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By Michael Levesque
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
For the past five years, the conclusion of baseballís regular season raised the question of whether the Expos would be back in Montreal the following spring. This time, it looks certain they will be, but the long-term future of the franchise remains muddled as ever.
Owned and operated by Major League Baseball, the Expos played three homestands in Puerto Rico during the 2003 season in an effort to generate more revenue. Unhappy with the extra travel, the players voted against a similar arrangement for 2004. Unless they change their mind, MLB has said they could face a reduced payroll and possibly the loss of several of their stars, including free agent Vladimir Guerrero and three Puerto Ricans: arbitration-eligible Orlando Cabrera and Javier Vazquez, and $7 million man Jose Vidro. A compromise appeared likely.
Also rearing its ugly head is the pending arbitration in the lawsuit filed by the teamís former limited partners against commissioner Bud Selig, former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria and former Expos vice president David Samson. The suit charges that Loria and Samson conspired with Selig and MLB to dilute the limited partnersí ownership stake in order to move the franchise out of Montreal. MLB eventually bought the team from Loria once he had assumed majority control, then engineered his purchase of the Marlins from John Henry, who then led a group that bought the Red Sox.
On the field, the news was surprisingly positive for Montreal in 2003. Though MLBís payroll constraints forced an offseason trade of Bartolo Colon, the Expos actually led the wild-card race in late August and had consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1993-94. They wilted in September as a grueling schedule (which included 103 games away from Montreal) and injuries exacted their toll. MLB didnít permit the club to expand its roster from 25 to 40 in September, when it needed reinforcements.
In the minors, the Expos are still feeling the effects of the great purge of 2002. In a vain attempt to contend, general manager Omar Minaya traded away most of the systemís best prospects, including Jason Bay, Cliff Lee, Donald Levinski, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Matt Watson and Justin Wayne. Montrealís affiliates combined for the worst record in the minors in 2003, going 300-386 (.437). Triple-A Edmonton made the Pacific Coast League playoffs, and was the only club with a record above .500.
Scouting director Dana Brown has started to restock the system. After landing top prospect Clint Everts with his first selection in the 2002 draft, he added righthanders Darrell Rasner (second round) and Jason Bergmann (11th), and brought in the power bat of Larry Broadway in the third round. In 2003, he surprised everyone by nabbing Chad Cordero with the 20th overall pick, but Cordero reached the majors in late August and dominated out of the bullpen. Outfielders Jerry Owens (second) and Edgardo Baez (fourth) also show promise, as do righthanders Daryl Thompson (eighth) and Alex Morales (46th).
Top Prospect: Clint Everts, RHP
Age: 19 Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 170 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The fifth overall selection in 2002, Everts was an outstanding two-way player at Cypress Falls High in Houston. He and Scott Kazmir (Mets) became the first pair of pitchers from the same high school to go in the same first round, and Everts could have gone in the top three rounds purely as a shortstop. But teams focused on him as a pitcher because he had the best curveball in the draft, not to mention age, command and pitchability in his favor. He signed too late to play in 2002 and spent the fall at Baylor, where he took accounting classes and worked out with the baseball team. Everts had a brief stint in big league camp before heading to extended spring training, then made his pro debut with short-season Vermont in mid-June. The victim of tight pitch counts and poor run support, he went just 2-7 in 2003 but pitched better than his record would indicate. Promoted to low Class A Savannah on his 19th birthday, he allowed two runs or fewer in four of his five starts, but went 0-3.
Strengths: Everts is an outstanding athlete with a projectable body and the makings of three plus major league pitches. He has a solid, balanced delivery and a clean, easy arm action, which enables him to generate lightning-quick arm speed. His fastball sat at 88-92 mph with good movement in 2003, and he should increase his velocity as he adds strength to his slender frame. The development of his changeup and curveball are further along at this point. His curveball, an 80-84 mph bender with great depth and tight spin, grades as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. It projects as a strikeout pitch in the majors.Everts' 78-81 mph changeup is almost as good as his curve. It's a plus pitch that he has an exceptional feel for. He didn't turn 19 until late in the season, so he's well ahead of most pitchers his age.
Weaknesses: Everts had gotten so reliant on his curveball that the Expos limited his use of his out pitch. He threw it just 15 percent of the time so he could work on his fastball command, which still needs further improvement. He struggled with walks at times, in part because his curve breaks so much that it would leave the strike zone and/or fool umpires. He needs to get more aggressive on the mound.
The Future: With Everts' stuff, he can fly through the Montreal system. He's expected to start 2004 at Savannah and could be at high Class A Brevard County by midseason. He has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors.