02/01/2003 6:24 PM ET
Expos Spring Training preview
St. Claire's arrival boosts expectations for staff
|By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
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The Expos lost their ace, Bartolo Colon, when general manager Omar Minaya traded the right-hander to the White Sox for budgetary reasons. But even without Colon on the roster, the Expos still have a very good rotation in Orlando Hernandez, Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka.
There's another factor to consider that went almost unnoticed outside of Montreal: The hiring of Randy St. Claire as pitching coach. He is familiar with most of the pitchers on the staff, either from Triple-A Ottawa or, as in the case of Ohka during the month of September in 2001, the Major League level.
"To me, communication between (the pitchers and the coach) and the rapport you have with them
... I really feel is beneficial," said St. Claire, who also pitched for the Expos during the 1980s. "It takes pressure off them. You don't ask them to do more than what they want. They are on the same page as you.
... I'm not going to change one bit from the way I was in the minor leagues with these guys."
All St. Claire asks from his starting pitchers is to give 100 percent on the field and perform what they have done in the past. With the starting staff that he has, that should not be a problem. In fact, St. Claire believes it is one of the best in baseball.
"I think the starting staff is excellent," St. Claire said. "Losing Bartolo
Colon, I think, hurts. However, Hernandez is no slouch either. Losing 20 wins is big, but if you could get (12 to 16 wins) out of Hernandez and you pick up that extra reliever (Rocky Biddle), you pick up that first baseman (Jeff Liefer) and they help out the way I'm sure everybody is expecting them to do, it's a good deal for us.
But health is a concern when one talks about Hernandez, who was never coached by St. Claire. Hernandez, 33, hasn't been healthy the last two years because of back and shoulder injuries and was put on the disabled list three times during that period. But one can't ignore the fact that "El Duque" is a big-game pitcher who can help the younger pitchers on the staff.
"(Hernandez) is a warrior and I expect him to be a warrior," Minaya said recently. "He is a competitor. He wins everywhere he goes."
The Expos have their own warrior in Vazquez, once again the ace of the staff. Even though he led the National League in hits allowed (243) and lost the most games (13) on the team, he still managed to have a respectable ERA (3.79) and led the Expos in strikeouts. The Expos are hoping that Vazquez can recapture the breakout season of 2001, when he won 16 games and led the National League in shutouts.
"He has the kind of stuff to be a No. 1 (starter) and no worse than a No. 2 guy on a real good staff," said an AL West scout.
Armas is only 24 and still hasn't reached the potential expected of him when the Expos acquired him from the Red Sox in the Pedro Martinez deal in 1997. Armas battled injuries and had some disagreements with manager Frank Robinson in 2002, but a 4-0 September helped even his record at 12-12. In order for Armas to be a consistent winner, he needs to cut down on his walks. He has walked 169 batters in 361 innings.
"Armas is a No. 3 guy on a real good staff," said the AL West scout. "(Armas and Vazquez) have the size, the arm and the stuff
... and they both could have good years."
Outside of Colon, Ohka was the Expos' best pitcher in 2002. Ohka started the season as the fifth starter, but he wound up leading the team with 13 wins. He has great control, walking only 45 batters in 192 2/3 innings.
The fifth spot is up for grabs between Zach Day, Biddle, Sun Kim and Claudio Vargas.
Day and Biddle were mostly relievers last season in the big leagues, but they were starters in the minors. Day told MLB.com recently that he would prefer to be a starter, but when given the chance to prove himself in that role, he had a tough time on the mound. In two starts, he gave up seven runs in 7 2/3 innings.
Biddle, on the other hand, flourished when given a chance to prove himself in the White Sox's starting rotation during the month of September. In five starts, he won two games and had a 3.20 ERA. The Expos, however, see Biddle in various roles. There is talk of him closing games for the team.
Sun came over from the Red Sox in the Cliff Floyd trade last July, and after spending some time in Triple-A Ottawa with St. Claire, Kim was virtually unhittable in the majors. In 20 1/3 innings, he gave up only two runs.
Vargas is a power pitcher, who came from the Marlins last July. His best performance in 2002 came in the Dominican Winter League for Aguilas. Vargas won four games and struck out 53 batters in 50 innings.
"I'm really looking forward to a very competitive camp, St. Claire said. "Frank and I have a lot of hard decisions to make when that opening bell rings."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.