The Most Disappointing Season For … The Montreal Expos
The 1984 Montreal Expos
Record: 78-83 (5th NL East, 9th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 82-79
Runs Scored: 593 (11th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 585 (2nd in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 82-80
Manager: Bill Virdon (64-67) and Jim Fanning (14-16)
Hype: The 1984 National League East was wide open. Philly and Pittsburgh were aging, and the rest of the clubs struggled in 1983. The Expos had great pitching and defense and a solid offensive core, plus they added a crafty veteran for leadership.
The Gory Details: Raines, Carter, Dawson, Wallach and…Pete Rose! That was the splash for the Expos in 1984. Along with that great core group, Rose joined the team as a free agent to lend leadership and wisdom. The pitching was in excellent shape with a solid rotation and deep bullpen.
With that guile and wisdom, the Expos determined that had one too many old first basemen / outfielders around (so they sent Al Oliver to the Giants for three players right at the beginning of the spring. Al had hit .300 and led the league with 38 doubles, that’s all.
But, but, but…Pete was going to get them where they needed to go, though. He willed those old Phillies to the pennant in 1983, right? Bill Virdon was a steady managerial hand who had experience, too. He could build them all into a winner.
Seemingly, the only questions were in the middle infield. Bryan Little was slated at second, and hyped rookie Argenis Salazar was tabbed for shortstop with vets Doug Flynn and Derrell Thomas in reserve. The Expos were primed and ready.
The first note of concern was when Pete Rose was announced as the left fielder, with Terry Francona playing first. Francona shredded his knee in 1982 and was lousy in 1983 until the very end of the season.
Rose just wasn’t a good defender anymore, especially in left. Concerns were minimized, because Bill Gullickson, Charlie Lea, Steve Rogers, David Palmer and Bryn Smith were around – the rotation would cover a lot of sins.
April came and went, with the Expos just a game behind at 12-10. The first sign of trouble was that former ace, Steve Rogers, only started two games and was knocked around a bit. But surely the crafty vet would come back.
Another note of concern was that Salazar was hitting just .164 with no walks and little power. But he wasn’t supposed to hit, he was supposed to field. That’s why he was up in the big leagues – he was a fielding upgrade.
It’s May now. Bill Virdon has to do something about Salazar, finally. He’s hitting .143/.167/.214 and not playing a good shortstop. In fact, it can be said that he didn’t seem to care about anything. So Salazar gets sent out and Flynn moves to short. That move didn’t inspire anyone.
In May and early June, Rogers is still scuffling. Rose is reduced to pinch hitting. Dawson has slumped in hitting just .185 with one home run in May. Francona is ripping the ball a new one, though, and Raines, Wallach and Carter are carrying their weight.
The Expos hovering around .500, ahead of them are the Phils, Mets and Cubs. The latter two are complete surprises; everyone knows they’ll fold, right?
The Expos may have had some confidence that they could get back in it, right up until June 14. Francona was hitting .346 and living up to his pre-injury hype when he tried to avoid a tag by John Tudor and seriously injured his knee again.
One player does not a team make, but it’s really hard to try to make up ground when your best hitter goes down, and the people who can replace him in the lineup are guys like Miguel Dilone and Jim Wohlford.
This moves Rose to first, those two into left and the Expos with no margin for error. They had to win with pitching and defense. Yet Rogers and Palmer were slumping, and the defense wasn’t that exceptional – even in the middle infield where the only reason they were on the team was because they could CATCH the ball. The other starters and bullpen were pulling their weight, but as a whole the team just stalled.
From then on, the Expos treaded water. When Francona went down, the team was 29-33, and still just six games out. They got to .500 on several occasions, and got as far up as three games over, but soon enough they went right back to break even or just below.
They would make a good move, such as getting Dan Driessen from the Reds, but they’d get no traction because someone else would slump.
Charlie Lea was the all-star game starter, but he only picked up the slack for Rogers. Then the team refused to score runs for Lea when he pitched after the Fall Classic. It was a rocky ride, and no amount of veteran savvy could help them.
On August 16th, the Expos realized the jig was up. There was no reason for a team 58-60, over 10 games behind, and in 5th place, to keep around some vets, especially one that was in a major slump and had no defensive value.
On that day, Rose, whose average fell to .259 after a horrible 45 days when they needed, you know, a VETERAN to lead them, was traded back to his beloved Cincinnati for Tom Lawless. All that hype, and hope, that the Expos put on Rose, and all they got was two games under .500 and a non-descript middle infielder.
It never got better, but it never got worse. Carter and Raines did their job. Dawson rebounded a bit, but still had his worst season. Wallach slumped at the end of the season but by then it didn’t matter. Wohlford hit about .999 (actually well over .400) in September to make his year look good.
Rogers recovered and dropped a point and a half off his era to 4.31. The rest of the rotation did their jobs, though Lea was 1-6 (with a good 3.11 ERA, though) from the All-Star Break through mid-September when he was shut down. The bullpen was great, except for Bob James – who blew nine saves in middle relief somehow.
But what really drug down the team was the guys in the middle. Flynn had an OBP and SLG under .300. Little slumped, got a vote of no confidence, basically, and was sent down even when they brought up Salazar again.
Thomas didn’t hit much either, but he was better than Flynn. Virdon yanked them up and down – on the bench and starting and even back and forth to the minors, randomly and to no avail.
Salazar, though, took the cake. If he had hit just three doubles instead of four, he would have come away with slash lines ALL under .200. In 184 plate appearances, he had 27 hits, six extra base hits, and four walks. A wooden post could hit that by accident, and probably show as much emotion as Salazar did.
To his detriment, Virdon never did solve his lineup problems. After Francona was hurt Driessen, Rose, and Carter saw the lions share at first, but no one started more than Francona’s 49 games. No one started more than 78 games at short, and Salazar started the most at short with 57. Wohlford actually let the Expos in starts in left with…39.
Virdon was patient with his pitching, but he yanked people in and out of the lineup so much that when Dilone started eight games in a row in left late in the year that was the most started in a row at that position since Rose started the first 14 of the year.
Meanwhile, Wallach and Raines started 158 games and Carter 157 between catcher and first. Virdon had patience unless he didn’t.
Soon after Rose saw the door, Virdon was excused and Jim Fanning finished out the lackluster string.
It’s not that the Expos were horrible, and no one really could have expected the Mets and Cubs to rocket to the top of the division from the abyss. They thought they had a chance to contend, and turned in a season of meh. And meh when expecting greatness is the most disappointing season of all.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Gary Carter (7.4 WAR) and Tim Raines (6.4) led the pack and were legit all-stars. A special shout out to Dan Schatzeder, who led the deep staff in WAR at 3.0 while swinging between the rotation and the pen.
Honorable Mention Team: Not counting the post-strike years (you know why), the 1991 Expos are my runner-up choice. The club went from 85-77 to 71-90. The next year, they brought on Felipe Alou early in the year and went 87-75. It was a close decision, but the follies of Rose and Salazar took the cake for 1984.
Bad Blast from the Past: Since the Expos are an expansion team, I get to choose a wild card from a defunct franchise. I choose the 1885 St. Louis Maroons. They absolutely dominated the Union Association (which is sort of like the 2015 Oakland A’s dominating the Florida State League) and then moved to the NL in 1885 and went 36-72.
Handsome Henry Boyle went from a 15-3 record to 16-24. Charlie Sweeny was 24-7 for the UA Maroons after coming over from Providence, and then drank his way to 11-21. Fred Dunlap hit .412 against the puny UA pitching, and slumped to .270 against real pitching. Orator Shaffer hit .360 in 1884. .195 in 1885. Meanwhile, Chris von der Ahe’s Browns in the AA won their league, and sold more beer, too.