What if ... the Expos (and Twins) had been contracted before 2002?

It may be a new year, and we may still be knee-deep in Prince Fielder rumors, but it’s also “What If?” Wednesday, and we’ll take this opportunity to tinker with baseball’s space-time continuum to see what might have happened in Nationals history had something, somewhere occurred just a bit differently.

This week, we set the way-back machine - that’s a gratuitous “Peabody’s Improbable History” reference, for the cartoon-challenged among you - for 2002, when commissioner Bud Selig was trying desperately to get his plan to contract two franchises through baseball’s hierarchy. The two teams that had targets on their backs were the Twins and Expos, and history tells us that Selig’s plan to whittle 30 teams to 28 by excising a couple of underperforming franchises ultimately failed. The Twins and Expos stayed put (well, the Expos remained in Montreal for three more seasons), the former becoming a perennial contender in the American League Central and the latter relocating to Washington, D.C., following the 2004 campaign to become the Nationals.

But since we’re throwing caution to the wind, let’s examine what might have happened if the Expos and Twins had ceased to exist. Looking big-picture, we’d never have been treated to endless tantrums from Ron Gardenhire, who succeeded the professorial Tom Kelley as Minnesota’s manager, and we’d have been spared the whole debacle of Major League Baseball operating the Expos and insisting that it was doing a decent job when everything suggested otherwise. That means we wouldn’t have had Frank Robinson stepping in to skipper in Montreal, or baseball moving with the Expos to the nation’s capital. No wonderful memories of the night baseball returned to RFK Stadium in 2005, no flirting with the wild card in that inaugural season, no Tyrell Godwin or Matt White eras in D.C. (go ahead, look ‘em up).

But what would have happened to those players who were Twins and Expos property had those teams been legislated out of existence? The process played out almost until pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in 2002 before contraction talk disappeared, but the players on the teams who were on the chopping block didn’t know from day to day where - of if - they would play. Presumably, baseball would have turned to a dispersal draft to parse out the former Twins and Expos to the remaining 28 clubs, with teams picking in reverse order of finish, just like they’d normally do for the First-Year Player Draft each June. Think of it as a diamond mulligan, a chance for teams in the second division to add a bat or arm that would make an immediate impact, hopefully of the positive nature.

Based on the 2001 standings, that would have meant the first 10 dispersal draft picks would have been made by the Pirates, Devil Rays, Reds, Orioles, Royals, Brewers, Tigers, Rockies, Rangers and Marlins. The Expos would have drafted fifth, based on their 68-94 record and fifth-place NL East finish in 2001 (and the Marlins were only saved from contraction because they were bought by Expos owner Jeffrey Loria after former Marlins owner John Henry had purchased the Boston Red Sox), but when you’ve been contracted, they don’t let you pick.

There’s little doubt that the Pirates would have spent the first pick in the dispersal draft on former Expos right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, a slugger blessed with a cannon of an arm. Those who have seen Guerrero for the past two seasons as a designated hitter - and a shade of his former self - for the Rangers and Orioles may not remember that when he was about to turn 27, Guerrero had already established himself as a premiere player. He’d hit 34 homers, driven in 108 runs and batted .307 in 2001. Can you imagine the 168 homers and 540 RBIs Guerrero amassed over the next five seasons in Pittsburgh, or how many of those deep fly balls down the right field line might have ended up in the Allegheny River beyond the short porch at then-new PNC Park? Maybe Guerrero helps the Pirates end what is now 19 straight losing seasons and never ends up in Anaheim, his free agent escape clause from the purgatory that was Montreal.

Expos second baseman Jose Vidro, who came with the team to D.C., probably would have been the second pick. The Devil Rays - they still had that pesky satanic moniker as part of their name and were eons away from that 2008 World Series appearance - probably couldn’t have bypassed the chance for a decent-fielding, .300-hitting second sacker with some pop. More than anything, Video offered consistency to a club struggling to reach fans and advance in the standings in baseball’s toughest division. At that point in his career, Vidro, then 26, was on a streak of five straight seasons where he batted .300 or over and twice during that binge he drove in 96 or more runs. Unfortunately, four of his next six campaigns - including both his seasons with the Nationals - were beset by injuries. Vidro would have been a serious upgrade over Brett Abernathy in 2002, but wouldn’t have prevented a 106-loss season at Tropicana Field.

The next three selections in our imaginary dispersal draft would no doubt have been pitchers and would have featured the first Twins to be taken. Right-hander Javier Vazquez had gone 16-11 with a 3.42 ERA in 2001, and would have been the best long-range choice, considering he was still pitching as of last year (and is weighing whether he wants to retire or return to the Florida, er, Miami Marlins). But the winningest pitcher available would have been MInnesota lefty Joe Mays, who was 17-13 with a 3.16 ERA in 34 starts. That was the high point of Mays’ career, and he won only 18 more games and was never again on the right side of .500 before flaming out at 30. Right-hander Brad Radke would have been a safer choice - he was 15-11 with a 3.94 ERA in 2001 and went 55-44 before calling it quits after 2006 (though he only had a sub-4.00 ERA in one of those seasons. Vazquez, Mays, Radke - the Reds, O’s and Royals would have eaten that pitching up and, with the exception of Mays, they would have been solid choices.

We’re halfway through divvying up the Expos and Twins before the 2002 season and it’s evident that the Montreal talent may have been a smidge ahead of that in the Metrodome. But the Twins certainly had some longer-range bats, and a forward-thinking team may have been rewarded by gambling a pick on emerging superstar Torii Hunter or still-developing DH David Ortiz. Hunter would have fit nicely into the Brewers’ future after a 27-homer, 92-RBI season in 2001, but history dictates that Milwaukee might have selected third baseman Corey Koskie instead. Koskie was coming off a season in which he hit 26 homers and had a team-high 103 RBIs. He eventually wound up in Milwaukee in 2006, where a concussion ended his career. Let’s slot Ortiz to the Tigers, hope they waited out his slow development and were rewarded with the 340 home runs he’s slugged since (no way Colorado would have spent its first pick on a designated hitter/marginal first baseman in the Todd Helton era). That leaves Hunter for the Rockies, and one can only imagine how Denver’s thin air might have inflated his already solid numbers (and the Rockies could have built entire PR campaigns off his infectious smile and attitude).

Closers Ugueth Urbina (15 saves in 2001, long before his conviction on attempted murder charged in his native Venezuela) of the Expos and LaTroy Hawkins of the Twins (28 saves despite a 5.96 ERA) would have attracted some attention as the top 10 picks wound down. So might Twins lefty Eddie Guardado, who would save 45 games in 2002 and 41 in 2003. By this point in the dispersal draft, teams would be looking to fill specific needs and looking for bargains, so without a matrix of each organization dating back a decade, it’s hard to determine who would have gone where. But we haven’t even touched on Twins lefty (and Maryland alum) Eric Milton, who was 15-7 with a 4.32 ERA in 32 starts in 2001; Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who drove in 96 runs as a 26-year-old that season; Twins shortstop and future National Cristian Guzman, who was coming off a season in which he hit .302 with 10 homers and 25 stolen bases as a 23-year-old; or Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a good glove man who hit enough to spend 12 season in the majors and hit .306, his best full season, in 2001.

Teams mining for the future through the dispersal draft might have struck gold with Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who was a 24-year-old in 2001; Expos outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who had hit only one of his 122 career homers by that point; third baseman Casey Blake, who was still a fringe guy at 27 in Minnesota; 22-year-old Twins prospect Michael Cuddyer; Expos pitcher Carl Pavano, who was coming off a 1-6 season; or left-hander Johan Santana, a Rule 5 pick out of the Astros system who was still trying to escape the Twins bullpen and hadn’t yet rounded in a dominant starting pitcher who would win a pair of Cy Young Awards. Montreal’s Tony Armas Jr., Guillermo Mota and Brian Schneider, and Minnesota’s Jacque Jones, Matt Lawton and Matt LeCroy - all were there for the taking. Or they would have been, had contraction come to pass.

If you’ve got an idea for “What If?” Wednesday, leave it in the comments section below.

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