Baltimore Orioles: Jack Cust will probably step into the designated hitter role full time in 2004 for the O's. With Baltimore's offense sapped from the losses of Tony Batista and B.J. Surhoff. Cust has enormous homerun potential and was a huge threat in the minor leagues. He doesn't have much major-league experience yet, so he could start slow, but a 30-homerun season for him could happen in '04.
Boston Red Sox: Don't let last week's feeble attempt by the Red Sox scare you off of Manny Ramirez. Sure the Sox would have loved to rid themselves of Manny's contract and spread that money around some in other free agents. Bottom line: Nobody is going to take on Manny's contract and unless the Red Sox eat a large portion of his contract, he's going nowhere. You can go ahead and ink it in for 2004: .320-40-120. Manny's going be producing big numbers for the Red Sox in 2004 and hopefully, your fantasy team.
Chicago White Sox: With Bartolo Colon out of the way and the Sox strapped for cash, 2004 may put even more pressure on 24-year-old RHP Jon Garland. Garland walked a team-high 74 batters last year, and former skipper Jerry Manuel referred to him as a "disappointment." Garland will be entering his fifth season in the majors next year and could emerge as the team's third starter with a good spring. However, his mid-4 ERA the past two years isn't likely to make him a third starter on your fantasy team (especially considering he's not getting any younger).
Cleveland Indians: Bob Wickman is expected to get the closer's job back next season, despite the efforts of David Riske (8 saves, 2.29 ERA) down the stretch. Wickman missed all of 2003 with an injury, but he had 82 combined saves from '00-02. OF Jody Gerut turned into a fantasy sleeper last season, and a full season from him could turn into good numbers. His 162-game projections look like this: .280/28/95/80/5, which are solid numbers. Be warned though, he never showed consistent power in the minors, so the homeruns could be an aberration.
Detroit Tigers: Detroit drove fantasy owners insane with their closer situation last year. The team garnered 27 saves as a team, but no single player earned more than five. Should the team decide to actually pick a closer next year keep an eye on Danny Patterson, whose strikeout numbers (9.68 K/9) and WHIP ratio (1.08) indicate closer material. Carlos Pena is still expecting a breakout season, and it could happen next season. He'll have trouble hitting with nobody to protect him other than Dmitri Young, and his strikeout numbers are poor, but there's 30-homerun potential there.
New York Yankees: There has been increased talk of Derek Jeter switching into the leadoff spot for 2004. If Jeter does move to the top of the order, where he naturally belongs, expect to see a good increase in stolen bases. The shortstop swiped just 11 bags in 2003, but he had 32 just a year before that. If Jeter can swipe 30-40 bases to go with his .310 batting average and 100+ runs scored, there's a premier fantasy shortstop there.
Oakland Athletics: The likely departure of superstar SS Miguel Tejada opens up a spot for PCL Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby. General Manager Billy Beane stated earlier this fall that the team would likely only be able to keep one of the teams three major free agents, closer Keith Foulke, outfielder Jose Guillen, and Tejada. Foulke is currently in negotiations with the club to return for 2004. RF Jermaine Dye is coming off of two injury-riddled seasons and looks to simply be 100% when Spring Training opens in February. Dye could return to being the 25 homerun, 100 RBI man he was in 2000 and 2001. Left-hander Mark Mulder has recovered from the hip injury that sidelined him for the postseason and will be ready for Spring Training. Flanking Mulder in ace-dom, fellow southpaw Barry Zito and right-hander Tim Hudson could combine for 60 wins for the A's in 2004. All three are perennial CY Young candidates. 3B Eric Chavez, going into he final year of his contract, is poised for a career performance.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners locked up DH Edgar Martinez to a one-year contract after a month of speculation as to whether he'd retire. Martinez batted .294 with 24 homers and 98 RBI in 2003. If he stays healthy – always a concern with the soon-to-be 41 year old – there's little reason to expect a drop-off from a season ago. 3B Jeff Cirillo's days in Seattle are all but over, and one candidate to replace him at the hot corner is Justin Leone. Leone, a 13th round pick in 1999 by the M's, blossomed last season at Double-A San Antonio and could very well skip triple-A and take over out of spring training. Another candidate at third is Carlos Guillen, but it's unclear whether he will return at this point. Prospects Rett Johnson and 2003 AL Rookie pitcher of the Year Rafael Soriano are candidates to replace Freddy Garcia in the rotation should the M's see fit to trade the former ace.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Carl Crawford could make himself into a superstar if he can cut down on his strikeouts. Crawford stole 55 bases in 65 attempts, but had an OBP of just .304 last season. The main reason is because he struck out 102 times while drawing just 55 walks. The Rays are making an organization wide push to teach discipline to their young players. Keep in mind that Crawford is just 22 and still has a lot of time to learn some new tricks at the plate. Devil Rays hitters struck out 1030 times last season with Rocco Baldelli leading the team with 128 whiffs.
Texas Rangers: Rangers SS Alex Rodriguez could conceivably be in a different uniform by the start of 2004, according to one team executive. If AROD is dealt, you can bet that young pitching will be part of that deal. Mark Teixeira should begin 2004 as the everyday 1B, possibly pushing his numbers to All-Star status. 30 homers and 100 RBI is very much attainable for the switch hitting Ranger. OF Laynce Nix is likely going to be the starting RF next year, providing solid offense with better than average defense. Francisco Cordero should spend the entire 2004 campaign as the team's main closer and could post 35 saves. 3B Hank Blalock had a fantastic 2003 and should get even better in 2004. Blalock should reach 30 homers and 100 RBI.
Toronto Blue Jays: With catchers at a premium, don't overlook Greg Myers. The Blue Jays got 15 homeruns and a .307 average out of Myers in 2003. The key is that they play him just enough to take advantage of his offense, but not enough to wear him out. Frank Catalanotto continues to put up good offensive numbers, but his value may have dropped a little. Catalanotto played all over in his days with Texas and qualified at as many as five positions when he was with the Rangers. Now, the Blue Jays use him primarily in right and left field, cutting his flexibility down. Still, he's a player that sometimes comes in handy.
Arizona Diamondbacks: In a peculiar contractual move, the snakes declined the option of INF Craig Counsell... for 2005. As for 2004, the often injured infielder will be around for more unpredictability. While he has the potential to fortify the top half of your fantasy line-up with a high average and runs scored, he's missed close to 60 days in each of the last two seasons. Proceed with caution. The team also declined the option for RHP Miguel Batista and the front office and Batista's camp have not even exchanged any offers, whatsoever. In short, he's out the door and will post his savory ERA for another squad in 2004.
Chicago Cubs: Outside of a few one-year wonders, the Cubs have struggled to find an adequate third baseman seemingly since the very day Ron Santo departed in 1973. The drought may have finally ended this year, however. Aramis Ramirez had more than 100 RBIs between the Pirates and Cubs in 2003 and may finally solve the Cubs' longtime problems at the hot corner. In addition, Ramirez saw an increase in every major offensive stat category this year. The 25-year-old had a higher batting average, OBP, SLGP, and more homeruns, RBIs, walks, doubles, runs scored and total at-bats than in 2002.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds will look at dealing Ken Griffey, Jr. once new GM Dan O'Brien settles in and the GMs start to talk trade. If Griffey is dealt back to Seattle as rumored, the pressure will be off and the Griffey of old will return. If he stays in Cincinnati, there's too much pressure on him to succeed, so expect more of the same. It's never a safe bet to pick up Todd Van Poppel, but he had a strong second half of the season. It's happened before, but some believe Van Poppel may be - finally - on the right path.
Colorado Rockies: Juan Uribe is the Rockies shortstop of the future, but the team is seeking a veteran option to battle Uribe in spring training. It does not mean the veteran will win out. Uribe will definitely increase upon his 2003 numbers where he hit 10 homers, drove in 33 runs, stole seven bases and batted .253. A 2004 season of .270 with 15-20 homers, driving in 65, scoring 70, and stealing 25 bases is well within reach. One concern remains his OBP which was just .297 last season.
Florida Marlins: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Marlins' offseason plans. One thing that seems to be lock is the departure of Luis Castillo. If the Marlins try and fill that position in-house, Kevin Hooper might have an outside shot. Fantasy-wise, he could provide some cheap steals. He stole 25 bases in AAA last year. Hooper is about the only one with a decent shot within the organization to fill the 2B hole. Watch the Castillo situation closely.
Houston Astros: Now that the Astros have shipped star closer Billy Wagner to Philadelphia, Octavio Dotel is the front runner for the Astros' closer role. Dotel, who has put up closer-like numbers three years in a row for Houston, finished 6-4 with a 2.46 ERA last season with 97 punchouts, only eight shy of Wagner's 105 K's. In two of the last three seasons (2003 not included), Dotel has more strikeouts, lower ERA totals, and roughly the same amount of home runs allowed. Look for Dotel to be the Astros' clear-cut favorite for their closing pitcher next spring.
Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Brian Jordan and RHP Paul Quantrill both had their options declined by the team. Jordan is a walking MASH unit and Quantrill became expendable with the truckload of pitching talent the Dodgers have accumulated. Both will find work elsewhere but proceed with caution if choosing Jordan (regardless of where he ends up) and gobble up Quantrill with a late round pick or as an early season free agent pick-up. His 89 appearances and 1.75 ERA in 2003 are no fluke.
Milwaukee Brewers: Those looking for a first baseman who may replace Richie Sexson in Milwaukee if he is dealt, should keep on looking unless 2005 is on your mind. After a successful 2002 season in the minors where he was rated the number one prospect in the Brewers organization, Brad Nelson lost much of the 2003 season due to a broken hamate bone. In 2002, Nelson hit .297 with 17 homers and 99 RBI's. Nelson struggled down the stretch in 2003, hitting .210-1-14 in 143 at-bats. His struggles continue in Arizona, .267/0/8, and he will need another year of seasoning before joining the Brewers.
Montreal Expos: Need a closer, but can't grab a "big name guy"? Chad Cordero is your guy. It's possible that closer Rocky Biddle, who is eligible for arbitration, will be traded, clearing the way for Cordero. If your league counts "holds" as a stat, Cordero will be an especially good pick since if he's not the closer, he'll be the primary set up guy. Don't count out Endy Chavez. The rookie center fielder was pretty rough last season, but he's got the tools and is young enough to turn things around. The Expos haven't given up on him and neither should you.
New York Mets: Whether or not Ty Wigginton plays third base or second base, you can bank on him playing. Yes his numbers were not off the page eyepopping in 2003, hitting 11 home runs from a position that has a few power hitters. But remember Ty was a rookie this past year. He hit 36 doubles and 6 triples. With a little experience under his belt, he could reach the 20-HR plateau. With his speed, Wiggington is a darkhorse 20-20 candidate.
Philadelphia Phillies: How do you make Billy Wagner's numbers get even better? Larry Bowa believes you do it by using him for an inning at a time. Wagner pitched 86 innings in 2003 and Bowa says that's too much. "He pitched in 78 games and only 47 of them were save opportunities. I want the rest of my bullpen to pick up most of those games and keep Wagner for the save spots," said Bowa. Since the Phillies will have a left-handed closer, lefty Rheal Cormier may get fewer set up situations and more outings where he comes in earlier in games in key spots.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Bay, an outfielder acquired from San Diego in a deal that sent Brian Giles out west, is on his way to taking Giles place already. The former Mets farmhand has more power potential than Giles and in a small sampling last season, 30 games, posted a .421 OBP. The slugger has had an on base percentage of over .400 since his days in Double A and it will likely continue. He will take over as the main run producer in Pittsburgh and a 20+ home run, 80 RBI season is well within reach for the 25 year old rookie. Bay is also a known thief. He has enough speed to add value as a base stealer.
San Diego Padres: 2003 1st round pick Tim Stauffer will begin throwing this month in the Arizona after an MRI revealed weakness in wear on his labrum and rotator cuff. Padres' execs feel his is just a year away from the Majors, has potential ace material, and will start the 2005 season with San Diego. Stay away from Rusty Tucker in your fantasy pools. The future closer in 2006 has undergone Tommy John surgery and is a year away from picking up a ball. There is no telling how his arm will respond. Many have had successful surgeries that have added speed to their fastball. Tucker who throws in the mid-90's could benefit greatly if that happens.
San Francisco Giants: While 1B J.T. Snow recently expressed his desire to return to the ballclub, his agent and GM Brian Sabean haven't even spoken. Leave it to Sabean to play everything so close to the vest for fans and fantasy players, alike. OF Jose Cruz, Jr., received a nice parting gift in the shape of a Gold Glove. Too bad diving catches don't count for something in fantasy leagues. It's even more unfortunate that his low batting average and propensity to post massive strikeout numbers affect a fantasy teams outcome. After his horrible post-season and Buckner-esque blunder in Game 3 of the NLDS, consider this guy damaged goods. RHP Jason Schmidt will begin throwing in December after going under the knife to repair his pitching elbow. No one from the team will guarantee that he'll be ready come Opening Day. Oy vey.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals again brought home four Gold Gloves when the awards were handed out Wednesday and they fully expect the same type of sharp, hard-nosed defense in 2004. Of the four Cardinals to win the award this year, SS Edgar Renteria won his second straight with a .975 fielding percentage. But don't let Renteria's defense be the only reason to draft him for your fantasy squad next spring. The 28-year-old became the first NL shortstop to drive in 100 runs since Hubie Brooks of the Expos did it in 1985. Renteria had an increase in batting average and RBIs this season and could move up in the batting order next season, away from his usual No. 7 spot.