Washington Nationals (2005-Present)
Montreal Expos (1969-2004)
National League (1969-Present)
National League Champion: Never
World Series Champion: Never
Today the Washington Nationals are one of Major League Baseball more stable franchises. The team drew 2.7 million fans their first year in town (2005), and attendance has continued strong ever since. Their performance on the field took a giant step forward in 2012, when they won 98 games and the National League Eastern Division Pennant. Since then they have never finished lower than second in their division, and have won three more titles. Quite a turnaround for a franchise that just 11 years earlier was targeted for extermination.
In 2001 Major League owners voted 28-2 to contract from 30 to 28 teams. The two franchises on the chopping block were the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos. The Expos were the weaker of the two franchises, but they were given a temporary reprieve when the Minneapolis Metrodome Management won a court injunction preventing baseball from implementing their plan. Since baseball couldn’t run a schedule with 29 teams, the Expos had another chance. They got a second extension when the collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association prohibited any contraction before 2006. By the time 2006 came along, the Twins had shored up their financial situation, and the Expos no longer existed, having moved to Washington D.C.
How did a team that came into existence in the expansion of 1969, fall so far that the other owners were ready to terminate them in 2001?
The answer was the Canadian town Major League Baseball chose. Montreal was never a baseball town. Hockey was their game, and the Montreal Canadiens were their team. Baseball made several attempts to make it in the city, but none of them took. They had several minor league teams beginning in the 19th century, but all failed. The most successful minor league club was the Montreal Royals, who began operations in 1928. They became the top minor league team for the Brooklyn Dodgers between 1941 and 1958. Branch Rickey or Walter O’Malley basically ran the club during this time. Jackie Robinson spent his first year under contract to the Dodgers playing in Montreal. The Royals won the International League title seven times during this era, and the Junior World Series three. Royal’s Manager Walter Alston was leading the team in 1953 when Walter O’Malley plucked him out of obscurity and awarded him the manager’s job with the Big Club. He would become the most successful manager in Dodger history. Many other Dodger players from the “Boys of Summer” era spent time north of the border. The team, however, could not survive on its own, and collapsed when the Dodgers ended their affiliation with them in 1958.
After the loss of the Royals the city fathers began campaigning for a Major League franchise. The work paid off with the awarding of an expansion franchise to Montreal in 1969. It was not a good selection.
There was no ballpark to play in. They renovated a 3,000 seat stadium in Jarry Park, increasing the seating capacity to 30,000, for a place to play. It was not up to Major League standards. The Expos moved to a new stadium in 1977, the Olympic Stadium that Montreal built to host the 1976 Olympics. It was more modern than Jarry Park, but it wasn’t built for baseball.
Montreal did support the team in their early years. They drew over 1 million fans every year but three in their first 19 seasons of operation. Their ability to develop young talent was also outstanding. Through their farm system they brought up Steve Rogers in 1973, Gary Carter in 1974, Andre Dawson came on board in 1976, Tim Raines in 1979, and Tim Wallach in 1980. Carter, Dawson, and Raines would wind up in the Hall of Fame. The team did not have a winning record until 1979, but they weren’t terrible either. They averaged over 70 wins a season for their first ten years. That’s pretty good for an expansion team.
By 1979 they were ready to contend. They won 95 games that year, finishing just two games behind the eventual World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Another 90 win season and second place campaign in 1980, and then the National League East Title in the strike shortened 1981 season. They lost the 1981 NLCS in heartbreaking fashion, when the Dodgers’ Rick Monday hit a 9th inning home run off Steve Rogers, leading to a fifth game 2-1 defeat, and the loss of the series 3 games to two.
Despite the loss, the future seemed bright for the team. Unfortunately, the club’s financial situation became a bigger burden. The team’s high mark was 1981, they gradually fell out of contention. They lost Gary Carter in 1984, then Andre Dawson in 1986. Their on field talent allowed them to stay competitive, but they would never win another championship in Montreal.
The rest of their stay in Canada was predictable. They would produce young talent, Moises Alou, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, or Vladimir Gurrero, and stay competitive, but being unable to pay them the going salaries, would lose them as they became free agents. Eventually the fans deserted them. By 1998 attendance dropped below 1 million, then to 642,000 in 2001 when contraction seemed imminent.
Attendance recovered some after the reprieve, but the financial situation did not. Team owner Jeffrey Loria worked out a deal with Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to sell the franchise to Major League Baseball, so he could purchase the Florida Marlins. This put the Expos in the position that they were competing against teams that were owned by people who also owned the Expos. In 2002 they played 22 of their 81 home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, further alienating fans in Montreal.
The final straw was in 2003, when the Expos were involved in a 4-way fight for a Wild Card spot. The ownership group refused to bring up any September callups, citing the money it would cost. The fans realized that MLB had no interest in supporting a winning team and attendance continued to shrink.
Late in the 2004 season, Major League Baseball announced that they were moving the team to Washington D.C. in 2005, and the Major League baseball saga in Montreal was over.
Since the move to Washington the team has flourished. Ted Lerner bought the team in 2006, injecting money and direction into the club. The team on the field responded by winning four Eastern Division Pennants since 2012. They have yet to make it out of the first round in the playoffs, but both on the field and off the field the franchise is now thriving in the Nation’s Capital.
Gary Carter (1974-1984) was an 11 time All Star, and three time Gold Glove. One of the 10 top catchers of all time.
Ryan Zimmerman (2005-Present) was a third baseman for most of his career, but he still hasn’t done enough to supplant Tim Wallach at the hot corner. He’s been primarily a first baseman since 2015. He’s actually made the National League All Star team twice as a first baseman (two other times at third). He’s an easy choice over Montreal hero Rusty Staub (1969-1971, 1979).
The only selection who played for the franchise in both Montreal and Washington. Jose Vidro (1997-2006) tends to be overlooked because the team was in flux, and not very good during his time. He did make the National League All Star team three times while the team was still in Montreal. The team got better after the move to Washington, but he was in his thirties by that time, and was no longer the player he was in Canada.
Anthony Rendon (2013-Present) is well on his way to earning this slot, but he’s still about four years away. Ryan Zimmerman (2005-Present) is just about through, and he hasn’t caught Tim Wallach (1980-1992) yet. Wallach was a five time All Star and a Gold Glove on defense. We’ve got him as the fourth best player in franchise history.
Ian Desmond (2009-2015) was a very good player in Washington. Only once an All Star with the team, but an excellent offensive force, especially for a shortstop. A sad reflection on the franchise is that he’s the only viable choice.
Tim “Rock” Raines (1979-1990) had two great talents. The ability to get on base, and the ability to steal bases. His On Base Percentage in Montreal was .391, and he was successful stealing bases on 86% of his 741 attempts. A controversial Hall of Fame selection in his final year of eligibility in 2017, but nobody denies he was a quality player.
Playing his home games in Olympic Stadium in his early, and best, years really hurt the offensive numbers of Andre Dawson (1976-1986). When he moved to Chicago’s Wrigley Field or Boston’s Fenway Park his statistics were better, but his production was not. He won an MVP in his first year in Chicago, but that was a poor selection. He had two second place finishes in the MVP vote while playing for the Expos, which were much more deserving of recognition than his 1987 win with the Cubs.
Left field and center field easily belong to the two Hall of Famers. That leaves 2015 National League MVP, Bryce Harper (2012-2018) and 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003) for the third outfield spot. Harper is one of the most famous athletes in sports, but also one of the most overrated. He’s already left Washington, and probably will never be back. Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003) drove in over 100 runs five times in the waning years of the Montreal Expos, which means few people noticed. Harper did accomplished enough in Washington to be in the conversation, but we just think Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003) was better.
Despite the quality of the two aces of their current staff, the #1 choice for the franchise is still easy. Steve Rogers (1973-1985) overall record was only 158-152 in his 13 year career, all with Montreal. He led the league in losses twice, but this was with a very bad team.. When the team turned things around, beginning in 1979 he ran off years of 13-12, 16-11, 12-8, 19-8, and 17-12.
In Max Scherzer’s (2015-Present) five years in Washington he has finished first in the Cy Young balloting twice, 2nd once, and 5th once. In 2019 he is one of the favorites to win it for the third time for the Nationals, this would be the fourth time overall (he won one with Detroit in 2013). He’s 34 years old and his career win total is at 169, which still seems a little low for a Cooperstown call, but, barring injury, seems a safe bet to get in.
Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg (2010-Present) anchor the pitching staff that is the heart of the Nationals current success. Strasburg just might be the most hyped first overall draft pick in baseball history. Washington Management has been so cautious with him, that when the team made the playoffs in 2012 they sat Strasburg down to protect his arm. They did not get out of the first round. Quite a sacrifice for a franchise that has still never made a World Series.
#4 goes to another Expo hurler who performed during their struggling Montreal days. Dennis Martinez (1986-1993), was an impressive 100-72 in his time in Montreal. He won an ERA title in 1991, when he also led the league in complete games and shut-outs.
This is a tough call. Not because we have so many strong candidates, but that we have such weak ones. Dick Williams (1977-1981), Bob (Buck) Rodgers (1985-1991), Felipe Alou (1993-2001), Frank Robinson (2002-2006), and Dusty Baker (2016-2017), are all about even. Williams, who bounced around the Majors, spent five years in Montreal, his longest stay with any franchise. His record their was 380-347, very impressive considering the weakness of the franchise at the time. He led his club to the only NLCS the team has ever been in, and the only Division title they ever had while in Montreal. Rodgers’ record was 520-499 in Montreal, his teams seemed to over-perform every year, but they never won a pennant during his time. Alou managed more games for the franchise than any other manager, he also won more games. His best year was the strike shortened 1994 season, when the Expos had the best record in baseball when the owners called an end to the season. He was there for ten years, but the last five were when the club was having trouble paying their bills. They had a winning record in 4 of his first 5 seasons. Frank Robinson was hired by Major League Baseball to manage after they took over the team in 2002. The Expos were .500 or better in 3 of his 5 seasons, a remarkable achievement considering the constraints placed on him by the team’s upper management. Dusty Baker led the club to back to back National Eastern Division Championships, winning 95 and 97 games those two years. His reward was to be fired following the second first round 3-2 loss in the playoffs. Go figure. Just because we think upper management was foolish to let him go, we’ll go with the guy who had the highest winning percentage in franchise history (192-132, .593), and also the only one to win two Division titles, Dusty Baker (2016-2017).
To most casual fans the answer is simple, it’s Bryce Harper (2012-2018). He has been the best player during the teams best years. It’s not that simple. As we mentioned before, Bryce Harper is overrated. Even if we were only rating the best players since the club moved to Washington he would fall below Ryan Zimmerman (2005-present). That completely ignores the four members of the Hall of Fame who donned the uniform of the Montreal Expos prior to the move to Washington. We would rate all four, Gary Carter (1974-1984), Andre Dawson (1976-1986), Tim “Rock” Raines (1979-1990), and Vladimir Guerrero (1996-2003) ahead of Harper and Zimmerman. The decision between these four is complicated. We can eliminate Guerrera first. Not only was his qualifications for enshrinement in Cooperstown the weakest of the four, but his stay in Montreal was the shortest. The other three are another story. The metrics we use puts Raines in first, followed by Carter, then Dawson. Since Raines and Dawson were both outfielders that seems to give the edge to “Rock” Raines. As we mentioned before, we think our formula to rate players tends to undervalue catchers. Raines leads Carter, but not by much. Subjectively we think that a Gold Glove catcher who hits like an outfielder is more valuable than a left fielder who gets on base and steals bases. We would rate Carter somewhere between 5-10 on our all time list of catchers, while neither Raines or Dawson would be that high at their respective positions (Left and Center field). This is a close call, but we’ll go with Gary Carter (1974-1984).