Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Summer of 2002 for the Montreal Expos (and the 2011 Pirates)

In the summer of 2002, then Montreal Expos GM Omar Minaya was trying to not only keep his job, but save a franchise. The Expos haven’t been to the playoffs in 11 years and did not have a winning record since 1996. The worst was when they were 74-40 and in first place of the NL East before player strike canceled the rest of the season and any shot of the Expos making a World Series run. Ownership was trying to sell the team, and rumors of the Expos moving to Washington seemed to look more realistic. So when Minaya’s team was 5 games back of the wild card in the last week of June and a team with young but talented players (Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, Fernando Tatis, and Vladimir Guerrero were all 27 years old) he knew he would need a top tier pitcher to solidify the rotation.

A then 29 year old Cleveland pitcher Bartolo Colon had a 10-4 record with an impressive 2.55 ERA, but was pitching on a last place team. The Indians made it very clear that they were willing to trade away their top pitcher, but in return was looking for top prospects. Minaya spent the low years of the Expos into rebuilding their farm system so that one day the Expos can rid their demons from years past, and hopefully last as a franchise. The trade goes through, with pitcher Tim Drew (Older Brothers of JD and Stephen Drew) and Colon going to Montreal shipping 4 prospects over to Cleveland. Although Colon pitched well (10-4, 3.31 ERA in 17 starts), the Expos were not able to over take the Braves during their 14 year dominance of the NL East and missed out on the playoffs for a 12 straight years.

While the Expos knew they might have made their last run for a championship, the Indians had some nice pieces to work around from the trade. Along with first baseman Lee Stevens the Indians received future all stars Grady Sizemore (3 Time All-Star, 2 Time Gold Glove), Brandon Phillips (2 Time All-Star and Gold Gloves) and Cliff Lee (3 Time All-Star, 2008 Cy Young Award). The Expos during the offseason traded Colon to the White Sox for pitchers Rocky Biddle and Orlando Hernandez & first baseman Jeff Liefer to clear their high payroll. 2 years later, the franchise known as the Washington Nationals (Natinals on somedays…) came to being and Montreal was without a baseball team.

With the MLB Trading deadline 4 days away, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington might have found himself in the same position as Omar Minaya was in 9 years ago. The rich history of the Pirates dates back to 1891, winning 5 world championships during that time and having arguably one of the greatest decades of any professional franchises during the 1970s.

But with the Pirates only 1 game back of the NL Central Leading Cardinals this late in the season, the city of Pittsburg is buzzing with Pirate Fever. For the die hard fans that haven’t even seen an over .500 record since Barry Bonds (in his final season as a Pirate) and the 1992 Pirates lost game 7 of the NLCS to the Braves, have been waiting for a year like this.

When the question comes if the Pirates should go out and make a trade for an established veteran bat like Carlos Beltran for what would only be a ½ a season rental, it has many comparisons to the 2002 Expos. Both had fan bases that haven’t seen a playoff game in many years, both were young teams that would need a veteran starter and both stock piled good young prospects in their farm system. But with the Pirates exceeding anybody’s pre season expectations, are their fans just going to be ok with a .500 record, or do they feel like they need to make the playoffs now? It wasn’t too long ago that frustrated Pirates fans participated in a walk out of their own team to show the front office that they were unhappy with how the team was being run.

As the deadline looms on, the ghosts of Omar Minaya circa 2002 watches over Neal Huntington like an angel and devil on his shoulders. On one side, he tells him to go make the trade to give the fan base hope even if that means giving up on a top prospect or two. On the other side it says to keep building, let the rest of the season progress how it has been for the first 4 months and continue to keep building through the farm. What ever decision the Pirates make from here, Mr. Huntington hopes will not land him in history as one of the biggest trades (or no trade) of the 2010’s.


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