1992 Montréal Expos
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Dennis Martinez and Larry Walker
- Player of the Year: Larry Walker
- Best Rookie: Moises Alou
- NL Gold Glove: Larry Walker (OF)
- NL Silver Slugger Award: Larry Walker (OF)
- Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Moises Alou (OF)
- Players of the Month:
- Minor League Player of the Year: Rondell White, West Palm Beach (A) and Harrisburg (AA)
- Minor League Pitcher of the Year: Tavo Alvarez, West Palm Beach (A) and Harrisburg (AA)
The 1992 Montreal Expos represented a turning point in the team's history: it was the first year in a series of five and a half seasons during which the Expos were not only competitive, but at times one of the best teams in baseball. Unfortunately, various circumstances resulted in their not making the postseason even once during that span, something which eventually doomed the team.
But when the 1992 season began, observers were unanimously convinced that this was a team that would not only not be in the running for a division title, but likely would finish in last place. After all, that's where the 1991 season had ended, and they were still eschewing the headline-grabbing signing of free agents that were all the rage for teams looking to compete: the Los Angeles Dodgers had signed Eric Davis one year after adding Darryl Strawberry; the New York Mets had inked Bobby Bonilla one year after Vince Coleman; and the Pittsburgh Pirates had signed Kirk Gibson. That's what the teams that were serious about winning did - or so it seemed. The Expos were going a different way: they were all about developing their own players, and GM Dan Duquette was one of the early adopters of Sabermetrics, with the help of his assistant Mike Gimbel, focusing on acquiring players who had not yet had much success in the majors, but whose statistics in the minors, or certain splits in the majors, showed they could be productive if used in a manner that maximized their strengths. This approach led to three major trades during the off-season: 1B Andres Galarraga was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for P Ken Hill; OF Dave Martinez, P Scott Ruskin and prospect Willie Greene were sent to the Cincinnati Reds for Ps John Wetteland and Bill Risley; and P Barry Jones went to the Philadelphia Phillies for C Darrin Fletcher. Hill and Wetteland would both have outstanding seasons in 1992, Hill as a starter and Wetteland as the team's closer, and while Fletcher would only become a full-time starter the following season, he would prove to be a steal. In the meantime, the Expos had repatriated Gary Carter, one of the most popular figures in the team's history, to mentor him, and the veteran ended up playing more and better than anyone could have anticipated.
The moves created a hole at first base, which manager Tom Runnells decided to address by moving 3B Tim Wallach, the team's captain and clubhouse leader, from third base, where he was an outstanding fielder, to first, a position he had not played since his rookie year back in 1981. This opened the third base job for young Bret Barberie, a favorite of Runnells who had had an outstanding second half as a rookie in 1991, but who had also never played his new position regularly. The moves were not popular with the team, and Runnells made things worse when he showed in spring training dressed in military fatigues, to give the team a pep talk while pretending to be General Norman Schwartzkopf (this was in the wake of the first Gulf War, in which Schwartzkopf had masterminded the annihilation of Iraq's defensive forces). The performance was thoroughly embarrassing and made everyone who witnessed it doubt the young manager's leadership capacities. To make things worse, Barberie started the season by seemingly committing an error every second game (he had racked up 7 by April 24th) making it clear to everyone that he was not ready to be a major league third baseman. This negated a decent first couple of weeks when the Expos started off 5-2, sweeping the Mets in a three-game series at Shea Stadium on April 10-12. They soon began losing after that and were at 9-14 on April 30th, in 5th place in the NL East and 7 1/2 games back of the first-place Pirates. The season seemed to be already over after just one month.
On May 1st, the Expos were supposed to begin a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, but all hell had broken loose in Los Angeles, CA, the result of the announcement two days earlier of the "not guilty" verdict in the trial of the policemen accused of badly beating up African-American motorist Rodney King a year earlier, a beating that had been videotaped and played on loop on television in the interim. Unrest started almost immediately after the announcement, and things got completely out of hand. By the time the dust settled, 63 people had been killed, 12,000 arrested, and property damage was estimated at $1 billion; 5,000 federal troops had to be brought in to help restore under. There was no way baseball could be played in these conditions and all three games were postponed (the Dodgers had been forced to postpone their game scheduled for April 30th as well), to be replayed as part of three consecutive doubleheaders from July 6-8. That gave the reeling Expos a break, and when they returned home to resume their schedule on May 5th, they played better, winning 7 of 11 games. However, tensions with Runnells, who was clearly out of his depth, were not getting any better, and on May 22nd, he was fired and replaced by Felipe Alou. The Expos were 17-20 at the time, in fourth place and 5 games back - but only one game out of last place. Alou was a former coach and long-time minor league manager for the Expos, who had been brought in as bench coach before the season as a calming influence for the young and impulsive Runnells. He had been considered for the manager's job a decade earlier but had been passed over, and when his appointment was first announced, it was seen as an interim move to restore calm around the team. It turned out to be one of the best moves the team ever made, as Alou was an excellent manager, who knew the young players in the organization inside out (he had managed most of them when they had passed through the Florida State League on their way to the Show), and had no difficulty earning everyone's respect. The turnaround did not begin immediately: the Expos did win their first two games for Alou, both over the defending National League champions, the Atlanta Braves, but then lost 8 of their next 11. The streak ended when they won the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs on June 5th, and they started climbing out of their hole. Still, it took them until July 5th to reach .500 - which was the eve of the three consecutive make-up doubleheaders.
That unprecedented six-game series at Dodger Stadium was truly a turning point. The Expos had never done particularly well there, and they had to creatively juggle their roster to have enough pitchers to make it through the series, but after being swept on the first day, they swept the Dodgers back the next, and split the two games the final day to emerge with a split. Three different pitchers made their major league debut in those three days - Kent Bottenfield, Matt Maysey and Risley - and all held their own. The experience made the team tighter, and they would not fall below .500 again after those games. They were 42-42 after a win by Risley in the sixth and final game of the ordeal and would go 45-33 the rest of the way, to finish in second place, with only the Pirates ahead of them. They were 16 games above .500 on September 27th but ran out of steam in their final week, losing 5 of their last 6 games on the road, but by then they had proved that they could compete with any other team. The three debuts in three days were par for the course: Alou liked young players, and during the season gave a large number of them a chance to show him what they could do. Twelve different players made their major league debut with the Expos that year. This included some who would go on to have significant careers, such as Bottenfield, Matt Stairs, Greg Colbrunn, Wil Cordero and Tim Laker - but the really interesting prospects, led by Rondell White and Cliff Floyd, were still in the minors at that point.
The Expos had a very solid - and stable - starting rotation, led by veteran Dennis Martinez, who was an All-Star for the third time while going 16-11, 2.47. Hill was 16-9, 2.68, Chris Nabholz was 11-12, 3.32 and Mark Gardner 12-10, 4.36. Rookie Chris Haney began the season as the number 5 starter and when he shut out the Cardinals, 6-0, on April 26th, he looked to be the real deal, but he floundered after that, going 2-3, 5.45 before being replaced by Brian Barnes. Barnes had his best season, going 6-6, 2.97. Those six accounted for 150 of the 162 starts that season, meaning that they had a good chance to win in almost every game they played. Wetteland started slowly, with a 3.92 ERA in the first half as he was learning the ropes of being a major league closer (he had been mainly a starter before his acquisition, with mediocre reaults, but Bill James had noted that he had pitched lights out when used as a reliever even then). He lowered his ERA to 1.93 in the second half, to finish at 2.92, racked up 99 strikeouts in 83 1/3 innings, and picked up 37 saves. He was well complemented by Mel Rojas, who had the first of a series of excellent seasons as a set-up man/alternate closer, going 7-1, 1.43 with 10 saves. Jeff Fassero also had a good season as the top lefty, going 8-7, 2.84 in 70 games, and the next two busiest men, Bill Sampen and Sergio Valdez posted ERAs of 3.13 and 2.41 respectively. Overall, the team ERA was an excellent 3.25, good for second-best in the league. It was the last year of a low-scoring era (expansion, and then steroids, would put an end to that starting the following season) so everyone's ERA was lower than usual, but it was still some very solid pitching.
On the hitting side, the star player was RF Larry Walker, who batted .301 with 23 homers and 93 RBIs, having his first true Hall of Fame-worthy season: he played in the All-Star Game for the first time and won both his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award. CF Marquis Grissom was not far behind, batting .276 with 99 runs scored, 14 homers and 78 stolen bases (against just 13 times caught stealing); he also made playing center field seem so effortless that no one realized he was also providing Gold Glove type defensive play. Ivan Calderon, the team's Player of the Year the previous season, started the year in left field, but injuries limited him to just 48 games. He did well when he was healthy, with an OPS+ of 110, but his absence gave rookie Moises Alou a chance to play regularly, and he had a great season, batting .282 in 115 games with 9 homers, 56 RBIs and an OPS+ of 120. The Expos' outfield was probably the best in the majors. Another player who had a great season was 2B Delino DeShields who hit .292 in 135 games, scored 82 runs, stole 46 bases and put up an OPS+ of 115. However, Wallach, who shuffled between the two corners, did not hit much - .223 with limited power and an OPS+ of 78; Barberie eventually lost his job with an OPS+ of 83 in addition to his weak fielding, and neither catchers Carter or Fletcher did much with the bat, although they guided the pitching staff very well. At shortstop, in his final season with the team, Spike Owen continued to be above average with the bat, largely due to his ability to draw walks, but below average with the glove. In any case, the writing was on the wall for his as Cordero was the player the organization wanted to take over the position in the longer run. Given the difficulties in getting production from their first basemen, the Expos gave extended looks at the position to three rookies, Archi Cianfrocco, John VanderWal and Colbrunn, and while none of them were awful, they were not ready to hold a regular major league job just yet.
The Expos made a few late-season trades, and managed to acquire a couple of players who would prove useful in future seasons: they traded Sampen and Haney to the Kansas City Royals for 3B Sean Berry and P Archie Corbin; sent a minor leaguer to the San Francisco Giants for P Gil Heredia; and OF Darren Reed to the Minnesota Twins for P Bill Krueger. Krueger was pretty much done, but both Berry and Heredia would turn out to be solid major leaguers. On September 27th, in one of the season's most memorable moments, Carter drove in the only run in a 1-0 win over the Cubs with a double in the 7th inning in the last home game of the season at Stade Olympique. He was then replaced by pinch-runner Laker and left under a huge ovation from the fans, his Hall of Fame career over. Many thought that Laker was Carter's heir apparent, given that Fletcher had not hit much, but Laker would turn out to be a career back-up while Fletcher eventually became a solid hitter. A number of other players also left after the season, most notably Owen as a free agent, Gardner, Wallach and Calderon via trades, and Barberie, lost in the expansion draft. Many thought that the second-place finish was a fluke, but in fact the Expos had now put in place the bases of their great 1994 team.
- Gary Belleville: "May 11, 1992: Larry Walker caps dramatic 10th-inning rally as Expos defeat Dodgers," SABR Baseball Games Project.
- Norm King: "The Kid Goes Out in Style; September 27, 1992: Montreal Expos 1, Chicago Cubs 0 At Olympic Stadium", in Norm King, ed.: Au jeu/Play Ball: The 50 Greatest Games in the History of the Montreal Expos, SABR, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, pp. 87-89. ISBN 978-1-943816-15-6