Baltimore Orioles: Former top pitching prospect Matt Riley will challenge for a spot in Baltimore's rotation come spring training. Riley was a 3rd round draft pick in 1997 but underwent Tommy John surgery in 2000 and missed all of 2001. His strikeout rates have remained strong since returning from the surgery, and he posted a 1.80 ERA in a cup of coffee with the club in 2003. He made two starts – both against Toronto – and struck out eight batters in 10 innings while holding the hard-hitting Jays to a paltry .194 batting average.
Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox look to have injected their farm system with some pitching talent that has been missing the past couple of years. One prospect that has turned some heads has been Abe Alvarez. Alvarez was selected in the second round of the 2003 draft with the 49th overall pick. He was assigned to short season Lowell for the remainder of the 2003 season, where he did not give up an earned run. The big lefty struck out 19 in 19 innings pitched and continued his success from college where he attended Long Beach State. Alvarez is not overpowering, but rather does a very good job keeping people guessing with his off speed pitches. Alvarez should be assigned to either Lowell or Sarasota (High A).
Detroit Tigers: In the spring of 2000, then Tiger General Manager went on a scouting trip in California, and found his new crown jewel. While on the trip, he saw RHP Matt Wheatland, decided he was very possibly the best pitcher in the entire draft, and a couple of months later, selected the young Righty with the 8th overall pick in the entry draft. However, Wheatland's career has been far from what you might consider that of a ‘crown jewel'. Wheatland has had serious arm problems ever since he was drafted, and has never shown the immense promise that Smith saw. While Wheatland's talent is still difficult to judge, it will be impossible to prove Smith's intuition right if Wheatland can't make it back to the mound. The Tigers are hopeful that he'll be able to pitch full time this upcoming season, but his status is still up in the air, and it appears yet another Tiger first rounder will go down as just another lost opportunity.
New York Yankees: With Aaron Boone possibly out for the season and the free-agent marker looking slimmer than Lara Flynn Boyle, the Yankees might have to turn inward to fill the hot corner. Drew Henson is apparently not an option after failing to produce consistently yet again in AAA. In AA, there's Brian Myrow who, besides being able to play 3B, 2B and OF, can actually hit. Myrow is 27 already and hasn't seen AAA yet, but his numbers in the Eastern League are nice: .306 batting average, 18 homeruns, 107 walks and 113 strikeouts. He's a Giambi-type of player, with less power. The Yankees should definitely give him a good look.
Oakland Athletics: Pitching is the last thing that the A's need on their current roster, but more help will be on the way in the coming years regardless with hurlers like southpaw John Rheinecker waiting in the wings. At 24 years old, Rheinecker was Oakland's first-round pick in 2001 out of Southwest Missouri State, and over the last three seasons he's moved through the farm system quickly. Last season, he split time at Double-A and Triple-A, going a combined 11-7 with ERAs of 4.74 and 3.79 respectively.
Seattle Mariners: Bobby Livingston, a 21-year-old left-hander, made a name for himself last season in just his second year as a professional. A fourth-round selection by the Mariners in the 2001 amateur draft, Livingston had a solid 2002 season at Low-A Everett and moved up to Mid-A Wisconsin last season. There, he dominated the Midwest League with a 15-7 record, a 2.73 ERA and a 105/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Expect the 6-foot-3 southpaw to join High-A Inland Empire to start 2004.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Pete LaForest will be competing for a utility job with the D'Rays this spring. The left-handed hitting outfielder played at both AA and AAA in 2003, hitting a combined 17-53-.264 in the two stops. LaForest started his career as a third baseman, then spent a season catching and played outfield in 2003. He adapted well to every spot that the D'Rays put him and he could be a valuable commodity off the bench. LaForest got a short audition with Tampa Bay late last season and hit just .167, but they like him enough to have used a spot in the Arizona Fall League on him and will have him competing for a major league job this spring.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers selected shortstop Drew Meyer with their first-round selection of the 2002 amateur draft, hoping he could progress through the minors nicely while Alex Rodriguez kept ahold of the starting spot on the big league roster. Meyer, who attended the University of South Carolina, has done just that. The 22-year-old left-handed hitter spent the bulk of 2003 at High-A Stockton, where he hit .281 with 5 HR, 53 RBI, 9 3B and 24 SB. A full season at Double-A Frisco is the likely destination for Meyer in 2004.
Toronto Blue Jays: Remember the name Jesse Harper. The Jays grabbed him in the 21st round of the 2000 Draft and have been very happy with his progress. After a rough debut in the New York - Penn League in 2001, Harper has jumped a level each season and has been impressive with every jump. In his past two seasons, he has posted a 19-9, 2.36 record in the Toronto system. Harper will start 2004 at AA New Haven.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks extended spring training invitations to pitchers Dustin Nippert, Brady Raggio, and Adriano Rosario; catchers Craig Ainsman, Juan Brito, Chris Snyder and Alan Zinter; infielder Donny Sadler; and outfielders Luis Garcia, Felix Jose and Julio Ramirez. RHP Adriano Rosario made a favorable impression while pitching for Gigantes Del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League this offseason. Rosario, 18, posted a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings during the playoffs. Nippert, who will turn 23 this season, did well during the AFL, starting 8 games, 3.60 ERA, 30 IP, 26 hits, 1 HR, 12 BB, 30 SO, .234 BAA, 1.27 WHIP, 9 K/9, 2.5 K/BB. He was in low-A last season, so he could jump to AA this season with his good outing and spring training invite.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs drafted Chadd Blasko out of Purdue with their 1st round sandwich pick in 2002. The Cubs knew that he was a good pitcher, but did not expect he would be as good as he showed in 2003. Blasko was arguably the Cubs best minor league pitcher in 2003, posting an amazing 1.96 ERA in his first year of professional baseball. He went 10 and 5 at high A Daytona, while only surrendering 3 homers and striking out 131 batters in 136 innings. He had an excellent WHIP at 1.07, and a nearly 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He established his changeup in 2003, which became his third pitch that is MLB quality, along with his curveball and sinking fastball. He is still trying to perfect a slider, which could make him even more deadly in the majors in the future. Blasko moved very quickly through the system this year, and should start 2004 at AA West Tennessee for the Cubs. If he can improve his slider, and continue on his current streak, then a September callup would not be out of the question. Blasko is just another reason why the Cubs have one of the brightest farm systems on this side of the Milky Way.
Cincinnati Reds: Guye Senjem may be one of those rare finds from an independent league. Senjem went undrafted out of Iowa State and played four seasons of independent ball before the Reds gave him a shot. Senjem played outfield at AA Chattanooga in 2003 and hit .265 with 15 homeruns. Not amazing numbers, especially considering that he is already 28 years old, but the Reds think he could eventually compete for a utility role with the big league club, especially since he has some experience behind the plate.
Houston Astros: One day hoping to man left field for the Astros is Henri Stanley. Stanley does have the obstacle of Lance Berkman in the way, but he is doing a very good job in the minors of at least deserving consideration for something from the bid league club. Stanley is now 26 and considered a rather old prospect, but he spent four years in college at Clemson before going in the draft. He has spent one year at each level of minors so far, and has excelled at all levels. He hit .292 for New Orleans this year, and had a great OBP of .368. Stanley does have a bit of weak arm though, and is projected to only be able to man left field. This could be a big problem for the Astros, as they assume that Berkman will be going nowhere anytime soon. That means that Stanley could become very expendable when they are looking to improve their ball club this year. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for either side, as the Astros would get something in return and Stanley would get a chance at a starting spot. He may start the year as a backup outfielder for the Astros, and may start the year in AAA, depending on how well his Spring Training goes. We won't have to wait too long though, because in a few short weeks, the leather will be popping again, and the boys will play ball. The Astros just hope that Henri Stanley can continue to play at the level he has shown.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 1B Luis Jimenez helped himself by hitting .297/.350/.459 in limited play (37 AB, 16 games) for the Lara Cardinals in the Venezuelan Winter League. Signed out of the Orioles organization, he has shown a good eye so far, with OBP of .474 and .349 the past two seasons and SO/BB ratio of 1.0 and 1.5 the past two seasons. He will probably start out in the Dodgers' high-A league team, Vero Beach... RP Jonathan Figueroa helped himself in the Venzuelan Winter League as well. He pitched 10 games in relief, his first stint as a reliever after starting his first three years in organized ball, and excelled with a 0.71 ERA, 12.2 IP, 10 hits, and 13 SO and only 1 homer. However, the wildness that has plagued his pitching was evident here with 12 BB to go with the other great stats. He's only turned 21 so, after regressing in 2003 with a much poorer performance at the same level as 2002, the Dodgers look to be changing his focus with his outing in the VWL and he will probably repeat at South Georgia again but now as a reliever.
Montreal Expos: Expos farmhands played a big role in the Ponce Lions winning the Puerto Rican League Championship. Val Pascucci hit .255 in the regular season, but turned it up on high when the playoffs rolled around and hit .348 in the championship series. Meanwhile, Terrmel Sledge hit .326 with 3 homeruns in the Puerto Rican League season. On the mound, Roy Corcoran pitched in just 4 games for Ponce, but had a 2.70 ERA. All three will be competing for major league jobs this spring.
New York Mets: With the trading of Jaime Cerda to the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday and the prospective of moving Grant Roberts into the rotation, keep your eye on Royce Ring as a prospect to watch in 2004 when it comes to filling the team's bullpen holes. The organization envisions him as their potential closer -- he has a great mental makeup -- and may handle him much like the way Houston has done with ex-Met Octavio Dotel, insert him into a middle relief role and as time goes convert him into their ninth inning man once Braden Looper exits. In 21.2 innings with Binghamton, Ring went 3-0, had a 1.66 ERA, and fanned 18. Based on how he performs down in Port St. Lucie, don't be shocked to see Royce on the 25 man roster come April.
Philadelphia Phillies: Francisco Butto wrapped up an impressive season in the Puerto Rican League. Pitching for the Aragua Tigers, Butto appeared in 28 games - all in relief - and went 6-1, 0.96 on the season. The young right-hander also saved 8 games for the Tigers and struck out 36 in 27 innings, while walking just 5. Butto pitched at Lakewood in 2003 - primarily as a starter - and went 10-12, 3.03. The Phillies have Butto ticketed for a move to High A Clearwater in 2004.
San Francisco Giants: Joining his third organization in three years, RHP Chris Gissell probably wanted to impress his new employees pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League for the San Juan Senadores. He started out well, going 4-3 in 10 starts with 53.1 IP, 61 hits, 5 HR, 8 BB, 44 SO, 3.86 ERA and .284 BAA. However, in the playoffs, he came apart in two starts, going 0-2 with 9.2 IP, 13 hits, 1 HR, 5 BB, 1 SO, 8.38 ERA, .310 BAA, having almost as many walks in much less innings pitched. Having just turned 26 years old, his days as an upcoming prospect is over but he did have a 3.55 ERA in 2003 in the PCL so he will give the Giants' AAA team in Fresno a boost in their rotation now that Boof has been traded, having started 10 games in AAA last year. He also relieved 28 games as well.
St. Louis Cardinals: Blake Hawksworth was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals after being drafted in the 28th round of the 2001 amateur draft. He is one of the top Cardinal prospects, which may say something for their system at this point in time. However, the young pitcher has shown some promise, but his 2003 season was cut short by a non threatening injury. He only managed to pitch 87 innings for Cards high and middle A affiliates this year, but with his potential, he remains one of their better prospects. He has a low 90's fastball that he has been able to spot rather well, and some very good offspeed pitches that enabled him to get 89 strikeouts against batters in 2003. The Cardinals will probably start the young right hander at high A Palm Beach this year, and see what he can do in a full season, praying that he stays healthy. The Cardinals hope that they got a steal with this 28th round pick, and will find out very soon.