1990 Montréal Expos
Managed by Buck Rodgers
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Dennis Martinez and Tim Wallach
- Player of the Year: Tim Wallach
- Best Rookie: Delino DeShields
- NL Gold Glove: Andres Galarraga (1B) and Tim Wallach (3B)
- 1990 Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Delino DeShields (2B) and Larry Walker (OF)
- Players of the Month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Greg Colbrunn, Jacksonville (AA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Brian Barnes, Jacksonville (AA)
The 1990 Montréal Expos were not expected to do much, at least according to outside experts. They had notoriously collapsed in the final two months of 1989, after leading the NL East until early August, finishing at .500, well behind the division-winning Chicago Cubs, and had undergone a veritable exodus in the off-season. Gone as free agents were starting pitchers Mark Langston, Pascual Perez and Bryn Smith as well as right fielder Hubie Brooks. In Langston's case, his departure was particularly painful as his acquisition had cost the team three talented young pitchers - Gene Harris, Brian Holman and Randy Johnson - whom the Expos could have used now to fill some of the holes. In addition to these problems, long-time owner Charles Bronfman, frustrated by the team's inability to bring a championship to Montreal and the fractious state of Major League Baseball generally, had put it up for sale, creating some turmoil upstairs as well.
It was clear that the Expos were operating on a tight budget, so in order to replace the departed front-line players, they had to either look internally or find some gems on the scrap heap. They did both with a lot more success than anyone could have anticipated. To replace the free-spirited, unpredictable but usually effective right-hander Perez they found equally free-spirited Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, considered a chronic malingerer by his old team the Boston Red Sox, but an effective pitcher when healthy and when given a supportive environment, something manager Buck Rodgers and the rest of the coaching staff were very adept at providing. To replace the underrated but always solid Bryn Smith, the Expos signed his near namesake Dave Schmidt, who had had a similarly solid but unspectacular career for various American League teams and was available at a bargain (whereas the Expos had been shocked that Smith, whom they were hoping to re-sign, was worth $1 million per year on the open market). Replacing the extremely talented lefty Langston was more of a stretch, but the Expos has made another mid-season acquisition in 1989, giving up a couple more young pitchers in Sergio Valdez and Nate Minchey, to add lefty Zane Smith from the Atlanta Braves; Smith had been an unappetizing 1-12 as a starter for the Braves, but used out of the bullpen by the Expos, he had put up a sparkling ERA of 1.50 and the team brass felt he was ready to be successful as a starter again. To take over Brooks's spot, the Expos had a young Canadian outfielder named Larry Walker who had not done much except show good patience at the plate when given a shot during the second half the previous season, but who could put up some good numbers if given a chance. All four of these players would play much better than anyone anticipated, putting the Expos among the leaders in a division race that was wide open given the Cubs, who had surprised just about everyone by snatching the division title the year before, fell back to earth as expected.
When the Expos opened the season on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 9th, Walker was one of three rookies in the starting line-up. Joining him was 2B Delino DeShields, making his major league debut as the lead-off hitter, and CF Marquis Grissom, who had actually done pretty well in a brief look at the end of 1989, who had beaten out veterans Dave Martinez and Otis Nixon for the starting job and was earning comparisons to Andre Dawson for also having come out of small Florida A&M University and for having raced through the minor league rungs as if pursued by a bear. All three rookies would play well, especially DeShields who finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote behind the Braves' David Justice, and Walker, who broke Dawson's Expos rookie record by hitting 19 homers and displaying the type of strong arm and solid defence not seen in right field since Dawson had patrolled the position at Stade Olympique from 1984 to 1986. Grissom had a bit of a tougher time, as Martinez was too good a player to simply ride the bench and he cut into Grissom's playing time by hitting .279 with 11 homers and 60 runs in what was his best season as an Expo. The Expos comforted the skeptics when they lost on Opening Day and went down in three of their first four games, two of the losses coming in extra innings, but soon turned things around. They were 10-9 at the end of April, then finished May with a record of 25-21. They never fell below .500 after the first week, and settled into a solid third-place finish after briefly leading the division for one day on June 23rd, following a 6-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that had given them a sparkling 41-29 record at that point. They could not maintain that pace but finished at 85-77, 10 games behind the Pirates who won their first title since 1979, a much better record than anyone could have predicted.
Other than the rookies, the main contributors on offense included 3B Tim Wallach, who was named Expos Player of the Year for the third time after hitting .296 with 37 doubles and 21 homers, and driving in 98 runs, in addition to winning his third Gold Glove for his defensive play. 1B Andres Galarraga also won a Gold Glove and hit 29 doubles and 20 homers, and drove in 87 runs, although his .256 average and 169 strikeouts were not as good as expected. DeShields hit .289, drew 66 walks and scored 69 runs while stealing 42 bases. In limited part-time duty, Nixon still managed to steal 50 bases and hit .251, which was good for him, albeit with almost no power. SS Spike Owen hit just .234, but drew 70 walks and scored 55 runs from the bottom of the order while playing solid defence, so he was a positive contributor. The other outfielder, LF Tim Raines, had a disappointing season however, playing just 130 games, and hitting .287 with just 25 extra-base hits and 65 runs. He did steal 49 bases, and with Grissom and Walker both topping 20, the Expos had a really fearsome running team, their 235 steals pacing the National League. The major issue was at catcher, where Nelson Santovenia, expected to step forward in his third season, instead regressed to a .190 average before being sent down to the minors. That left Mike Fitzgerald to handle most of the workload, and he hit decently, with an OPS+ of 113 thanks to lots of walks, but his defence and especially his throwing arm were well below average. Jerry Goff and Orlando Mercado served as his back-ups while Santovenia was down in the bushes, but neither was an adequate major league catcher. Spring training had been disturbed by a strike that season, and as a result teams were allowed to keep a couple of extra players on their roster in April, before trimming down to 25 men. When it came time to make that decision, the Expos made a couple of mistakes, trading super utility man Rex Hudler to the Cardinals for P John Costello, who did not contribute at all, and sending P Joe Hesketh to the Braves, when he could have been a lot more useful in Montreal than some of the other pitchers they tried. Of the bench players kept instead of Hudler, neither Wallace Johnson or Mike Aldrete did much of anything, while the team used a whopping (for the time) 24 different pitchers as it experienced a lot of trouble rounding out its staff.
With all the churning, one would have expected the pitching to have been a problem, but it was not really the case. Ace Dennis Martinez confirmed his place among the élite pitchers in the National League by going 10-11 but with an excellent 2.95 ERA in 226 innings. He was one of two Expos sent to the 1990 All-Star Game, alongside Wallach, and deservedly so. Boyd had a great comeback season, going 10-6, 2.93, while rookie Mark Gardner, the one pitcher the Expos had insisted on keeping even when trading away five top mound prospects the year before, went 7-9 but also with a solid ERA - 3.49 - while tying Boyd with 3 shutouts. Smith also had trouble getting wins in spite of pitching well, going 6-7, 3.23 in 22 games, before being traded to the Pirates in a deal that netted the Expos future star Moises Alou. The other starter, Kevin Gross, started off gangbusters, as he was 8-4 by mid-June. At that point, the Expos offered him a long-term contract, but he declined expecting a big payday via free agency. Before long, the Expos were glad he had not taken their offer, as he only won one more game all season, finishing at 9-12, 4.57. He saved the team millions when he opted to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers after the season, where he continued to be tantalizingly inconsistent for years to come. Another rookie, Chris Nabholz, joined the rotation late in the season, allowing the Expos to trade Zane Smith, and he pitched very well, going 6-2, 2.83.
The bullpen was a problem for much of the year. Closer Tim Burke did go 3-3, 2.52 with 20 saves in 58 games, but he missed some time. Dave Schmidt, who himself missed the start of the season with a injury, stepped in for him and saved 13 games, most of them during June while Burke was unavailable, finishing at 3-3, 4.31 in 34 games. Steve Frey had some great numbers, going 8-2, 2.10 with 9 saves, even if a lot of that was accomplished with less than stellar stuff, and 1989 Rule V Draft selection Bill Sampen came out of nowhere to lead the staff in wins by proving the perfect vulture, finishing at 12-7, 2.99 in 59 games (that's where all the wins missing from the records of Martinez, Smith and Gardner went, if you need ask). Just before the season started, the Expos sent young IF Jeff Huson to the Texas Rangers to acquire former #1 draft pick Drew Hall, in order to have at least one hard thrower in the bullpen, but after a decent start, he proved a bust, finishing at 4-7, 5.09. Others who were counted on such as Brett Gideon and Costello hardly pitched either because of injury or ineffectiveness, but three men who joined the team later did prove quite good: veteran Dale Mohorcic went 1-2 but with a 3.23 ERA in 34 games; rookie Mel Rojas was 3-1, 3.60 and showed a lot of promise in 23 games in the second half; and another rookie, Scott Ruskin, acquired in the Zane Smith trade, also pitched well, with a 2.28 ERA in 23 games. With minor league veteran Scott Anderson and yet another rookie, Brian Barnes, both also pitching well in getting a look in September, the team had quite a solid staff by the time the year ended, even if it had taken a while to get there.
Manager Rodgers received a lot of praise for his excellent work forging this unlikely group into a team that was competitive all season, but unknown to him, the writing was on the wall. As Bronfman was unable to find an outside buyer for the team, he turned to one of his protégés, Claude Brochu, to put together a local ownership group, lending him some capital in order to do so. Brochu did manage to assemble a group, but under the condition that he would be its unquestioned leader in spite of not having any funds of his own apart from those given him by Bronfman. He considered himself better versed in baseball than anyone else among the Quebec business community - the result of having been appointed team President by Bronfman a couple of years earlier and mainly running the financial side of things - and with his newfound power, he would start meddling into baseball matters as well, with good intentions certainly, but poor results. For the moment, however, he was the head of a new ownership group that would officially take over in 1991 and that was committed to building on Bronfman's legacy of putting together a solid organization top-to-bottom while being solidly integrated in the fibre of Montreal. But there was a glitch in the plan from the get-go, which was that the group was under-capitalized and decided that the way to success was to keep spending to a minimum. If the Expos had been run on a modest budget until then, they would become veritable misers in future years, hampering on-field performance to a significant degree. But that was in the future. For now, the Expos had turned a corner, and had a young and exciting team, with more youngsters in the pipeline. Things were looking up after a successful 1990 season when everyone thought the house of cards would come crashing down.
- Gary Belleville: "May 13, 1990: Tim Wallach notches eight RBIs as Expos drub Padres," SABR Baseball Games Project.