The 2002 Expos: A Tale of When Going All in Backfired

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OTH has previously covered the 2001 MLB contraction plan and how the Minnesota Twins made the 2002 American League Championship Series after avoiding this fate. The Twins had a largely unchanged roster from the 2001 season but won the AL Central thanks to big-time performances from their returners. The other team that was set to get eliminated from the league was the Montreal Expos, a club that had previous ownership issues and was sold to Major League Baseball before the contraction plan was stopped. The Expos still were not guaranteed to play beyond the 2002 season, and they made a number of moves in a last-ditch effort to try to make the playoffs.

Leadup: 2001-02 Offseason

The Expos ended 2001 with a 68-94 record, finishing in last place in the NL East. It was the team’s fifth consecutive losing season and their fourth straight with at least 94 losses. They had some promise offensively with young studs Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro blossoming into All-Stars while shortstop Orlando Cabrera was a Gold Glover and made considerable strides with the bat. 24-year-old righty Javier Vazquez broke out with an excellent campaign and looked as if he was the team’s ace of the future.

Other than those players though, the Expos didn’t have much to get excited about. They scored the third-fewest runs in the NL and their 4.68 team ERA was fourth-worst in the league. In July of 2001, Montreal traded closer Ugeth Urbina, who had been one of the few bright spots during this rough stretch, to the Red Sox. In return, the Expos received young pitchers Rich Rundles and Tomo Ohka, the latter of whom was expected to be a part of Montreal’s rotation.

The Expos made a flurry of moves in February and March of 2002. They started with a minor move, claiming speedy outfielder Endy Chavez off waivers from the Mets, adding some much-needed depth. Desperate for offense though, the Expos signed slugging first baseman Andres Galarraga, bringing the 41-year-old back to his original organization. The five-time All-Star had shown signs of age in 2001, but he’d finished the year strong after the Giants picked him up in late July. Galarraga was set to battle with Lee Stevens for the team’s starting first baseman job.

Montreal third baseman Geoff Blum was dealt to the Astros for infielder Chris Truby, clearing a spot in the lineup for Fernando Tatis. The Expos also traded outfielder Wilkin Ruan and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Dodgers for infielder Jorge Nuñez and right-handed pitcher Matt Herges. Mota had a rough 2001 season, but Herges had a solid year for the Dodgers and was expected to be one of Montreal’s primary relief options.

A few days after the Mota trade, the Expos picked up former Red Sox outfielder Troy O’Leary to play left field. While O’Leary had two disappointing seasons in 2000 and 2001, he hit 28 homers and drove in 103 runs in 1999. With top prospect Brad Wilkerson expected to join O’Leary and Guerrero, it was reasonable to expect big things from Montreal’s outfield. Vazquez was set to lead the starting rotation followed by Tony Armas, Ohka, Masato Yoshii, and Carl Pavano. Scott Strickland finished the ’01 season as the team’s closer, but his role wasn’t secure with Herges, Graeme Lloyd, and Scott Stewart all expected to challenge for it. The team also had a new manager, with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson set to replace Jeff Torborg at the helm.

More Moves, Up and Down Results

The Expos opened their season with an exciting comeback win against the Marlins, overcoming a 6-1 eighth-inning deficit with three runs in the eighth and three more in the ninth. A few days later, the Expos made another trade, sending Strickland along with southpaw Phil Seibel and outfielder Matt Watson to the Mets for pitchers Bruce Chen and Dicky Gonzalez, along with infielder Luis Figueroa. After starting out just 6-7, Montreal won 10 of their last 13 games in April, including a six-game winning streak from April 19-24. They finished the month tied with the Mets for the division lead, with the offense averaging 5.5 runs per game.

The Expos won their first game in May, but things quickly went south. The Expos lost their next six games and then lost five more in a row from May 13-17. By the end of the month, the Expos were just 27-27 while the Braves began to round into form and took over first place. There were some positives from this rough month though. Vazquez continued to pitch well and Guerrero and Vidro continued to produce at a high level. O’Leary came out of the gates strong after getting activated in the middle of the month and Stewart began to settle in as the closer after Herges and Lloyd struggled. The Expos also brought back former All-Star Wil Cordero in the middle of the month, who contributed nicely as a bench bat.

Big Summer Trades

The Expos continued to scuffle at the beginning of June, dropping to 31-33 after dropping a game with the Tigers on June 11. After that, Montreal rattled off an eight-game winning streak, with both the offense and the pitching firing on all cylinders. As the month drew to a close though, the Braves continued to distance themselves from the rest of the division. With the Wild Card still in sight, Expos GM Omar Minaya decided to make a splash. On June 27, the Expos traded Stevens and three prospects to Cleveland for ace starter Bartolo Colon and reliever Tim Drew.

The Expos continued to play well entering the All-Star break, finishing the first half with a 46-40 record. On the first day of the second half, the Expos made another blockbuster trade, bringing back some old friends in the process. They sent Lloyd, Pavano, Justin Wayne, and Mike Mordecai to the Marlins for righty Claudio Vargas, infielder Wilton Guerrero, and 2001 All-Star outfielder Cliff Floyd. Floyd was in the midst of another strong season, having hit 21 homers with a .912 OPS through 84 games. With O’Leary cooling down and Galarraga producing middling numbers, Floyd was expected to provide the Expos with another formidable bat for the middle of their lineup.

Second-Half Slowdown

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Expos came crashing down to earth, losing 11 of their first 14 games and falling below .500. By July 30, the Expos had fallen 15 games back of the Braves for the division lead and continued to trail the Giants for the Wild Card spot. Colon was still producing at a high level, but Floyd was struggling, going just 11-for-53 with three homers and a .678 OPS. Just 19 days after they brought him back, the Expos sent Floyd to the Red Sox in exchange for righties Seung Song and Sun-Woo Kim.

The Expos continued to scuffle in August and the gap between them and the playoff contenders continued to widen. After a 13-16 month, the Expos fell to 19.5 games back of the Braves while the Giants and Astros both caught fire, dropping Montreal 10 games back of the Wild Card spot. The Expos finished strong in September, winning 11 of their last 14 games, but by then it was too late. Montreal finished the season 83-79, good for second place in the NL East by 19 games and 12 games back of the Giants. Wilkerson finished second in Rookie of the Year voting while Guerrero finished fourth in MVP voting.

Aftermath: Trades Backfire

Between his time in Cleveland and Montreal, Colon had the best season of his career. He went 20-8 with a 2.93 ERA/3.72 FIP (147 ERA+) and a 1.239 WHIP in 233.1 innings while leading MLB with eight complete games. With Colon set to hit free agency after the 2003 season though, the Expos weren’t going to have the budget to retain him. In January of 2003, the Expos traded Colon to the White Sox for pitchers Rocky Biddle and Orlando Hernandez, and utility man Jeff Liefer. Biddle went on to pitch in two seasons with the Expos, turning in a 5.83 ERA, while Liefer was waived after a subpar two months in Montreal. Hernandez suffered a rotator cuff injury and never threw a pitch for the Expos.

Meanwhile, the package of prospects that the Expos sent to Cleveland to acquire Colon included Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips. By 2005, Lee and Sizemore were two of the best players on Cleveland’s roster and helped them reach the ALCS in 2007. Sizemore put up four straight 20-20 seasons (including a 30-30 season) and was a three-time All-Star, putting up 24.6 rWAR and finishing as high as 10th in MVP voting. Lee finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2005 and established himself as the ace of the staff in 2008 when he won the Cy Young award. While Phillips didn’t blossom with Cleveland, he turned into a four-time Gold Glover and three-time All-Star after getting traded to the Reds. This trade is frequently looked back at as one of the worst trades of the 21st century.

The players the Expos sent for 19 days of Cliff Floyd found ways to succeed as well. In Florida, Pavano and Mordecai both helped the Marlins win the World Series in 2003. While Mordecai’s regular-season numbers weren’t super special, he knocked a three-run double to cap off a seven-run rally in game 6 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Pavano dominated all postseason long, allowing just three runs in 19.1 innings. In game 4 of the World Series, Pavano held the Yankees to just one run over eight innings with no walks and four strikeouts.

On the other hand, Wilton Guerrero struggled in 44 games with the Expos before getting released in October of 2002. Vargas pitched parts of three seasons with Montreal, posting a subpar 5.03 ERA/5.75 FIP (90 ERA+) in 245 innings.

The Expos didn’t end up getting contracted but after two more seasons of having the worst attendance numbers in the NL, they were relocated to Washington D.C. ahead of the 2005 season. The Washington/Montreal franchise wouldn’t see postseason baseball until 2012, by which point no members of the 2002 team were still on the roster.

main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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Mathias is a graduate student at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He is currently studying Broadcast and Digital Journalism on the Sports Media and Communications track. He graduated from The College of New Jersey in 2021, where he studied journalism and served as the Sports Editor and Opinions Editor for the school's newspaper, The Signal. He joined Overtime Heroics as a writer in June of 2019 and became an editor in December of 2020 before taking over the MLB department in June of 2021. Mathias is also a former varsity swimmer and is the youngest of five kids.