Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NL North - Part III

Montreal New face Manny Martin helps the Expos Win on a Dime

Look closely and you’ll see a big difference between the two-time division champion Milwaukee Brewers and the Montreal Expos.

Can’t see it? It’s 90 million dollars.

Yes, 90 million dollars is the difference between the payrolls of both clubs. In fact, Milwaukee has one player, starting pitcher Jason Drew, whose salary of $12 million per year almost exceeds the payroll for Montreal’s entire franchise, which is $12.2 million. One might look at that number and suspect the franchise is utterly void of talent, but they actually stand poised to win more games than they did last season and finish with a .500 record or better.

Montreal’s newly acquired All-Star centerfielder Manny Martin best represents why. Montreal has shrewdly traded away some expensive chips in their major league system to accumulate young talent. While Martin stands to earn just $385,000 this season – tops on the Expos payroll – he socked 44 homeruns last year while driving in 104 RBI for an injury-plagued Philadelphia franchise.

Let’s examine some of these moves. Last season, the Expos overhauled the right side of the field, making significant changes at right field, first base and second base. The moves paid off, especially for rookie Julio Guillen (.309/.378/.518) who was named an All-Star in his first season and earned Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger honors. This offseason, the team concentrated on overhauling the left side.

Shortstop Derrick Taylor (.261/.324/.350) left via free agency to St. Louis, taking his lackluster glove with him. Underpowered third baseman Luis Ethier (.272/.323/.405) was also allowed to depart. Montreal put a package of prospects together and shipped them several thousand miles away, to San Francisco, and in return received minor league shortstop Sammy Cruz and third baseman Hal Purcell. Cruz is an upgrade defensively at short and has enough of a bat to allow some of the Expos prospects to continue to marinate, while Purcell brings a large stick to third. His average and defense will be nothing to write home about, but he’s built more in the classic mold.

Fans should quickly forget All-Star Johnny Rose’s play at left field thanks to the promotion of slugger Cy Oliver. There should be no loss of swatting power from the corner and he should be noticed quickly for his power throughout the league. Rookie second baseman Che-Bang Shigetoshi brings a lead-off hitter type of bat to the lineup with good eye, decent contact and fine speed while defending his position well.

A rare type of trade was made with Philadelphia, in which the clubs flat out swapped major league position players: Montreal sends two-time All-Star catcher Felipe Melendez (.270/.351/.459) and a capable defender in centerfield in Anthony Roberts to Philly, and in return Montreal gets defensive catcher Will Lansing and All-Star centerfielder Manny Martin (.265/.329/.545).

The changes aren’t limited to the position players. The pitching staff will see a number of new young arms called up this year, including more-than-capable starting pitchers Bill Park and Jaime Kent, while Philip Priddy and Sawyer Cross should also expect to work their way onto the staff this year.

All of this young talent should improve upon a strong nucleus of players that performed well last year. The pitching staff last season finished with an ERA and a WHIP just a shade under the league average, while allowing 803 runs – 193 fewer than the previous season. On offense, the additions should improve the major statistical categories on a team that finished right around the league averages again, such as 22nd in Batting Average (.263), 17th in OBP (.333) and 21st in Slugging (.404).

dwb’s take: Montreal has set the table for the future while competing in the present. The infusion of young talent should propel the club to another improved record, but the young players face stiff competition from the talented Cubs and Brewers within their own division. That said, the Expos will contest for second place in the division with the Cubs.

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