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-- The trading of pitching ace Bartolo Colon to reduce payroll was not just another fire sale by the beleaguered Montreal Expos, general manager Omar Minaya insisted yesterday.

Obtaining, in return, former New York Yankees star pitcher Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez and two young major-league baseball players, and some cash to help pay them, will at least keep the Expos competitive, Minaya said.

"My understanding of a fire sale if that you give guys away," the second-year GM said. "We're not giving guys away.

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"This trade will at least give us the ability to be competitive in 2003. We added young players and a pitcher [Hernandez]that I really like and who has been a winner and a competitor."

The Expos sent Colon and infielder Jorge Nunez to the Chicago White Sox in a three-club trade also involving the New York Yankees. The Expos also got relief pitcher Rocky Biddle, outfielder and first baseman Jeff Liefer and an undisclosed amount of cash.

The White Sox had earlier acquired Hernandez and $2-million (U.S.) from the Yankees for right-handed pitchers Antonio Osuna and Delvis Lantigua, a minor-leaguer.

Minaya said he had little choice but to trade Colon, 29, who was acquired by Montreal from the Cleveland Indians on June 27, 2002, and had a combined record of 20-8 and a 2.93 earned-run average in 33 starts last season, including a 10-4 record and 3.31 ERA in 17 starts with the Expos.

Major League Baseball, which owns the Expos, has a budget of reportedly just more than $40-million -- well short of what is needed to keep intact the 2002 team, which finished above .500 for the first time in six years at 83-79 last season.

At least one more trade of a player earning "more than the minimum" was needed, Minaya said, but the Colon deal should help the Expos keep superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero.

"That's one I don't want to do, but until I have a final number, I can't say I won't do that," he cautioned.

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"I hope he stays. The fact that we were able to move a big piece like Colon means the chances of Guerrero staying here have increased."

The dealing away of star players such as Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland in what were called fire sales was a black mark on the Expos of the 1990s, when players such as Canadian outfielder Larry Walker were allowed to leave as free agents.

The Expos, who will play 22 home games in Puerto Rico this season, are expected to be sold and probably moved before the 2004 season.

"I always want to produce a winning product," Minaya said. "I also have a job to do.

"I've been told to cut payroll, and you can't do that without giving up quality players."

White Sox GM Ken Williams had been after Colon from the beginning.

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"Early on, I was probably the most aggressive guy," Williams said. "As soon as the end of the season hit, I was trying to launch a pre-emptive strike in that direction. You kind of selectively pick and choose your spots. You don't want to go away and allow this thing to develop.

"You kind of go in and out of this situation. Really, there were so many twists and turns to how this evolved. If I were to make a chart, it would probably look more like a chart of my stocks than anything."

Added Williams: "There were very few pitchers of his calibre available this off-season and we really like the potential of a Bartolo Colon-Mark Buehrle combination at the top of our rotation, followed by Jon Garland and Danny Wright."

Colon is to earn $8.25-million this season, the final year of a five-year, $17.25-million contract he signed in 1999.

Minaya, who earlier unloaded underperforming pitchers Matt Herges and Masato Yoshii, said he had spoken to his players to warn that major trades would come this winter.

"I told them I have to cut payroll, that they're going to see names in the paper," he said. "If we had traded for guys from A-ball, it would have been tough, but the guys we got are major-leaguers.

"Is El Duque [equivalent to]Bartolo Colon? The record hasn't shown that the last two years, but he is respected and he's got [World Series]rings to show for it."

Hernandez is a three-time World Series champion with the Yankees from 1998 to 2000. He has a 9-3 record and 2.51 ERA in 16 postseason games.

The 33-year-old right-hander from Havana became the first pitcher in major-league history to win his first eight postseason decisions, while his total of nine victories is one shy of the Yankees' record, held by Whitey Ford and Andy Pettitte.

Last season, Hernandez was 8-5 and had a 3.64 ERA and one save in 24 games, including 22 starts. He has a 53-38 record, a 4.04 ERA and one save in 124 games in his career.

The Yankees were looking to trade him to lighten their glut of eight starting pitchers.

Hernandez is eligible for arbitration and is expected to earn more than $4-million next season, although the cash the Expos obtained in the trade should pay for much of that.

He has spent time on the disabled list in each of the past three seasons, but Minaya said he believes Hernandez can still be an impact pitcher.

"Is he going to be the pitcher he was?" he said. "I don't know. We've had good reports on him from our scouts.

"I've always been a big fan of El Duque as a pitcher. He's also a great competitor and teammate. There's a reason his teams have always won."

The Yankees and Boston Red Sox had been interested in Colon. Instead, the Yankees came away with Osuna, a reliever who was 8-2 in 59 games and had a 3.86 ERA for the White Sox last season, and Lantigua, who was 7-7 and had a 4.38 ERA at Triple-A Charlotte.

"We're excited about this trade," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "It makes sense in a lot of ways. We traded from strength. Osuna will help us now and Lantigua in the future. It reduces payroll as a fringe benefit."

Cashman said that the acquisition of Colon would not have worked for the Yankees. "That situation didn't fit with us, given the personnel we have and the payroll situation," he said.

Biddle, 26, was 3-4 and had a 4.06 ERA and one save in 44 appearances last year. He made seven starts.

Liefer, 28, hit .230 and had seven home runs, 26 runs batted in and 28 runs scored in 76 games for Chicago last year, including 21 starts in left field, 18 at first base, nine in right field and four as the designated hitter. Since making his major-league debut with the White Sox in 1999, the native of Fontana, Calif., has hit .244 in 209 games, with 25 homers, 79 RBIs and 72 runs.

Nunez, 27, played last season with the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, with a .291 average, 20 RBIs, 42 runs and 27 stolen bases in 91 games.

Osuna is expected to move into the Yankees' bullpen as a replacement for Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza, who left as free agents. Stanton signed with the New York Mets and Mendoza with the Red Sox.

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