The Washington Nationals — who once earned exactly 59 wins in consecutive seasons (2008-09) and who are presently one of baseball’s most-feared, most-bankrolled teams — are entering their eleventh season playing their home games in America’s capital. That means it’s been more than a decade since the Montreal Expos played their final season in Canada, in front of an average of about 9,000 fans a game. A decade is basically a few generations in baseball-time — Ben Sheets and Jim Edmonds were Top-10 in WAR during the Expos’ last year — and so we are inching ever closer to a sad milestone for nostalgic Quebecers: some time very soon, the Major Leagues will be down to their very last ex-Expo.
At the moment, there are only five ex-Expos who are currently under contract with Major League teams, and also two ex-Expos who appeared in the Majors in 2013 who have not officially announced their retirements, and are conceivably candidates for Scott Kazmir-ian comebacks. Let’s meet our seven remaining ex-Expos, listed in alphabetical order. (Note: I am excluding players who were drafted by the Expos but who never actually appeared in a Montreal uniform, for no other reason than that list includes Ian Desmond, and safe money is that Desmond’s career will last significantly longer than any of the players we are about to meet.)
1. Luis Ayala I have no idea how baseball works: Ayala got off to a rough start with the Baltimore Orioles in April of 2013, giving up two runs in two innings, and then was promptly traded to the Atlanta Braves. With the Braves, Ayala dutifully endured two months in the minor leagues, in-between posting a respectable 3.44 FIP in 31 major-league innings. Ayala must have lost something in the proceeding offseason: last spring he was invited to camp by the Nationals themselves, but was unable to make it to Opening Day. Once the season started, Ayala was signed and released from the Orioles’ and Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league systems, ending his 2014 season with Mexico’s Olmecas de Tabasco. After Yoslan Herrera pitched (and pitched well) for the Angels last season after not appearing in the majors since 2008, I will no longer be surprised if any reliever scraps their way back into the big show at any time.
2. Endy Chavez After floating in free agency for three months this winter, Chavez ultimately re-signed with the Mariners — which is also exactly what happened during the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. At this point, Chavez’s endurance as a baseball survivor has to be admired: he has spent time in the minors every year since 2009 (a.k.a his first stint as a Mariner), annually enduring those long bus rides even though he’s in his late thirties with millions in the bank. Poor major league performance can’t even keep Chavez out of the Majors: FanGraphs WAR has Chavez producing at a below-replacement level for six of his thirteen major league seasons, and still he persists. What is to stop this career from churning on tenaciously for three or four more seasons?
3. Bruce Chen Chen was only with the Expos for about two months back in 2002 (a season in which Chen also pitched for the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds), but it counts! Last year, in his unprecedented sixth straight season with the same team (he has played for ten teams total), the Kansas City Royals, Chen couldn’t make it to the end of the season without getting cut. Chen’s unsightly 7.45 ERA obscured a 4.58 FIP — only slightly worse than eventual World Series Game 7 starter Jeremy Guthrie's 4.32 FIP. Having been in professional ball every year since 1994 (!), simply being cut mid-season probably isn’t enough to get this ol’ veteran to hang up the spikes. After being in camp with the Cleveland Indians this spring, Chen’s journey to appear for an 11th major league team will be an uphill one: this week Chen was told that he will not make the Opening Day roster.
4. Bartolo Colon Talk about baseball’s grizzled survivors. Colon’s career is delightfully like no other: he’s earned Cy Young votes (including a victory in 2005), but never in consecutive years, and just about always with a near-total bottoming out between each vote-earning year. Colon went to the Expos from the Indians at the 2002 trade deadline for the low, low price of Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips. Colon’s half-season in Montreal was the only time before his current tenure with the Mets that he played in the National League: Colon slashed .128/.146/.128 in Montreal, which is a tremendous upgrade over last year’s .032/.032/.048 hitting effort. With Colon entering his age-42 season, who’s to say that he doesn’t have another bottoming-out-into-All-Star career swing left in him?
5. Scott Downs Downs is currently the active reliever who has the longest career without ever appearing in the postseason. Downs’ time in Montreal certainly helped ensure that he would end up achieving this rather undesirable achievement: an Expo from 2000-2004, Downs only appeared in 14 games (all starts), contributing a wicked 5.74 ERA. Aside from missing 2001 entirely, most of Downs’ time with the organization was spent in Triple-A Edmonton, who played in a Pacific Coast League with zero other Canadian teams, which is significant because Edmonton is perilously close to the North Pole. Downs has had a perfect bill of health since, through his age-38 season last year. Although he didn’t see the mound during the postseason even as a Royals trade deadline acquisition, Downs pitched serviceably during his brief time in Kansas City. In 2013, he contributed 0.6 WAR in just 43.1 innings between the Los Angeles Angels and Atlanta Braves. Which is to say: even though word came down this week that he won’t make the Indians’ Opening Day roster — news he heard alongside fellow former Expo Chen — it’s not impossible to imagine Downs making his way back to the big show sometime in 2015.
6. Maicer Izturis The tiny utility infielder made his quiet debut with the 2004 Expos, hitting a modest .206/.286/.318 as very few people watched that 67-95 team. Izturis has a few things that nobody else on his list has: 1.) A guaranteed contract for 2015 (with a team option for 2016). 2.) An important role on a team that could/should be contenders. 3.) Youth: Izturis played for the Expos in his age-23 season, and is easily the youngest player on this list now that he’s heading into his age-34 season. This is a big plus in his corner if he wishes to be the last Expo standing. Except: 4.) Izturis just came off an 11-game season, which followed up his -2.2-WAR 2013 season. That $1M buyout on Izturis’ $3M 2016 contract probably looks mighty appealing to the Toronto brass.
7. Jon Rauch The tallest-ever pitcher was only an Expo for the last 2+ months of the Montreal era, but he was still an Expo! Like Ayala, Rauch is a supreme dark horse candidate. He didn’t make it out of Spring Training with last year’s Royals, and in 2013 he only made it to May as a member of the Miami Marlins’ bullpen, with his 7.56 ERA hiding a 3.47 FIP. Again: look to Yoslan Herrera for inspiration.