1989 Montréal Expos
Managed by Buck Rodgers
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Tim Burke and Tim Wallach
- Player of the Year: Tim Wallach
- Best Rookie: Marquis Grissom
- NL Gold Glove: Andres Galarraga (1B)
- Players of the Month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Junior Noboa, Indianapolis (AAA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Mark Gardner, Indianaolis (AAA)
The 1989 Montreal Expos were the first edition of the team to start the season with new General Manager Dave Dombrowski, at the time the youngest GM in the league, and it wouldn't take long before he left his mark.
Coming off a .500 season in 1988 and a 91-win season in 1987, the Expos management still had confidence in the core of the team. At the four corners, the heart of the Expos offense returned, with Tim Raines, in left field, continuing to lead off in front of team-MVP Tim Wallach at the hot corner, "Big Cat" Andres Galarraga starting at first base for a third season, and Hubie Brooks returning at right field. Dombrowski proved active to fill the missing gaps in the middle of the field. He traded away Expos' shortstop Luis Rivera, who lost his job after a weak offensive performance the year before, and the Expos' potential fourth starting pitcher, John Dopson, for 27-year-old veteran Spike Owen. Left-handed hitter Dave Martinez, whom Dombrowski had acquired the year before, returned at centerfield in a platoon with switch-hitter Otis Nixon. Dombrowski also dealt to get a platoon at second base, acquiring right-handed hitter Damaso Garcia as a complementary tool to left-handed Tom Foley. Right-handed hitters Nelson Santovenia and Mike Fitzgerald came back to share catching duties, as well as Wallace Johnson as the main pinch-hitting threat on the bench.
The core of the rotation also returned intact, with redemptive pitchers Dennis Martinez and Pascual Perez coming back from strong seasons as they appeared to have dealt with substance abuse issues. Veteran Bryn Smith returned for his 9th season as an Expo, although he created some anxiety when he was charged in spring training with soliciting a prostitute, who was in fact an undercover police officer taking part in a sting operation. To replace Dopson, Dombrowski traded some of the Expos' strong bullpen (Jeff Parrett, along with Floyd Youmans) for veteran Kevin Gross, with the hope that Tim Burke and Andy McGaffigan would return to their 1987 performance level. Together, these moves left the fifth spot of the Expos rotation to be won by one of their hot prospects: either Randy Johnson, or Mark Gardner or Brian Holman. None of the three would prove to be fully ready.
After winning the first game of the season with a walk-off walk by Raines with the bases full, and then winning their first two series, the Expos quickly stalled at the .500 mark. Rookie Randy Johnson dropped to 0-4, allowing a whopping 26 walks in 29 2/3 innings, losing his spot in the starting rotation. Holman did not fare much better: his WHIP ballooned to 1.55, losing his last start as the team dropped two games below .500 at 21-23. Making things worse was the fact that Perez, who had served a drug-related suspension in spring training, started the year 0-7. Dombrowski decided to pull the trigger on May 25th, in a move that was unusual for the organization. He dealt three of the Expos best prospects, including Johnson and Holman (the third was Gene Harris, another rookie who started the year with the team after jumping from AA), to the Seattle Mariners to get All-Star Mark Langston, who was heading for free agency at the end of the season. The move quickly payed off. The Expos won six of Langston's first eight starts and reached first place on June 26th, a position they would not relinquish before August. Perhaps no other game epitomized the hot streak more than that played against the Cincinnati Reds, at the Big O, on Saturday July 22nd, on national television as the "Game of the Week". The Expos were trailing 5-1 in the bottom of the 9th against closer John Franco, but hit two home runs, a three-run pinch-hit blow by Rex Hudler and another two-run shot by Garcia, to win the game, 6-5.
On August 2nd, the Expos were at 63-44. They had the best record in the National League, and they were up by three games. Within one week, the Expos were swept consecutively by the New York Mets, and then again by the Chicago Cubs, who took over first place, and they were set three games back. Even though they managed to stay within reach of first place until early September, they could not get their game back to what it was in July, and another sweep, again at Wrigley Field, nailed their destiny and opened the way for the Cubs' first division title since 1984. Indeed, the collapse was so severe that the Expos finished the year at exactly .500.
The biggest culprit of the meltdown was by far the offense. After August 2nd, the Expos had the worst offense in the whole major leagues, scoring only 3.23 runs per game. Whereas Raines continued to generate offense with a .395 on-base percentage and 41 stolen bases, none of the other big three (Galarraga, Brooks and Wallach) could manage an OPS over .800. The Expos finished 2nd in on-base percentage, but only 8th in the league in slugging. While they had some success with Raines hitting in the clean-up spot, the RBIs did not follow, and the Martinez/Nixon platoon could not sustain enough on-base percentage to continue the experiment (although they did generate enough speed to help the Expos regain first place in stolen bases). They attempted to generate additional offense by calling up two promising rookie outfielders from the minor leagues, Larry Walker and Marquis Grissom, but Walker only hit .170 in 20 games, and Grissom hit only .257. No surprising performance could be found at the bottom of the lineup, except perhaps for the 76 walks (25 IBB) by Spike Owen. The lack of offense was put under the spotlight on August 22nd, when a 22-inning marathon against the Los Angeles Dodgers was not long enough for the Expos to score a single run, producing one of the longest 1-0 games in history. Dennis Martinez was charged with the loss in a rare relief appearance, in what would be the longest game in team history. The bottom-line of the 1989 season would repeat those of the past years: despite having the best leadoff hitter in the National League in Raines, the Expos offense could not outperform the league average.
The lack of offensive support was the only negative spot on Mark Langston's record. With a solid 2.39 ERA and an outstanding 4.8 WAR in only 24 starts, Langston deserved a better record than 12-9. However, he did not endear himself to Expos fans when he complained in an article in Sports Illustrated about Montreal's alien (to him) French culture and the fact that he could not find some of his favorite snacks in local grocery stores. Dennis Martinez continued to pitch as the ace of the team (16-7, 3.18 ERA), even though Bryn Smith had a better season statistically (2.84 ERA, 5.0 WAR, the best on the team). Perez bounced back from his horrendous start to finish at 9-13, 3.31 and was the team's best pitcher down the stretch. Kevin Gross, the other big acquisition by Dombrowski, was somewhat of a bust (10-11, 4.38 ERA, and his 1990 season would not be better). The bullpen did not perform well, with the exception of closer Burke and the late acquisition of Zane Smith (who had a 1.50 ERA in 31 games after going 1-12, 4.45 as a starter for the Atlanta Braves prior to being obtained for three minor leaguers). Defensively, Brooks in right field was becoming a major issue with his lack of range. With his offensive numbers declining, he became a free agent after the season, thus leaving Mike Fitzgerald as the only remaining player from the Gary Carter trade. Langston also left as a free agent, as expected, leaving Dombrowski with a gamble that did not land the Expos a pennant, a gamble made worse by the fact that Johnson would develop into one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in history. Also leaving as free agents were Bryn Smith and Perez, meaning that the Expos would have some huge holes to fill before 1990.
- Danny Gallagher: "1989 meltdown", in Remembering the Montreal Expos, Scoop Press, Toronto, ON, 2005, pp. 133-136.