Baltimore Orioles: 3B Melvin Mora had an up and down season last year. In the first half of the year, he was leading the A.L. in hitting and seemed to have a smooth stroke. But, it should be noted that during that first half of the year, the Orioles played weaker teams then in the the second half of the season, when everything went wrong for him and went from a season surprise to a bust. Therefore, don't count on Mora to bat .330 this year, a safer bet would be in the .270-.280 range, with a little pop and some speed. Another player who had a great first half and then struggled was Jorge Julio, the Orioles' closer. He has the stuff, a 98mph fastball and wicked slider, and is young, so look for him rebound and possibly become one of the A.L's leaders in saves.
Boston Red Sox: The Sox are tying up their loose ends from arbitration with Trot Nixon and Byung-Hyun Kim already taken care of and David Ortiz still in the works. Although it will be tough, the outfield could have a better year than last, led by Nixon. Nixon is only signed to a 1 year deal, which means he is still searching for some long term security. If he has a big year, he could really drive up his market price so he will definitely come into camp motivated. Manny Ramirez has had quite an off-season as well. He has been dangled in front of every team in baseball, but is still here. Granted, Manny is generally unaffected by everything, but maybe this is what it takes to light a fire under him. His numbers have been in slight decline from what they were in Cleveland and realizing he is no longer untouchable might motivate a return to form.
Chicago White Sox: Joe Crede played his first full year in the majors in 2003, which was exciting for the Sox, as they have been excited about Crede since they drafted him in 1996. It may have taken him a while to make it to the majors full time, but Crede looks like he is going to be a very good third baseman for years to come. He hit a respectable .261, with 19 homers, and 75 RBI's. Those aren't great numbers, but they are pretty good considering that it was his first full year in the show. Crede also struck out 75 times last year, which was actually a good stat for him, since he had never seen most of the pitchers before. In the year to come, his strikeouts should decline even further, and all his numbers go up a little. He could finish with a .275 average, 25 homers, and flirt with 100 RBI's. This would make the White Sox very happy, and fantasy owners could view Crede as a steal since he is not as well known as many other third baseman. 2004 could be a breakout year for Crede, and he is truly ready for one.
Detroit Tigers: Last season, the Tigers pitching staff was more or less a hodge-podge of not ready prospects and "4-A" ball players – guys that have proven themselves at the AAA level but have never performed at the majors. The leader of the group was RHP Nate Cornejo, whose 6-17 record and 4.67 ERA were less than spectacular. However, due to his youth and (hopefully) improved offensive support, many might expect a significant increase from Cornejo. However, Cornejo's K/9 was a paltry 2.13 – an incredibly poor ratio. Couple that with the fact that he remains incredibly inconsistent, and he's definitely not a wise late-round fantasy investment. He'll probably stay in the rotation solely because the Tigers are still waiting on numerous other arms to get ready, but don't expect anything big from Cornejo.
Kansas City Royals: Left-hander Brian Anderson was a key offseason signing for Kansas City. After coming over from Cleveland during the season, Anderson went 5-1, 3.99 for the Royals. He came up just short of 200 innings between Cleveland and KC in 2003 and easily had the best season of his career. At 31, Anderson is a veteran who fits in well with what should be a pretty good Royals 2004 squad. Don't jump on Anderson too early, but keep him in mind as the picks get tougher.
Minnesota Twins: The Phillies often thought of Carlos Silva as having closer potential and the Twins were anxious to have Silva added as part of the Eric Milton deal with Philadelphia. Don't be surprised if the Twins at least toy with the idea of giving Silva the closer's job. It will be interesting to see how the Twins handle Silva, because while some baseball people believe he has closer potential, others believe he is best suited to be a starter. In Philadelphia, he never really fit in, so watch what the Twins do with Silva this spring. Literally anything could happen, but rest assured that Silva has good stuff and could become a pretty good late round pick.
New York Yankees: Alfonso Soriano and the Yankees agreed to a new one-year deal for the second baseman, keeping the fantasy monster in pinstripes for at least one more year. Soriano's numbers took a small step backward last season, but only on the surface. His major statistics (fantasy speaking) all saw a slight decline from his insane 2002, but his on-base percentage moved up a tick (only six points, but he drew 15 more walks and struck out 27 fewer times). If Soriano's peripherals are improving, then he should at least remain at his current production level. The biggest question is if he can shake off the 2003 postseason and start back fresh.
Oakland Athletics: The A's will be counting on shortstop prospect Bobby Crosby to take over for Miguel Tejada in 2004, a tall task for the 25-year-old. In 12 major league at bats last season, Crosby went hitless. At Triple-A Sacramento in 2003, though, Crosby was a hit-machine. He batted .308 with 22 HR, 90 RBI and 24 SB in 465 AB. Oakland won't have many other options other than Crosby at shortstop, so expect the future star to make the Opening Day lineup and be an every-day player. His rookie year projections are as follows: .270, 9 HR, 50 RBI, 12 SB.
Seattle Mariners: The sudden unexpected departure of closer Kazuhiro Sasaki not only freed up at least $8 million for the team to make more moves this winter, it also opened the door for Eddie Guardado to become the next M's closer. Guardado, who had 4 saves with Minnesota last season, was signed by the M's to become the team's premier left-handed setup man for Sasaki. He's the leading candidate to take over the spot left by Sasaki. Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was simply marvelous as a closer last season when Sasaki missed the majority of the year with injuries, could also take over. If Hasegawa wins the job, it would allow the M's to keep the lefty, Guardado, in a setup role. Figure on 35-40 saves from whichever players wins the job.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Does Fernando Tatis have anything left? The D'Rays hope so. They signed the veteran infielder who has been plagued by injuries the past few seasons. Tatis has averaged just 76 games over the past four seasons after what appeared to be his break through season with St.Louis in 1999. If you want to reach for a player in the lower rounds, fine, but don't make it Tatis. This guy needs to do a lot of proving before you even give him a second thought.
Texas Rangers: Brad Fullmer quietly signed with the Rangers in the off-season and will likely be the team's primary designated hitter in 2004. Fullmer, 29, is one of the game's true sluggers today and is coming off a season that was shortened by a serious knee injury. If fully recovered by the start of the season, expect the big left-handed bat to benefit from the move to the Ballpark in Arlington. Fullmer hit 32 HR with 104 RBI in 2000 as a member of the Toronto Bluejays, but has seen his production drop off ever since. That's especially true of his power numbers. His homerun totals dipped to 18 in 2001, 19 in 2002, and 9 in 206 at bats last season. Given 450 at bats in 2004, don't be surprised to see Fullmer reach 20 HR and 80 RBI in hitter-friendly Texas.
Toronto Blue Jays: Will the real Eric Hinske please report to training camp with the Blue Jays? The sophomore jinx knocked Hinske on his butt in 2003. His homerun numbers were cut in half and his average fell 36 points. There is too much talent to figure that Hinske will be a one-year wonder. Look for him to bounce back in 2004 and get back to the kind of numbers 24-84-.279-.365 that he put up in his rookie season. Third base isn't exactly a hot bed of huge fantasy numbers, so don't let Hinske fall too far if you want him.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Shea Hillenbrand is up for arbitration and GM Joe Garagiola can't be too thrilled considering the team is trying to slash salaries. INF Carlos Baerga is ripping up the Puerto Rican League. (WOW!) Last week he went 6-for-11 for the San Juan team he, coincidentally, owns. He obviously wasn't facing Jason Schmidt, Roger Clemens, Billy Wagner and his other friends he'll face this year in the NL. Too bad the Puerto Rican League #'s don't carry over to your fantasy team.
Atlanta Braves: The loss of Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla will hit the Braves hard. J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero can't pick up the slack. That means that the other big bats in the lineup could be affected too. It figures that the Braves run production would be down, meaning that guys like Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles might not score as many runs as they did in the past. On the up side, Chipper Jones and Andrew Jones may get a shot at driving in more runs because they won't have Sheffield in front of them. Keep those numbers in mind on draft day.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs aquired Aramis Ramirez last year to fill a third base whole that has been present since America landed on the moon. Ramirez proved that he could hit with the Cubs, and even improved his fielding slightly in the 2003 season. His fielding had been his biggest question, however after initial slips, Ramirez played well on the Wrigley grass. Ramirez hit 27 home runs last year between Chicago and Pittsburg, as well as a combined .272 average, with 106 RBI's. Those are the best number the Cubs have seen at third base in a long time, but the number one question is.. Can he repeat it? The answer, probably, he's only 26 years old, and should have another good season next year. After joining the Cubs, Ramirez's average went down, however he hit more homeruns despite playing less games with them. This is good news for fantasy owners, because the sometimes hitter friendly Wrigley Field will be the home for the Cubs again in 2004. Ramirez should increase his homerun power to over 30 with a possibility of even 40. His average should be just under .300, but plenty of RBI's will still make him one of the better hitting third basemen in the league.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Wagner became the first player from the 2003 Draft to make it to the majors when the Reds rushed him along last season. Look for him to stick and possibly take over as their closer in 2004. Wagner was impressive in his 17 relief appearances with Cincinnati, going 2-0, 1.66. At the very least, Wagner will be in a position to pick up a lot of holds and his good control will help in some leagues, too. At best, Wagner will be one of the best young closers in the game and will be a great addition to your roster. This is a guy worth grabbing.
Colorado Rockies: Preston Wilson showed the promise that made him a highly touted Mets prospect so long ago. It only took the Colorado air. Wilson had career highs in hits, doubles, homers and RBI's. More importantly he cut down on his strikeout ratio. Look for Wilson to continue his dominance in '04 and he could top the numbers he put up this past year. He should be a high draft pick in any league.
Florida Marlins: Carl Pavano doesn't always get a lot of attention, but he should. He hit the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career in 2003 and finished with a 4.30 ERA and a 12-13 record. Oddly enough, the innings didn't wear down Pavano. His post all-star game ERA was nearly one-third of a run less than his pre all-star game ERA. Pavano is coming into his prime and is finally getting a chance to start every fifth day, rather than bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. Pavano will be a good pick in this year's draft.
Houston Astros: Jeff Bagwell has been a staple in the Houston offense for the past decade plus, and 2004 will be no different. Bagwell had a tough draught this past year that caused his numbers to slip a bit, and the reason could be age. He was not injured, and couldn't figure out anything wrong with his swing, but at 36, the body starts to slow down a bit, especially for baseball players. Despite a decline, he still had a very fine year for the Astros who were competing for the division all year. He managed to hit .278 this year, as well as driving in 100 RBI's with 39 homeruns, joining the 400 homer clubs last year. He also had a .373 OBP, which was a big factor in him being hit in 109 times. The best part for Bagwell? Well, two things really, he plays in a little league park, and his teammates know how to hit. As long as he keeps getting on base with either walks or hits, they will knock him in. Also, as long as the Astros don't unexpectedly move, then he will still be able to get a few homers on balls that should have been flyouts. His numbers may wane a bit more this year, but it should be anything too serious until he gets a little closer to 40. Funny stance and all, Bagwell would be a good pickup for almost any fantasy owners.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 3B Adrian Beltre signed a 1-year deal for $ 5 million as did bad attitude P Odalis Perez; Eric Gagne is asking for $8 million in his arbitration year which is a slight upgrade from the $550,000 he made in 2003. Look for him on "Cribs" next season and hope to snatch him, his saves, huge K's and microscopic WHIP and ERA. The Dodgers are continuing to harvest talent from the Pacific Rim (like P's Hideo Nomo and Kaz Ishii) by inviting Kintetsu Buffaloes infielder Norihiro Nakamura to spring training next month. He hit .236 last season while knocking out 23 dingers and scoring 67 times. The team still doesn't officially have Frank McCourt as an owner but discussions are (finally) coming to a conclusion. The deal is at a point where McCourt will be sitting in the luxury box in Chavez Ravine or News Corp. will continue running the team (and badly, might I add).
Milwaukee Brewers: Danny Kolb was signed to a one year deal this week and starts the season as the team's closer. The 29 year old saved 21-of-23 after taking over duties for the traded Mike DeJean. He struck out 39 in 41.1 innings and had an ERA of 1.96. Kolb has never had that type of success before, however. It would be smart to pick up Kolb, but be wary. His instant success may have people reaching for him, let them and take someone more established, but if he falls take him.
Montreal Expos: Being a season away from free agency seems to add some punch to a lot of players numbers. Orlando Cabrera is eligible for free agency after the 2004 season, but just how much more can he add? Cabrera had career highs in runs (95), hits (186), doubles (47), homeruns (17), average (.297) and OBP (.347) in 2003, plus tied career highs in games played (162) and at bats (626). Plus, he stole 24 bases, just one short of his career high of 25. There is no reason to think that he can't equal or better a lot of those numbers. Keep in mind too, that Cabrera is an above average defensive player, who can help you if your league tracks errors or fielding percentage.
New York Mets: Which Al Leiter will show up for the Mets (and your fantasy team) in '04? The "bush leaguer" that sported the 5.57 ERA and 1.77 WHIP ratio in the first half of the season? Or the perennial ace that had a 2.15 ERA & 1.17 WHIP after the All-Star break? You always want to ride the players that were hot the second half of the season...and there wasn't anyone hotter than Leiter in the second half of 2003. Watch Leiter closely in Spring Training. People might forget his tremendous second half.
Philadelphia Phillies: Marlon Byrd has added about 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason. That's not always good news. Byrd is much more valuable when he is simply getting on base and can use his speed. If he's catching Jimmy Rollins Disease and thinks he's a homerun hitter, he's missing the point. Byrd insists that he didn't add the muscle to become more powerful, he's looking to add more durability. He said he wore down late in the season and thinks that the added muscle will keep him stronger. Byrd's attitude is always great and he said he's willing to do anything the Phillies ask or hit anywhere they want in the lineup. If Rollins gives up the homerun swing, Byrd could drop to either the second or eighth spot in the order.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Despite signing a minor league deal, the closer's job is Juan Acevedo's to lose. Back in 2002, Acevedo had 28 saves for the Detroit Tigers, but also blew seven chances. His fastball tops out at 95 and he isn't a pitcher that will earn you a lot of strikeouts, but he could surprise with a nice season. It can't be worse than last year for the Pirates when Mike Williams had an ERA over six, can it?
San Diego Padres: A catcher coming over to the National League may have a tougher time adjusting than other position players. While Ramon Hernandez may take a month to adjust to small ball on the defensive side, it does not figure to hurt his offense, which is on the rise. Coincidentally, Hernandez is no stranger to small ball at the plate and that should only help his game. Hernandez hit 21 homers and drove in 78 runs and could be in a better lineup overall this year. He will likely have an adjustment at the plate, but Hernandez is a top five catcher in fantasy leagues, and top three in NL only leagues.
San Francisco Giants: The Men in Black (and orange) open the season against Houston. Jeff Kent never served as a great villain, but – man, oh man – Clemens is going to face Bonds again. Just get either of them on your team for the first three days alone! Last time, Clemens clipped Bonds in the elbow but did not have to bat since it was in the Bronx. This time, Roger gets to hit. Will Schmidt earhole him!? I can't wait! The team re-signed versatile pitcher Jim Brower to a 2-year deal and 3B/utility man Pedro Feliz to a one-year deal. Other than that, Vlad slipped through their fingers and Maddux could be a Cub by the time you read this. Take deep breaths, Giants fans.
St. Louis Cardinals: Scott Rolen manned third base for the Cardinals again in 2003, and had a pretty good year. He won a gold glove, and had a very solid year at the plate again, proving to be one of the best third basemen in the game. His had a respectable average of .286, to go along with 28 HR's, and 104 RBI's. One of the great stats about Rolen was that he had a .382 OBP, and knew how to take a walk. That allowed him to get driven in 98 times by the potent St. Louis offense. The offense lost a good man in JD Drew, as well as Martinez, however St. Louis still boasts one of the better offenses in the NL central, so Rolen should have another solid year at the plate. He will have plenty of opportunities to drive runs in, and should stay true to his career form, since he is only 28. Rolen would be one of the best pickups for the 2004 fantasy season, but you aren't the only owner who knows that.