos President Tony Tavares said. "In its worst-case scenario, it could have prevented the move. But I don't think anybody believed that was going to happen. For us, we just keep moving forward."

The ruling is one more step toward the team being able to concentrate on baseball -- something General Manager Jim Bowden and his staff have been doing since the general managers' meetings last week outside Miami.

According to an industry source, Bowden has targeted a pair of Minnesota Twins free agents -- third baseman Corey Koskie and shortstop Christian Guzman -- to potentially fill what he has identified as two of the team's most urgent needs. Bowden also has his eye on power-hitting third baseman Vinny Castilla of the Colorado Rockies in the early stages of the free agent signing period, a source said.

Bowden also has pulled an earlier offer the club made to its third baseman from last season, Tony Batista, who is also a free agent, a source said. Batista, who made $1.5 million in a one-year contract last season, had balked on a two-year offer worth slightly more than $3 million, the source said, so Bowden has turned his attention elsewhere -- for now.

Bowden, traveling from his home in California to the Expos' training facility in Viera, Fla., did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Koskie, 31, made $4.5 million in the final year of a four-year contract last season, and also is being pursued by the Toronto Blue Jays as well as the Twins, with whom he has spent his entire six-year major league career. Koskie hit .251 -- the lowest average of his career -- in 2004, with 25 home runs and 71 RBI.

In six full seasons with the Twins, Koskie hit .282 and averaged 17 homers and 73 RBI. He likely will come up well short of his 2004 salary.

Castilla, 37, is coming off a big offensive season with the Rockies, during which he hit 35 homers and drove in 131 runs. He was twice an all-star in the mid-1990s with the Rockies, and has 303 homers in 12 seasons.

Castilla turned down an option with the Rockies that would have paid him $2.1 million in '05, and is believed to be seeking at least $3 million.

Guzman, 26, is part of the deep pool of free agent shortstops. But unlike Edgar Renteria, Nomar Garciaparra and former Expo Orlando Cabrera, he might fit the Expos' limited budget.

The Twins declined an option on Guzman's contract that would have paid him $5.25 million in 2005, but would be interested in re-signing him at a lower price.

"We're just in the process of weighing all our options at this point," said Stan King, Guzman's agent.

"We've heard from at least five teams with strong interest. We'll see."

In six seasons with the Twins, Guzman hit .266. He is a switch hitter with very little power -- only once hitting as many as 10 homers -- but has vastly improved his defensive consistency. After averaging more than 22 errors in his first three seasons, he has averaged fewer than 12 the past three.