Welcome to another "What If?" Wednesday, where we take a look back at a moment that had a significant effect on the Nationals and how things might have turned out if one event had gone just a little bit differently. Today, we're going to track a ways back, back before the Nationals were even likely to move to Washington, and revisit what might be one of the worst trades in baseball history.
The date was June 27, 2002. The Montreal Expos were plugging along gamely in the National League East, sitting eight games back of the Atlanta Braves and six back of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the wild card at 40-36. But they were also in trouble; Major League Baseball was looking to contract two teams, and its eyes were on the Expos and Minnesota Twins, whose finances were sagging under the roofs of their archaic stadiums.
General manager Omar Minaya needed to make a splash to get the Expos in the thick of the playoff race and boost their attendance. So he traded a quartet of prospects - left-hander Cliff Lee, second baseman Brandon Phillips, outfielder Grady Sizemore and first baseman Lee Stevens - to Cleveland for Indians ace Bartolo Colon.
The trade was a classic now-for-later deal, and in 2002, it didn't work out badly; Colon went 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA for the Expos, matching his record in Cleveland in a 20-win season. But the Expos were placed under Major League Baseball ownership after the season, and as Colon was dealt to the White Sox for three players and cash, MLB began a belt-tightening process while looking for a new home for the Expos.
That home, of course, eventually became Washington, which got its first major league club in 34 years without much of a talent pipeline to speak of. By that point, Sizemore had become a star, slugging 22 homers, stealing 22 bases and posting 11 triples for an Indians team that won 93 games. Lee posted 18 victories that year, and Phillips, who was traded to the Reds in 2005, won the starting job by 2006 and has received three Gold Gloves and two All-Star nods since.
Let's say, instead, that the Expos move to Washington in 2005 with a young center fielder in Sizemore and a blossoming left-hander in Lee. Would they have held on after their 50-31 start and made the playoffs? It's certainly possible; Sizemore had a 5.8 Wins Above Replacement rating in 2005, and Lee had a 4.0 WAR.
That's the season where the impact of those two players probably would have made the biggest difference; Sizemore's career has been beset by injuries since then, and Lee eventually was dealt to the Phillies when he got too expensive for the Indians following his Cy Young Award season in 2008. But they helped the Indians get within a game of the World Series in 2007, and had they brought the same kind of jolt to Washington, the Nationals may have boosted their payroll enough to keep Lee.
All this is to say nothing of Phillips, who is one of the game's greatest agitators and two-way second basemen. He might have been dealt in future years while being stuck behind Jose Vidro, but he could have been part of a trade to bring back another piece that would have helped in Washington, not Montreal.
It's impossible to say whether Sizemore and Lee would have stayed with the Expos/Nationals all the way through the team moving, particularly as its talent pool was ravaged by the 29 other teams. But had they made it to Washington, they could have helped alter the finish of the team's first season in the District, not to mention other years to come.
Put it this way: Just this year, the Nationals found a long-term solution at second base with Danny Espinosa, but they've been hurting at the position for years. And their two biggest needs this winter? A center fielder who can lead off and a veteran starter.