Baltimore Orioles: Some people in Baltimore think that Luis Matos is the future of the club in centerfield, but others aren't so sure. Matos had a good 2003, particularly in the first half when he hit .344 and swiped 10 bags in only 183 at bats, but he faded down the stretch with a .273 BA and only five steals in 256 at bats. Last season was Matos' first full one and his best by far, but his BB:K ratio (.31) and OBP (.353) don't look so wonderful. He could very well turn up his game next season and emerge as a solid fantasy player, but be careful with this one.
Boston Red Sox: Okay, when drafting your team, it's always fun to use up-and-coming prospects as your sleepers. A lot of times a prospect can come out of nowhere to post some solid numbers for your roto team. This is not the case for 3B prospect Kevin Youkilis. Yes, Youkilis will be a very good Major Leaguer someday. And yes, he's an "on-base machine". But his power numbers are not going to help your fantasy team too much and with all the hype surrounding him, you may have to overpay for a player that is not going to help too much in the HR & RBI departments. In fact, in fantasy terms, Youkilis could wind up being a very below average third baseman. Use your 3B spot on someone else.
Chicago White Sox: Often times relief pitchers are drastically underrated on fantasy rosters and LHP Damaso Marte is no exception. Marte (4-2, 1.58 ERA, 71 G) was easily the American League's best left-handed setup man last season and could take over the role of closer next year if Billy Koch struggles again and Flash Gordon walks.
Cleveland Indians: There may be an open spot in Cleveland's rotation next semester and there are a lot of pitchers that could fill it. C.C. Sabathia, Jason Davis and Cliff Lee are probably locks but take a look at Jason Bere, who just inked a minor-league deal with the team. Bere has posted decent numbers in the past with better-than-average strikeout rates. His career high K/9 was 8.38 in 2001 for the Cubs. Bere isn't a special pitcher, but if he gets a long enough look in the rotation, he could post 12 wins and enough strikeouts to warrant a roster spot in deeper leagues.
Detroit Tigers: It wasn't that long ago that Bobby Higginson was a top-quality outfielder. As late as the year 2000 he was hitting .300 with 30 homeruns and 15 steals, but injuries and a lack of teammates that could hit have hurt Higginson over the last few years. If Higginson returns healthy next season, he could be a candidate for comeback player of the year. Dmitri Young can hit and Carlos Pena and Eric Munson are both emerging as pretty good hitters. With something resembling protection in the lineup, Higginson just might return to his old form.
New York Yankees: Aaron Boone might lose one of his top fantasy abilities next season, his position eligibility. Boone qualified at shortstop, second base and third base last season, boosting his value beyond what it would normally be. But Boone only appeared at shortstop five times in 2003, making him ineligible at the position for next season in almost all leagues. Additionally he just missed the 20-game cutoff at second base, which might affect his status there in certain leagues. As just a third baseman Boone isn't on anyone's short list of the top players, so draft wisely.
Oakland A's: The A's and current GM Billy Beane have the toughest job in the division this winter. Beane has three major free agents to decide on, including the team's best reliever, Keith Foulke, and the team's offensive leader, Miguel Tejada. Losing another offensive threat could cripple the A's and force them to trade away someone like Ted Lilly for a hitter. Reports are that Beane expects to be able to keep either Foulke or Tejada, but not both, and is contemplating the outfield situation. LF Terrence Long is likely to be non-tendered, OF Jose Guillen is a free agent, and RF Jermaine Dye has had two straight injury-filled disappointing seasons in a row. Beane's own fate could change as well, with rumors that new LA ownership will fire Dan Evans and go hard after Beane. Should Beane jump ship and join the Dodgers, assistant GM Paul Depodesta would likely step in and take over.
Seattle Mariners: Newly hired GM Bill Bavasi's duties this winter will NOT include cutting payroll. Instead he will work towards adding offense, holding a bullpen together, and balancing out a 25-man roster with youth and experience. The M's are expected to be players in the Kazuo Matsui sweepstakes as well as those for their own free agents, right-hander Shigetoshi Hasegawa, left-hander Arthur Rhodes, and centerfielder Mike Cameron. Cameron may have to "settle" for half of his 2003 salary if he has desires to stay in Seattle. A rumored outfield replacement, should the club let Cameron walk, is Royals OF and former Mariner, Raul Ibanez. Arbitration eligible contract issues such as those of RF Ichiro Suzuki, IF Carlos Guillen, RHP Freddy Garcia, and OF Randy Winn will play large parts in what the team can do this winter.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers secret isn't that they need pitching. Everyone knows that their pitching staff has been at or near the bottom of the AL since 2001. Their secret is that they don't have plans to make offers to any of the big-named pitchers on the open market. Instead they inquired about the availability of recently retired hurler, Roger Clemens, who re-assured the Rangers and the rest of MLB that he is indeed finished. Texas GM John Hart has a hearty job ahead of him in adding the necessary starting pitching to compete in 2004, while cutting payroll by as much as $25 million. The trade winds are blowing but there is yet to be a mention of the Rangers and a starting pitcher.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Dbacks' starter, Curt Schilling, has been rumored to be up for trade. However, Schilling has a no-trade clause in his contract. If Schilling waives his no-trade clause and a trade were to happen, it would mostlikely be with the New York Yankees, who needs to fill in holes in their starting rotation because of losing Roger Clemens to retirement, and possibly Andy Pettitte to free agency. Getting Nick Johnsoon for Curt Schilling would boost the Dbacks' power, but that will probably not happen because of Jason Giambi's bad knee... The Dbacks are also interested in making a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for first baseman and slugger, Richie Sexson... When it comes to their own players, the Dbacks have expressed an interest in signing Carlos Baerga back, but Baerga has been approached by other teams offering him more than the $500,000 minimum, so that may be a difficult task for Arizona... With all of the infield positions filled for next season (Shea Hillenbrand at 3B, Lyle Overbay or another player via trade or free agency at 1B, Alex Cintron at SS, and Junior Spivey and Matt Kata splitting the job at 2B), Craig Counsell looks like he'll be sitting on the bench, if he chooses to return to the Dbacks.
Chicago Cubs: RHP Mark Prior finished third in the National League Cy Young voting Thursday behind Eric Gagne and Jason Schmidt, and should be the front-runner for award next season. Prior blossomed in his sophomore season by winning 18 games and finishing the year with a 2.43 ERA and second in the league in strikeouts with 245. He enters 2004 a hot shot to win 20 games and lead the Cubs back to the post-season.
Cincinnati Reds: The experiment of Danny Graves as a starter is over. For the record, it went horribly and convinced both Graves and the Reds that he is much more valuable in the bullpen than the rotation. From 1999-2002, Graves averaged 30 saves a season for Cincinnati and he will rebound toward those numbers in 2004. Since he pitched in relief in four games, some leagues will list him as both a starter and reliever, but in some leagues, you'll have to use him as a starter until he qualifies for the relief role in 2004.
Colorado Rockies: Aaron Cook started 16 games for the Rockies last year and walked 57 in 124 innings. In the process he went 4-6 with an ERA above 6.00. He is familiar with the high altitude in Colorado after posting a 3.78 ERA in 2002 at Colorado Springs so control is the problem. Dan O'Dowd thinks that once Cook regains his control he can be a Jason Jennings clone.
Houston Astros: SS Adam Everett was a defensive handy man for the Astros in 2003. Everett solidified the left side of the infield defensively and was not as overmatched at the plate as in 2002. With one full season under his belt, 2004 may be Everett's breakout year.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers won't be under new ownership before the holiday season...Eric Gagne raked up the awards as he received the Players' Choice Award as the outstanding pitcher in the NL, and took home the prestigious Cy Young Award after going 55 for 55 in saves this season... The Dodgers plan to keep their bullpen strong with plans on resigning Wilson Alvarez and Tom Martin. They may also make an attempt at RF Jeromy Burnitiz, and Robin Ventura will be offered a contract in a reserve role.
Milwaukee Brewers: Leading the pack was third baseman Corey Hart, who claimed league MVP honors for their Triple A affiliate with a .302 average and a league-best 94 RBI. The 6-6 Hart has monstrous power and runs well for a big man, but he remains a bit raw defensively. If Richie Sexson is dealt, expect Hart to get a promotion to the big club and put up solid numbers in his rookie season. The question remains who will be left in the lineup to offer him support. Numbers close to that of Ty Wiggington of the Mets would be a good barometer of his season and he will continue to get better for those in keeper leagues.
Montreal Expos: Rocky Biddle may be one of the Expos that are on the trading block. With the emergence of Chad Cordero, Biddle's role as a reliever may come to an end. Biddle blew 7 saves in 2003 and may have some value on both the major league and fantasy trade blocks. His future isn't etched in stone. Best case scenario may be that he keeps the Montreal closers job for a team that will be without Vladimir Guerrero and perhaps, other key players. Move Biddle now while you have the chance.
New York Mets: You want early sleepers? For those of you in deep, keeper, NL only leagues...you may want to track the progress of 3B David Wright and C Justin Huber this fall and next spring. Both players are among the top prospects at their positions and are well on their way to being regulars for the 2005 season. With the Mets in a "rebuilding" phase, it would not hurt to keep an eye on these youngsters as they will be the ones on the fast track to Shea.
Philadelphia Phillies: Marlon Byrd will be able to use his speed more in 2004. His stolen base numbers have the potential to climb rapidly as the Phillies look for Byrd to become more of a "typical" leadoff hitter. The Phillies got away from using their speed on the bases in 2003 and it hurt the fantasy numbers of Byrd, Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu. All have 30 steal potential. Byrd swiped 11, Rollins 20 and Abreu 22. Byrd and Abreu will give you the best stolen base percentages. Speaking of Abreu, there is talk of moving him to second in the order to split up the left-handed bats in the order. That would likely put Pat Burrell or Mike Lieberthal in the three spot with Jim Thome hitting fourth. With Byrd, Abreu and Lieberthal hitting ahead of him, there could be plenty of RBI opportunities for Thome.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Oliver Perez will be a star one day. When is the question? He has ace material and looks unhittable one day and often is unhittable when he is issuing five walks in a game. When he is hit, it goes for a home run. It wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't issued 77 walks in 126.2 innings. If and when he limits his walks he will be a dominating lefty and could easily win 15-20 on a dreadful Pirates team. He can be that good. If he doesn't, he will be among a growing group of pitchers with excellent stuff that never reached their potential.
San Diego Padres: Brian Giles came over to the Padres in a trade late last season. In 29 games he posted solid numbers in a better lineup than Pittsburgh. This season with a new park friendlier to hitters, he will again top the .400 mark in OBP, score well over 100 runs with the protection he will have, and could be do for a monstrous season driving in runs, including topping his previous season high of 123.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants have resigned back up catcher, Alberto Castillo, pretty much ensuring the departure of veteran catcher, Benito Santiago. Other free agents have yet to make any moves with the Giants or any other team. Still, it is still doubtful that the Giants will have any of their 2002 World Series starters back besides Barry Bonds... J.T. Snow and Jose Cruz, Jr. have expressed an interest in returning to San Francisco...Brian Sabean and Ned Coletti have emphasized a need to find a starting pitcher and hopefully an impact position player to help their offense. It is unlikely that the Giants will land a big name like Vladimir Guerrero in the free agent market. Gary Sheffield has been presented as a possiblity, but it's still a longshot with the Giants competing against the budget of teams like the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves...Bonds will appear in court for trials in the BALCO investigation on December 4.
St. Louis Cardinals: After he emerged onto the Major League scene in 2002, RHP Jason Simontacchi quickly came back down to earth in 2003, finishing 9-5 with a 5.56 ERA in 46 games and 16 starts. Simontacchi will be entering his third season in the Majors next spring, and will in all likelihood be used out of the bullpen, where he seemed to throw harder this past season.