Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Before becoming Nationals, they were Expos. Different nation. Different red, white, and blue. A decade has passed since the Expos left Montreal for Washington (play started in D.C. in 2005), but it took only eight years for the Nationals to equal the total playoff appearances of their former selves. For a franchise founded in 1969 and that has, at one time or another, played the youthful versions of Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Vladimir Guerrero, that’s not exactly easy to do. 1994 was something entirely different, however.
That team could have won it all.
After all these years, it’s a quaint notion to label the ’94 Expos a surprise. After all, these perennial cellar dwellers always lost. Since their one playoff appearance in ’81, the Expos finished 10 or more games out of first seven times, and post ’94, they finished 18 or more out nine times. So, yeah. We remember those Expos. In ’93, however, they’d won 94 games and finished 3 games back to the Philadelphia Phillies, the eventual World Series losers.
They had young talent in Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Delino DeShields, Moises Alou, and John Wetteland. Look at that list again. Take a moment to realize that these were players already playing at an All Star level and improving, not projections and potential. Also, you might notice that the only pitcher in that list is Wetteland. Partly, this is because I’m cherry picking. The Expos had Mel Rojas, Ken Hill, and a 31 year old Jeff Fassero. Those are quality arms. But, after ’93, the Expos lost their staff ace Dennis Martinez in free agency. So, doing what any budget conscious organization does, the Expos traded their All Star level second baseman, DeShields, to the Dodgers for a reliever turned starter with electrifying stuff and no idea how to use it: Pedro Martinez.
While not exactly a surprise team, the Expos weren’t on anybody’s short list of NL East favorites. One simple reason: the Atlanta Braves. Because of realignment, the team that had owned the NL West three years running (winning 94, 98, and 104 games respectively) was now in the NL East, which sort of makes sense, you know, geographically. While Tommy Lasorda and Dusty Baker were gleefully shuffling back and forth in shiny MC Hammer pants over not having to face Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine with a division on the line, every NL East team that dreamt of postseason play now had a floor of winning at least 95 games . . . for the wild card.
Thanks Bud Selig.
While a full account of that season is beyond the scope of this piece (for that, read Jonah Keri’s Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Expos), it’s fair to say that the odds were against the Expos winning the East in ’94.
In a baseball world dominated by the Braves (discounting ‘94, they won 14 straight division titles), an Expos East should be enough, but should we have expected more?
Any discussion about the Expos’ virtues begins with an outfield of Alou, Grissom, and Walker. Alou finished the year third in the NL MVP race with a slash line of .339/.397/.592 while Walker was his right field complement with .322/.394/.587 and Grissom did just about everything well: fielded centerfield brilliantly, got on base, stole bases, hit. Take Grissom, add in corner outfielders who sport OPS of .989 and .981, and you score lots of runs. Using Fangraph’s WAR, the trio accounted for 13.2 WAR, by far and away the best in the NL, and topped only by Cleveland’s outfield of Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Manny Ramirez.
The infield wasn’t nearly as dominant as the outfielders, but Will Cordero was having a great year and a young Cliff Floyd manned first, but here’s the thing: they didn’t need to be Astros Bagwell/Biggio dominant. The Expos were sixth in WAR with 20.6 for total offense (MLB, third in NL) and third in the Majors with 16.3 for total pitching (second in the NL). This team did everything well. As for NL playoff matchups, the Astros and Reds were better offensively but neither could come close to the pitching quality and depth, and only the Braves were better in the NL in pitching but were fifth in total offense, two spots back from the Expos.
The West? Better luck next year. That entire division was mediocre at best.
This is a two team race, and these two teams had played competitively against one another all season. The Expos were 5-4 against the Braves, having beaten Braves ace Greg Maddux twice already. While in the playoffs I find it difficult to believe any team defeats Maddux twice—he had an ERA+ of 271 for God’s sake—the remaining starters the Expos were likely to see Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz were league average that year. While the Expos didn’t have that one true ace to match up against a Maddux at his apex, collectively they were a better staff and leads tended to stay that way when handed over to Rojas and Wetteland. An argument could be made that Pedro would be exhausted by season’s end, having already pitched 37 more innings than in ‘93, but that Pedro was a work in progress anyway and not the postseason monster to come.
The shame in this conjecture is we have to do it at all. The players’ strike and subsequent lockout effectively killed baseball in Montreal. Instead of discussing the permanent northern relocation of the Commissioner’s Trophy (Toronto won the World Series in ’92 and ’93) we’re discussing the inevitable relocation of a doomed franchise.
Part three of the series will discuss how after twenty years, Matt Williams and the Nationals have a chance to make a different kind of history.