Anaheim Angels: Former fantasy stalwart Darin Erstad may never again be the producer he was in 2000 or even 2002 for that matter. Erstad is suffering through chronic hamstring tendinitis and has opted not to have surgery at this point. Erstad, who hit .355 with 25 homeruns and 28 steals in 2000 for Anaheim, missed 95 games last season due to injury, and its more likely that his condition will get worse if he doesn't have the surgery. Troy Glaus may have turned into a sleeper pick in 2004 after a down year also due to injury. Keep track of his situation because, if he gets healthy again, he has 40-homer potential.
Baltimore Orioles: Watch out for Kurt Ainsworth in 2004. One of the more respected prospects in the Giants system for a few years missed the end of '03 with an injury after he was dealt to the Orioles. With the Giants he posted a 3.82 ERA and a reasonable amount of strikeouts. He could be the next Sidney Ponson for Baltimore, a good pitcher on a lousy team but one that's still capable of helping a fantasy team. Don't expect a repeat season from Melvin Mora either. His numbers should go back to closer to his career averages, but a guy that hits .280 with about 12-15 homers that qualifies at so many positions (SS, 2B, OF) is still worth a look in most leagues.
Boston Red Sox: One thing appears certain for the Sox heading into next season...Bronson Arroyo, barring a horrible spring, should make the team either in the bullpen or in the rotation. John Burkett may be retiring; Jeff Suppan appears headed out the proverbial door; Mike Timlin turns 37; and Byung Yung Kim is a mess without a solidified role. Chances are Arroyo lands a spot in the rotation after going 12-6 with a 3.43 ERA for Pawtucket this year. Arroyo is a someone who could be a darkhorse for your strikeouts (he struck out 155 batters in 149.2 innings).
Chicago White Sox: Go ahead and pencil in Frank Thomas on your rosters for 2004. Thomas hit .267 last year with the Sox, his highest average since 2000. Now that the pressure if off "The Big Hurt" and on to teammate Paul Konerko, who struggled severely last season, Thomas should once again lead the Sox in homeruns in '04.
Detroit Tigers: You either had to be a die-hard Tigers fan or someone who owned Dmitri Young or Alex Sanchez in your fantasy league to realize the seasons they had last year. Young put together numbers like .297-29-85 and Sanchez had the quietest 52 stolen bases ever! But if you are looking for a sleeper from Detroit heading into next season, look no further than 3B Eric Munson. Munson quietly clubbed 18 HRs this season despite missing over 50 games with a broken thumb. This youngster can mash and will showcase his power next season.
Kansas City Royals: Several New York papers have reported that the Yankees will explore trading Alfonso Soriano in the offseason and one of the most realistic possibilities is to Kansas City for arbitration eligible Carlos Beltran, in a move that would fill gaping holes for both teams. However unlikely it may be that the Yankees will actually trade Soriano, this does shed light on the Royals' plans to move Beltran (Who is due between $8 million and $10 million in his last arbitration season). GM Allan Baird has been said to be looking to acquire an "impact bat" who could provide enough salary relief from Beltran's contract to acquire help at other sore positions on the team. Trading partners could include Baltimore, Texas, or the New York Mets.
Minnesota Twins: Early offseason whispers indicate that the Twins are looking to upgrade their pitching across the board this offseason. For starting pitchers, Kenny Rogers or Rick Reed could return to the Twins in 2004 with a cost-effective deal. Uber-relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado are also looking at Free Agency. Indications are that all four pitchers will have to look elsewhere, based on what they want and what the Twins say they can afford. Chances are, the Twins will attempt to fill their needs interorganizationally - either by minor league promotions, or trading away some of their top bats for cheap pitching.
New York Yankees: As a team that consistently wins 95+ games in the season, the Yankees are a good source of wins for pitchers. Two players to watch out for in 2004 will be Jose Contreras and Jon Lieber because of this. Contreras showed some impressive stuff as a starter in 2003, but was sidelined due to injury and bullpen confusion. As a full-time starter next year expect around 15 or more wins and a very good number of strikeouts (he had a K/9 mark of 9.13 in 2003). Lieber is a similar story, as he too has a history of success and missed all of this year while recovering from surgery. Don't forget that Lieber anchored the 2001 Cubs staff with a 20-win season. His strikeout numbers aren't anything to get crazy over, but a solid ERA (he had a 3.80 in ‘01) and WHIP (1.15 in '01) and the potential for 12-15 wins are exciting, particularly for a guy that won't go until late rounds of a draft.
Oakland A's: Look out for Ted Lilly in 2004. The 27-year old southpaw finished the season as the hottest pitcher in baseball, going 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA in September. His strikeout numbers have always been somewhere between good and excellent and on a team that wins as many games as Oakland he could be a roto sleeper next season. The shortstop position will be vacant when Miguel Tejada signs elsewhere. Oakland is likely to give Billy Crosby a shot at the job. Crosby hit .308 with 22 homeruns at AAA Sacramento, but his strikeout rate (110 whiffs in 465 at bats) is a bit alarming.
Seattle Mariners: Jamie Moyer is quite frankly a freak of nature. To have the kind of success at his age is almost unprecedented, but he's shown no signs of wearing down yet. I've been predicting Moyer's downfall since 2001, but he keeps proving me wrong. So this year I'm going to tell you this: He's going to win around 15 games with an ERA around or under 3.50 and a good WHIP. Take him if he's hanging around your draft late. With Edgar Martinez retiring, the DH spot will be wide open. Seattle doesn't have anyone on their current roster that would fit well there, so look for them go outside the organization to find someone since nobody at the AAA level has good power numbers.
Tampa Devil Rays: Lou Piniella has helped a number of young Rays players to hasten their development. There are a string of other young players coming through the Devil Rays farm system, who could be good mid or late season additions. Veteran shortstop Julio Lugo has signed on to stay with Tampa Bay. He's not spectacular, but he's steady. Meanwhile, Aubrey Huff is gaining more and more attention and his 34 / 107 / .311 season makes him a nice part of a fantasy team. If the Rays spend some money on free agents, as is rumored, closer Lance Carter has the stuff to improve greatly on the 26 saves that he recorded in 2003.
Texas Rangers: 2004 is going to be the year of Mark Teixeira. Teixeira mashed 26 homeruns in his first full year in the major leagues and looks to improve next season. He also has the capability to hit .300 and, in Texas' potent lineup, drive in 100 runs depending on where he bats in the order. The only hole in his game is that he won't run, but his eligibility at 1B, 3B (in some leagues) and OF should make up for that somewhat. Saves are going to be interesting in Texas next year. Francisco Cordero did a very good job after Ugueth Urbina was traded and will be Texas' first option next year barring a free-agent signing.
Toronto Blue Jays: Will Eric Hinske get back to the numbers that he put up in his rookie season of 2002 or were those numbers simply a fluke? Hinske's homerun production was cut in half from his rookie year, but the Jays are still believers in Hinske. They chalk his 2003 season up to simply being a sophomore jinx. Carlos Delgado is one of the premier sluggers in baseball, but not everybody knows that. He's getting more and more recognition, but sometimes gets overlooked for the bigger name sluggers. Don't be afraid to grab him early. Roy Halladay isn't a secret anymore. His 2003 season was one of the best ever for a Blue Jays pitcher. The scary part is that there are a lot of people who think he can do even better.
Arizona Diamondbacks: While it's too early to tell whether the D-backs are taking either an "unload" or "reload" approach for 2004, owner Jerry Colangelo has never been one to use a "wait ‘til next year" approach. Ace Curt Schilling and his $12 million for 2004 are good as gone and the club declined P Miguel Batista's option for 2004. While LF Luis Gonzalez will continue to produce, the team will rely on an aging Randy Johnson, the continued emergence of 3B Shea Hillenbrand and a cast of youngsters, including 2003 rookie phenom Brandon Webb. Make no mistake: youth will dominate the lineup. Pesky SS Alex Cintron will accompany other "Babybacks", namely 2B Matt Kata and C Robby Hammock -- along with pitchers Webb, Oscar Villarreal and Jose Valverde.
Atlanta: After declining Shane Reynolds' club option for 2003, the Braves 2004 pitching rotation is no clearer. It's a relative certainty that Russ Ortiz, Horacio Ramirez, and Mike Hampton will again claim rotation spots, but after that things get a little foggy. Greg Maddux will hit the free agent market looking for a contract that will carry him until the end of his career, something the Braves aren't apt to offer. Anyway you look at it the Braves must upgrade their pitching staff, and adding a solid-innings eater (Can anyone say Kevin Millwood?) would not only drastically improve the Braves pitching staff as a whole, but also strengthen the Braves other rotation offerings on an individual level. Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton are much more suited for the 2-3 starters role, while Horacio Ramirez needs to be weened into the 4-hole coming off his rookie season where he pitched every 5th day.
Chicago Cubs: With Shawn Estes filing for free agency Thursday, it opens up the No. 5 spot in the Cubs' rotation for RHP Juan Cruz (2-7, 6.05 ERA in 2003). The organization has still yet to figure out whether or not Cruz is a starter, setup man, or a good long relief arm. If he gets a chance at the starting rotation out of Spring Training next year, his fantasy value could increase traumatically, given his steady ERA as a starter in 2002.
Colorado Rockies: Eric Young is expected to come home to Colorado. Young is strongly considering joining the Rockies to play 2B. He would immediately add speed to a lineup devoid of it. The Rockies swiped just 63 bases as a team last season, 10 more than Young's franchise record set in 1996. If he gets on base, he will score well over 100 runs. Starting pitcher Darren Oliver, who led the Rockies with 13 wins, is testing free agency. He could be a bargain late round pick as 13 wins with the Rockies translates to even better numbers elsewhere. The Rockies are without a closer as Jose Jimenez has opted for free agency. There is no clear frontrunner for the spot and it will likely be decided in house.
Houston Astros: Roy Oswalt is one of the best fantasy prospects in all of baseball, so long as he can stay healthy. Despite being on the disabled list three different times in 2003, he put together his third successful Major League season in as many tries by winning 10 games and finishing with a 2.97 ERA. The right-hander finished the season 4-0 with a 2.00 ERA and will head to spring training on fire from last season. Don't expect OF Lance Berkman's batting average to drop from his previous year's for the third season in a row. At 27, Berkman's better years are still ahead of him. Even though he didn't have the monsterous year he hoped, he still managed to hit .288 with the Astros last season.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Out are Rupert Murdoch, Bob Daly and the rest of the Fox News Corp. ownership and in is Boston gazillionaire, Frank McCourt. With the team's ownership in flux, it will be tough to say what the Dodgers will look like in 2004. They declined the option of oft maligned OF Brian Jordan this week and RF Shawn Green underwent surgery Tuesday to have cartilage removed from the back of his right shoulder. The team is hoping for a healthy Green to rebound and Closer Eric Gagne to notch save after save for the likes of Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo. For your fantasy league, you can't really go wrong by acquiring any of their starters or relievers but avoid their creaky if not offensively silent position players.
Montreal Expos: With the potential loss of Vladimir Guerrero, Ron Calloway could easily see more playing time in right field. Calloway showed some true signs of potential when he filled in for an injured Guerrero in 2003. It's likely that Calloway will never put up the fantasy numbers of Guerrero, but he's a young player to keep an eye on. The problem is that Calloway isn't guaranteed the job and will be pushed by the likes of Terrmel Sledge and Matt Cepicky. Another Expos free agent is Todd Zeile. Don't count the Expos out of the running for Zeile. They may represent one of his few chances at a full time gig in 2004. If that happens, his fantasy value could take at least a little jump.
Milwaukee Brewers: Richie Sexson is expected to be traded sometime this offseason and with a better lineup around him, he could put up monstrous numbers. Danny Kolb emerged as the closer last season after Mike DeJean lost the job will again assume the role in 2004. The Brewers, however, are expected to slash payroll by close to $5 million this season and it will make it hard for Kolb to have a shot at closing any games.
New York Mets: It's still way early in the offseason to predict each position accurately. The two main jobs up in the air that could be filled "in-house" are second base and closer. A possibility exists that the Mets could sign a third baseman and move 3B Ty Wigginton over to second. If not, there's an outside shot that position could be filled by prospects, either Danny Garcia or Victor Diaz...however that seems unlikely. Barring a FA signing of a closer, the Mets on paper have a handful of guys that could get some saves from their current bullpen. But from the current roster, the early odds are on either Grant Roberts or Royce Ring to eventually assume the closing duties for the Mets.
Philadelphia Phillies: Brett Myers learned a lot during the 2003 season and it's likely that he'll learn even more in the near future. Myers has all of the tools to be a top of the rotation starter before too long, so he's worth watching. With the expected departure of Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf may become the Phillies ace. He's got the mentality to handle the job and has gotten stronger with each passing season. Offensively, the big question is whether Pat Burrell will bounce back. He's got too much talent to stay down any longer than he has and he should be the Burrell of old in 2004. Jimmy Rollins may learn a few new tricks at the plate. He's spending the offseason working with Tony Gwynn.
San Diego Padres: "The (Trevor) Hoffman negotiations are the first priority," Kevin Towers confirmed. Hoffman is completely rehabilitated from last season's shoulder woes. He will again take over the closers role in San Diego. The impact is on Rod Beck. Beck has filed for free agency as he craves a chance to close after going 20-20 in save opportunities on the 2003 season. He will likely hook on somewhere and get a shot at the closer's role and worst case scenario, split time closing. Khalil Greene will begin the season as the starting shortstop, but batting eighth, don't bet on him being rookie of the year.
San Francisco Giants: OF Barry Bonds is expected to win his record 5th MVP Award. P Jason Schmidt should fully recover from his recent elbow operation and will join Kirk Rueter, Jerome Williams and who-knows in the rotation. Closer Robb Nen will be back for mop-up duty, as well. Therein lie the pillars of the 2004 Giants. But once again, GM Brian Sabean will overhaul the team as he did after the 2002 campaign. They will need to fill the RF void once again with OF Jose Cruz's departure. Also, C Yorvit Torrealba will most likely take over catching duties from soon-to-be-departed C Benito Santiago. SS Rich Aurilia is also another goner and SS Neifi Perez will get his chance to start while receiving respites from young SS Cody Ransom. If 1B J.T. Snow doesn't come back with a restructured deal, look for Pedro Feliz to step in at first. Regardless of who comes and goes, expect a big year from 3B Edgardo Alfonzo and a healthy, productive season from 2B Ray Durham.
St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Matt Morris made only 27 of his possible 34 starts due to key injuries in his shoulder and hand, as well as a fluke ankle injury he sustainted while tumbling on a set of stairs in the second half. Despite all of that, Morris still managed 11 wins and will once again be Cards' opening day starter in 2004. Don't be surprised to see him make a push for another 20-win season just as he did in 2001.