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Savvy Expos Spend Little But Win A Lot
By MURRAY CHASS
May 20, 2003
When he snatched Bartolo Colón from under the noses of wealthier teams last season, Montreal General Manager Omar Minaya was hailed for making perhaps the trade of the year. Well, he has done it again with Colón, this time in trading him away.
Minaya was forced to trade Colón and his $8.25 million salary last winter to reduce the Expos' payroll. He achieved his goal in a three-way deal with the Chicago White Sox and the Yankees.
One of the players he received in the swap, Orlando Hernández, has not pitched for the Expos and is expected to be on the disabled list most of the season. But the Expos' consolation is they are paying only $300,000 of Hernández's $4.1 million salary.
With Hernández, however, came another pitcher, and he has turned out to be the prize Minaya plucked from the White Sox. He is Rocky Biddle.
Unsuccessful as a starter in two seasons with the White Sox, Biddle has become the Expos' closer, and a fine one at that. His 12 saves in 14 opportunities have been instrumental in the Expos' position: second in the National League East to the redoubtable Atlanta Braves, third in the league in won-lost percentage and first in the wild-card race.
Biddle, who will celebrate his 27th birthday tomorrow, was not a closer and never had been a closer when the Expos acquired him Jan. 15.
"We knew he had a good arm," Minaya said yesterday. "Our reports had him as a guy who pitched well for the first couple of innings, then didn't pitch well after that. The reports said he had the makeup of a potential closer. He had an aggressive attitude, he was carefree and he was a hard worker. Just the name Rocky makes him a closer."
Minaya readily acknowledged that, when spring training began, the Expos didn't know if Biddle could assume the closer's role. What they did know was they needed a closer. That's where Manager Frank Robinson took over.
"Frank thought early on he could be a closer," Minaya said. "He said he was going to break him into it."
Closers often are created by need. The San Francisco Giants, for example, suddenly needed a closer when the season began because Robb Nen had a shoulder injury.
They threw Tim Worrell into the spot, and he has responded with 12 saves, which have helped the Giants take the N.L. West lead.
The right-handed Biddle has relieved in 23 games, and the Expos have won 19 of them. He has saves in five of the team's last six victories, including the first two victories of a three-game sweep of the Giants last week.
Biddle's earned run average, 4.07, isn't impressive. But if the five earned runs the Braves scored against him in an inning and a third a month ago are discounted, his E.R.A. would be 2.35.
Biddle has strengthened a pitching staff that is the primary reason the Expos are contending for a postseason spot. Their 3.47 E.R.A. is third lowest in the league.
Their payroll, according to the commissioner's office, is either the second lowest, if luxury-tax figures are used, or the fourth lowest, if only this year's salaries are used. In either case, the Mets' payroll is nearly three times the Expos', clearly demonstrating that the Expos have spent their money far more sagaciously than the Mets have.
The Expos, with Minaya at the helm the past two seasons, have made better trades. Biddle, for example, has done more for the Expos in seven weeks than Mo Vaughn has done for the Mets in a season and seven weeks.
The Expos are eight games ahead of the Mets in the N.L. East.
Aside from their ownership and place of doing business, the Expos have a brighter future than the Mets. While Minaya's future appears bright, the same cannot be said for Steve Phillips, the Mets' general manager.
Biddle isn't the only productive relief pitcher Minaya came up with last winter. He plucked Luis Ayala, a 25-year-old right-hander, from the Arizona organization in the minor league draft, and Ayala has a 4-1 record and a 3.48 E.R.A.
The Expos served notice in their first three games of the season that they would be a threat. They swept the Braves in that series and impressed the Atlanta manager, Bobby Cox.
Robinson has done an impressive managing job. At times last season, Robinson became fed up with some of his players and was ready to walk away. But the 67-year-old Robinson, whose last managerial position was with Baltimore in 1991, learned from his experience and this season has shown more of a willingness to adapt to younger players.
Robinson also knows the players better and has a better feel for what they can do.
The biggest problem the Expos may face is their upcoming monstrosity of a road trip. Beginning next Monday, they will spend 25 days away from Montreal, flying from Montreal to Florida to Philadelphia to Puerto Rico (their home away from home) to Seattle to Oakland to Pittsburgh.
In that 22-game stretch, the Expos will play, among others, Seattle, Oakland, Anaheim and Philadelphia. If they survive the trip, they can survive the wild-card race.