Well, Minaya wanted to be a GM in the worst way

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JUPITER, Fla. — In the winter of 1999, Omar Minaya interviewed for the Mariners' vacant general manager's position, but the job went to Pat Gillick, who had experience that Minaya lacked. It was to become a familiar refrain for Minaya, the Mets' assistant GM and a former minor-league infielder in the Seattle chain, who was also a finalist in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Colorado but kept getting passed over.

If it's true that Minaya, a highly respected talent evaluator, wanted to be a general manager in the worst way, he's gotten his wish. Minaya is in the midst of one of the most challenging GM projects in recent memory, having been hired last month to guide the Montreal Expos in their lame-duck, all-but-doomed status as a ward of major-league baseball.

Yes, Minaya has heard every possible variation of the "captain of the Titanic" joke. He knew exactly what he was getting into as head of a team that had six employees in baseball operations when he was hired last month — a Class AAA manager (Tim Leiper), a AAA pitching coach (Randy St. Claire), an assistant farm director (Adam Wogan), a secretary and two public-relations staffers.

Oh, yes, technically they had a manager, too. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was hired simultaneously with Minaya, and, like the GM, is tackling the job with resolve and requisite good humor. The notoriously gruff Robinson, in fact, has a perpetual twinkle in his eye as he does his work, endlessly patient with the waves of reporters who have come to tackle the inevitable "baseball orphans" angle.

Robinson, at age 67, is perfectly content as — in fact, insistent upon being — a one-year caretaker of the Expos until their fate is decided by baseball's powers, either to be contracted out of existence, or shifted to another city, most likely Washington, D.C.

Robinson — fourth all-time in home runs, MVP in both leagues, baseball's first black manager — secured his legacy in baseball long ago. For Minaya, this is different. He is trying to establish his credentials as a GM so that a similar job might await him even if the Expos go out of business.

So far, the results are impressive. He has forged an organization where none existed before. Before his hiring had even been announced, Minaya set up a conference room at the commissioner's office ("We called it 'Command Central,' " he said) for the immediate work of hiring Robinson's coaching staff. They had less than 72 hours before the players were to arrive in camp.

"Forget coaches," said Minaya after a recent Expos game. "We had to get trainers in here, because the physicals were going to get done that Saturday."

Then Minaya set about building the rest of his staff, heeding the advice of his former boss, Mets GM Steve Phillips: "I said to him, 'Interview, and if the person doesn't scare you, hire him," Phillips said. "Because you have too many holes to fill. If you keep waiting and have to interview three people for every position, you're not going to get it done."

So far, Minaya has hired about half the 90 or so vacant positions on the Expos' major-league staff and in their scouting department and farm system, including assistant general manager Tony Siegle, to whom he could delegate some responsibilities that were all Minaya's in the early days. For a while, he estimates he was getting five hours of sleep "on a good night," his functioning hampered by the fact that the Florida Marlins took all the Expos' computers with them when former owner Jeffrey Loria purchased the Marlins.

"The worst part about it all, in the middle of all this, they throw the (Carl) Pavano and (Orlando) Cabrera arbitration cases on me," said Minaya. "I had just got through doing the Shawn Estes case (for the Mets)."

Oh, yes — Minaya also had to add personnel to the Expos' major-league roster, which he has done by signing Jose Canseco and Andres Galarraga. And having finally been given a budget by new President Tony Tavares (a slight increase from last year to $40 million), Minaya is starting to talk trades with other GMs.

The big question, of course, is how one goes about constructing a team that may disappear in a year. Minaya insists he is building to win. And he swears he doesn't have his hands tied by the 29 major-league owners who technically have a stake in the Expos.

"I have been told I have the freedom to make a decision that would improve the organization or improve the team," he said. "I'm not in the market for prospects. I'm in the market for someone who is going to help me right now."

And, no, he said, the Expos aren't going to start dumping their star players. The new joke around baseball is to look for Vladimir Guerrero to go to the Milwaukee Brewers for a backup catcher. "Vladimir Guerrero is not going to get traded," Minaya stated. "We don't plan on having our key players on the market."

Whenever Minaya gets weary, or wary about the task at hand, he reminds himself why he took it — despite the short-term nature, despite the pitfalls, despite the fact that the Mets countered with an offer of more money and more security. Born in the Dominican and raised in Queens, Minaya welcomed the chance to become baseball's first Hispanic general manager.

"You know, from a comfort standpoint, you take the Mets' deal," he said. "But from a historic standpoint, the fact you could give hope to other Hispanics and other minorities, that overweighted my own selfish comfort zone."

Major League II?

So, how good are the Expos going to be? Better than you might think, though it doesn't appear they have enough pitching depth to fulfill the secret dream of everyone who would love to see Bud Selig and Co. squirm. And that's a pretty big club.

On the other hand ... the Expos, coming off a 94-loss season, have some tremendous pieces to work with, starting with the spectacular Guerrero, who belongs in the top three in any discussion of the game's best players. Then there's Jose Vidro, who led all National League second basemen with a .319 average. Then there's Cabrera, the National League's Gold Glove shortstop. Then there's Javier Vazquez, who went 16-11 last year and lost a solid chance at 20 when he was beaned by Florida's Ryan Dempster and fractured his eye socket. Then there's Tony Armas Jr., one of the better young pitching prospects in baseball.

The rest of the lineup isn't bad, either. Third baseman Fernando Tatis was a big-time player a few years ago, and could be again if he's over the shoulder injury that knocked him out of 121 games last year. First baseman Lee Stevens had career highs in home runs (25), RBI (95), doubles (35) and runs (77) in 2001. A Canseco-Brad Wilkerson platoon in left could provide some pop — and some laughs when Canseco's in the field.

Alas, the problem lies after Vazquez, Armas and Carl Pavano in the rotation, and in the general mediocrity of the bullpen, where young Scott Strickland gets the first shot at replacing Ugueth Urbina at closer. But if a hot pitching prospect like Zack Day comes through, and a few things break right, it's easy to envision the orphaned Expos becoming America's Team.

Make that North America's team.

Torres update

We wrote last week about the comeback attempt of Salomon Torres, the ex-Giants and Mariners pitcher who quit baseball while playing in the Expos' organization in 1997.

It's gaining some steam. Torres, in the Pirates' camp as a nonroster player, pitched three perfect innings Monday against the Reds and picked up the victory, striking out three. It was Torres' first appearance against major-league hitters in more than four years.

"It feels great to pitch like this," Torres said. "It feels wonderful. I'd be lying if I said I felt I would go out and pitch this well. I just wanted to improve on the things I've been working on with (pitching coach) Spin Williams and try to get people out. I tried to keep it simple, throw the ball down the middle of the plate and get strikes. When I was younger, I would try to throw seven different pitches to hitters, try to trick them. This time, I went right after the hitter and let the natural movement on my pitches take over."

Torres remains a longshot to make the Pirates' staff, but then again, the Pirates lost 100 games last year and the door is open for any live body who shows something in camp.

"I think if I get called up that I will go out on the field and start running around the bases," he said. "I would go around the bases like crazy. I would be jumping up and down, throwing my arms up in the air just like if I had hit a home run to win the World Series. I'd have a hard time controlling myself."

Notes and quotes

• Ex-Mariner Denny Stark, acquired by Colorado in the Jeff Cirillo trade, is emerging as a strong candidate for the Rockies' fifth starting spot. Veterans Pete Harnisch and Scott Elarton have both had health issues, leaving Stark and 1999 No. 1 draft pick Jason Jennings the early frontrunners. Stark, who was 14-2 at Class AAA Tacoma last year, got a refresher course in throwing the changeup from former teammate Brett Tomko, now with the Padres, before his first spring outing. Stark faced the minimum seven batters in 2-2/3 innings against Milwaukee, then followed with another scoreless outing Thursday.

• Giants brass was reportedly skeptical about Jeff Kent's explanation for injuring his wrist — that he fell off his truck at a self-service car wash. But the frugal Kent is sticking to the story, and according to trainer Stan Conte the injury is consistent with someone trying to brace a fall. Kent is out four to six weeks and is likely to miss Opening Day.

"We work really hard all season long to make sure these guys are in shape, to make sure these guys don't have injuries. It's upsetting that it happens this way," Conte said. "You can kind of go with it when somebody gets hurt on the field in a slide, or gets hit by a pitch. That's part of the game. But I guarantee you, while he's here with the San Francisco Giants he will never wash a car again."

Said Kent: "I'm not like everyone else — I'm normal. I change my kid's diapers. I don't have maids, car-wash guys or nannies. I wear old underwear and socks. And I'm cheap."

• Another Kent, 23-year-old left-hander Steve Kent, is trying to make Tampa Bay's pitching staff as a Rule V selection last December out of the Mariner organization. Kent was involved in a horrific traffic accident in 1999 in Miami, resulting in the death of a 23-year-old Tampa woman. Kent was a passenger in one of the two cars involved, banged his head on the windshield and needed 55 stitches to close the wound. A ninth-round Mariners pick out of Florida International, Kent went 0-3 with a 2.20 ERA in 51 games for Seattle's Class A affiliate in San Bernardino last year. The Devil Rays must keep Kent on their major-league roster all year or offer him back to the Mariners.

• Despite all the flotsam and jetsam they brought to camp this year, the Rangers are shopping for another starting pitcher. Though Hideki Irabu has opened some eyes, Dave Burba has struggled and may be released. The Rangers are looking most closely at Baltimore right-handers Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson, as well as Toronto's Cris Carpenter. GM John Hart wants to evaluate his current crop for another week before deciding whether to look for outside help.

• The Cubs had high hopes for this season, but it's starting to look like another year of heartbreak. And that's before the first pitch is even thrown.

The Cubs felt their bullpen, anchored by Tom Gordon, would be a strength. But now Gordon's future is very much in doubt after suffering what the team termed a "severe" shoulder injury. Gordon will be out at least three months, maybe the entire season, leaving Manager Don Baylor with co-closers — 39-year-old ex-Mariner Jeff Fassero, who had 12 saves last year filling in for Gordon early in the season; and hard-throwing Kyle Farnsworth, who has hit 102 mph on the speed gun.

The Cubs have other nagging concerns. Big winter acquisition Moises Alou has been inactive all spring because of a strained muscle in his side. He finally took batting practice Thursday and hopes to play in games next week. Third baseman Bill Mueller has missed enough time with knee problems that Baylor isn't sure he'll be ready for Opening Day. Mueller, in fact, may be facing arthroscopic knee surgery that would put him out for part of April. Then there's Sammy Sosa, who missed several days with a sprained right ankle but appears to be fine now, as long as he's out of earshot of Barry Bonds.

Larry Stone can be reached at 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.