Former Cub Ted Lilly -- a popular personage around these parts when he was pitching for the North Siders -- made his 2013 debut Wednesday evening against the Mets, the first time he'd taken a major-league mound in 11 months. Lilly threw five solid innings, though the Dodgers lost on a walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning.
What you might not remember about Lilly -- and drat, I've given it away with the photo at the top of this post -- is that he made his major-league debut in the rouge, bleu et blanc of Les Expos de Montréal (May 14, 1999 at Pittsburgh, a one-inning relief appearance). Ted, a 23rd-round pick of the Dodgers in 1996, was traded to the Expos in a seven-player deadline deal in 1998; the key player shipped to L.A. was Mark Grudzielanek (hey, another Cubs connection!). Less than two years later, Ted was the PTBNL sent to the Yankees by Montréal in a deal that had netted them Hideki Irabu. (The Yankees also got Jake Westbrook in that trade; neither Westbrook nor Lilly did much in New York.)
So that got me thinking. We are now in the ninth season since baseball left Montréal; there's not even an affiliated minor-league club there, making Montréal by far the largest North American city without a team. How many former Expos are still on active rosters?
Before I answer that question, let me tell you about the other last players from franchises that moved. In the 20-season period from 1953-72, there were 10 franchise shifts (including two teams that moved twice, and one city that lost two teams, ironically, that's the city where the Expos now reside, Washington). Here are the last active players from each of those teams, as well as the number of seasons there was still someone playing who had once worn the uniform of the former city:
Brooklyn Dodgers: Bob Aspromonte, 1971 (13 years) Boston Braves: Eddie Mathews, 1968 (16 years) Milwaukee Braves: Phil Niekro, 1987 (22 years) Philadelphia Athletics: Vic Power, 1965 (11 years) Kansas City Athletics: Reggie Jackson, 1986 (19 years) New York Giants: Willie Mays, 1973 (16 years) Washington Senators #1: Jim Kaat, 1983 (23 years) Washington Senators #2: Toby Harrah, 1986 (15 years) St. Louis Browns: Don Larsen, 1967 (14 years) Seattle Pilots: Fred Stanley, 1982 (13 years)
Almost all of those players are pretty well-known, or should be; there are four Hall of Famers (I think Jim Kaat has Hall credentials, too) and several other solid regulars. One of two outliers is Don Larsen; apart from his World Series perfect game, Larsen was a pretty mediocre pitcher (81-91 in 412 games, with a 3.71 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 99). Larsen is the sole last Brown only because he made three appearances for the 1967 Cubs, two years after his previous incarnation as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. If not for that, the last Browns would have been Larsen, Roy Sievers and Satchel Paige, all of whom made their final appearances in 1965.
The other outlier, Bob Aspromonte, is a special case; he was one of the 1950s era "Bonus Babies" who were required to spend full seasons on major-league rosters even though they rarely played. Aspromonte, who later had a long career as the Astros' regular third baseman in the 1960s, played in just one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They let him pinch hit in the bottom of the eighth inning September 19, 1956 after they had gone up on the Cardinals 17-2. Aspromonte, then an 18-year-old barely out of high school, struck out. If you're looking for the last Brooklyn Dodger who played more than just a single game, it's John Roseboro, who retired after the 1970 season. The last Brooklyn Dodger of real significance was Don Drysdale, who retired after 1969.
So when will we see the last Expo? And how many remain?
There are 10 active players who once wore the red, white and blue of the Expos. Here they are, with their age and current club:
Well. I think we can safely say there aren't any future Hall of Famers on that list; that will mean that the last player to have a Montreal cap on his Hall plaque will be Andre Dawson. The late Gary Carter is the only other Expo in the Hall.
But who of the final ten will be the final active Expo? I think we can rule out Colon, Carroll, Lilly and Downs, all of whom are likely in their last season (maybe Downs will stick around a bit longer, as he's lefthanded and still fairly effective, but the rest are probably done after 2013).
Going down the list beyond Downs, we find Ayala, Chavez and Rauch, all role players or bit performers in bullpens, and Chen. I find it amazing Chen has stuck around this long, though his top baseball-reference comps include Edwin Jackson, Sterling Hitchcock, Joey Hamilton and Pete Schourek, all of whom had at least some big-league success.
That leaves our 32-year-olds, Harris and Izturis. Harris is yet another Cubs connection, as he was the Cubs' fifth-round pick in 2001 and wound up in Montréal as part of the four-team deal involving Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. Before 2013, he hadn't played in the major leagues since 2010, and as a bit player for the Angels, he's not likely to stick around much longer.
That leaves Maicer Izturis, who has never been a great hitter, but has been a decent semi-regular infielder for the Angels since 2005, playing on three playoff teams. He's now serving in the same role for Toronto; though he's off to a frighteningly bad start, I suspect he'll play well enough to hang around for maybe three or four more years, and will eventually be The Last Expo.
For Montréal, he played one season (2004), hitting .206/.286/.318 in 132 plate appearances. Izturis, Chavez and Rauch are the only three of our 10 to have played in the final Expos game, an 8-1 loss to the Mets at Shea Stadium October 3, 2004, and Izturis, Chavez, Carroll and Harris are the four from the list to have played in the final big-league game in Montréal, a 9-1 Expos loss to the Marlins September 29, 2004 (other still-active players who appeared in that game were Juan Pierre, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Gonzalez).
So we'll await Izturis' final appearance -- or one of the other nine, if I'm wrong -- a few years from now, to write the final chapter of the Montréal Expos, and perhaps the epitaph for major-league baseball in Montréal... unless the Montréal Baseball Project succeeds in its aim to bring big-league baseball back to Montréal. This Toronto Star article, published in March, says that group is serious in its aim to bring the big leagues back to Montréal.
Who knows? Perhaps the last Expo will retire, and not long after, the rouge, bleu et blanc will return to Major League Baseball.