Boston Red Sox: Although it is still very early, it seems as though the 2003 draft has been a very successful one for the Red Sox. It starts at the top with David Murphy, the 17th overall pick, and conditional first round pick Matt Murton. Both are polished college players who have big time skills. The true depth of the draft can be shown all the way throughout. Seventh rounder Jeremy West won positional players of the year at Lowell, and 33rd round pick Kevin "Scooter" Jordan has big time speed and does a very good job of getting on base. Along with several pitching prospects, the class of 2003 could prove to be a good one.
Detroit Tigers: Last winter, the Tigers shipped away their top starter, LHP Mark Redman, to the Florida Marlins. In return, they received a trio of starters, but the centerpiece was a minor league lefty named Rob Henkel. It was a cost-cutting move, but Henkel was projected to eventually replace Redman's position in the rotation. Henkel is an older prospect at 26, so his contribution at the big league level needs to come soon. Henkel had a solid year going 9-3 with a 3.38 ERA for AA Erie, but injuries remained a problem as he had 3 stints on the Disabled List. He also had a less than stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League, so this spring training will be one of major importance for Henkel. Henkel isn't a flame thrower, like most lefties he relies on breaking pitches and solid location with his fastball. If he can stay healthy, Henkel could push for the final spot in the Tigers rotation this spring. If not, the deal will be a setback for the Tigers in their rotation as at least one of the three was relied on to hold one of the five spots.
Kansas City Royals: Even though the Peoria Javelinas finished last in the Arizona Fall League at 9-24, outfielder David DeJesus continued to impress. DeJesus will not start the season in the majors because of the free-agent signing of Juan Gonzalez, but he continued his progression by hitting .289 with six home runs and 14 RBI's. He had a .600 slugging percentage with 13 of his 26 hits going for extra bases. If Gonzalez or left fielder Aaron Guiel miss any significant time with injuries, DeJesus will be called up from Omaha immediately. DeJesus hit .310 in 116 at-bats with Omaha last season.
New York Yankees: Robinson Cano is struggling to hit the ball in the Dominican League, but his plate patience appears to be improving. The five-tool player was batting just .225 with two homeruns in 111 at bats through December 30, but he had just 10 strikeouts to nine walks. The 22-year-old infielder hit a combined .277 this season between Tampa and Trenton, but drew just 28 walks in 530 at bats.
Oakland Athletics: Just two years removed from University of Kentucky, Joe Blanton has impressed the A's brass enough to be considered as the 5th starter as soon as June of 2004. Acquired # 24 in the 2002 Draft from the Yankees as compensation for Jason Giambi. Armed with a power curve and a dominating fastball that touches 95 Mph, Blanton had 133 K's in 100 Innings pitched in his final year at Kentucky. Splitting 2003 at Kane County (A) and Midland (AA), Blanton won 11 games had a 2.29 ERA and manage to get 174 K's in 168.66 IP. At 6'3" 225 lbs Blanton fits the mold of a big strong starters and have perfect pitching mechanics.
Seattle Mariners: A Rule 5 pick up two seasons ago, Luis Ugueto spent the majority of 2003 at Double-A San Antonio after a year in the majors with the M's in 2002. That development in the minor leagues appears to have paid off, as Ugueto had a terrific winter while playing for the Lara Cardinals of the Venezualan League. The middle-infielder hit .318 in 157 at bats, good for the second-highest average on the team, adding eight doubles and three triples. George Sherrill, a left-hander signed out of Winnipeg of the Independent League midway through last season, dominated as a middle-reliever playing for the Mayaguez Indians of the Puerto Rican League. Sherrill didn't allow a run – earned or unearned – in 9.0 innings of work, and struck out 13 batters during that time.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Bartolome Fortunato has excelled during his play in the Puerto Rican Winter League with a 3.05 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. Fortunato figures to start the season where he spent all last season, Durham (AAA). Durham 2B Antonio Perez has also participated in the PR League, hitting 238 / 292 / 286 in limited action…Unless a couple of bullpen arms are traded before opening day, don't expect Rule 5 pick Alec Zumwalt to break camp with the Rays. The Rays have added 3 -4 arms to an already crowded bullpen, meaning the 22 year-old converted outfielder will probably be offered back to the Braves…Speedster OF Joey Gathright is expected to be 100% when spring training rolls around. Gathright dislocated his left shoulder in August, but he is expected back healthy and will be ticketed to either Montgomery (AA) or Durham. Piniella loves LF Carl Crawford, but if Gathright can duplicate his 2003 season at the AAA level, expect the Rays to make room for him in 2005…The new Devil Rays AA affiliate, Montgomery Biscuits, will open play April 9th on the road. The first home game in franchise history will be April 16th against Huntsville in the brand new Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium.
Toronto Blue Jays: Cheng Chi-Hong, an 18 year old super prospect from Taiwan gives the Toronto Blue Jays their first major international signing. The 6' 1" lefty has a fastball that runs in the upper 80 mile per hour range and he is well known for his affinity to pitch hitters inside. What makes scouts drool is Cheng's curve that some say would already be one of the better curves in baseball. Cheng will report to spring training in March, but may not be of much help to the Blue Jays in 2004 since they have agreed to excuse him if he makes the Taiwan Olympic team that will compete in Athens this summer.
Arizona Diamonbacks: Despite the setback to his longshot chances with the signing of Shane Reynolds and the trade for Casey Fossum, Adriano Rosario continues to do well in the Dominican Winter League. Pitching for Los Gigantes Del Cibao, the 18 year old Rosario is 8th in ERA and 3rd in wins. He is 4-4 with a 2.93 ERA, 9 games, 6 starts, 40.0 IP, 32 hits, 4 HR, 7 BB, 23 SO and with no walks in his last 14 IP. He looks to start out in either high A-ball Lancaster or possibly AA-ball El Paso in 2004 and could move up the ladder quickly, depending on how the starters are doing at the major league level.
Chicago Cubs: Dusty Baker said this offseason that Juan Cruz would be his fifth starter going into the 2004 season. Baker felt he deserved a chance, and in winter ball, Cruz has been proving it. Through five games with two starts, Cruz has an ERA of 1.04 and a record of 3-0. He also has a very good 33:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, higher than 4-1. He has only given up one unearned run. If the Cubs don't pick up Greg Maddux, Cruz will be their fifth starter. And if he continues his winter league performance, he should do well.
Cincinnati Reds: Sometimes shopping cheap works. The Reds drafted Joey Votto in the second round of the 2002 Draft because he was willing to sign cheap. Most scouts had him going much lower, but the Reds thrifty ways may pay off. Votto is still a little rough around the edges, but the Reds love how willing he is to learn. He went from playing primarily third base in high school to being drafted as a catcher to playing primarily at first base in his first full professional season. Votto is a disciplined hitter who hit a combined 7-57-.278 at Billings and Dayton in 2003.
Colorado Rockies: Scott Dohmann lost out on his chance to close when Shawn Chacon was named the Rockies closer last month. Dohmann is a converted starter that has added 3-5 MPH on his fastball since going to the bullpen. In 46 relief appearances, Dohmann went 8-2, with a 3.63 ERA, keeping the opposition to a .232 batting average. Dohmann is on pace to join the Rockies in 2004 and could earn a spot right out of spring training.
Houston Astros: The Astros sent Fernando Nieve from their middle-A Lexington Club to the Venezuelan League this year, hoping he will season into an excellent prospect after placing him on their 40 man roster. He has certainly impressed the Astros management in winter ball this year, amassing a 1.88 ERA in 7 starts over 38.1 innings. He has accomplished a record of 4-1, only giving up 3 homers in that time. He has also struck out 46 while only walking 8 for almost a 5-1 K-to-BB ratio. His opponents have hit .173 off him during the league. The Astros are high on Nieve and think that if he has a good spring training, he could jump from middle A ball to a starter with the AA team. Look for him to try and impress the Astros even more come spring.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Venezuelan Winter League has been very cold for Franklin Guitierrez. He started off hot but quickly cooled down. It shouldn't affect his prospect status, though doing well there would have helped. He'll likely still open next season in AA Jacksonville where the Dodgers will hope he will continue to build on the success he had last season in High A ball, where he put up good power numbers in a pitchers league. He still needs work on his strikezone judgement, which is why is he was sent to the winter league. Also, reports indicate that oft-injured Hong-Chih Kuo will be healthy at the start of next season. He was highly coveted when first signed but a string of arm injuries have really slowed him down. If he can stay healthy and regain the stuff that got him signed in the first place, the Dodgers could have yet another great pitching prospect to go with the others. Kuo, along with Figueroa and Brown will be 3 guys to watch next season. All 3 had big potential before getting injured, but will have to re-prove themselves next season.
Milwaukee Brewers: Luis Martinez had an unbelievable 0.99 ERA playing for Indianapolis, the Triple-A affiliate of the Brewers. He allowed just five runs in 45.2 innings. This followed a 2.45 ERA with Huntsville. His success prompted a promotion to Milwaukee where he was crushed in four starts, allowing 18 earned runs in 16.1 innings. Martinez will likely head back to Triple-A to regain some confidence, but he could be back at Miller Park before long.
Montreal Expos: The Expos dealt lefty reliever Scott Stewart to Cleveland for minor league outfielder Ryan Church and minor league infielder Macier Izturis. Of the two, Izturis, who is just 23 is probably the better prospect. Izturis, whose brother Cesar plays for the Dodgers, is almost a clone of his older sibling. Macier Izturis isn't quite as proficient with the glove as Cesar, but he has at least as much speed. Unfortunately, he also has his older brother's questionable hitting skills and scouts wonder if he'll hit enough to be an everyday player. Church has some power potential, but has had various minor injuries that have cost him precious time. Church becomes yet another left-handed hitting outfield prospect in the Expos organization. Both players are at least a year away from the majors.
New York Mets: Mets' mini-camp opened this week and new pitching coach Rick Peterson has begun sharing bio-mechanics philosophy on pitching and already started working with Aaron Heilman on his mechanics. Mets' top pitching prospect Scott Kazmir, known for his slight build as well as for his ability, showed up at camp a little taller and with a bit more size. He's now 6'1" and tips the scales at 185 lbs. GM Jim Duquette mentioned that CF prospect Jeff Duncan will be playing everyday in 2004, although it won't be for the Mets. It appears likely that he'll spend the season at AAA-Norfolk to continue developing his game.
Philadelphia Phillies: Is Terry Jones a prospect or isn't he? The Phillies believe that the 21 year old third baseman hit just .240 at Lakewood (Low A) in 2003, but the Phillies were encouraged by the fact that he battled back after a horrendous start to his season. The key to Jones success will be whether he can develop a better feel for the strike zone and if he can take advantage of it if and when he does. The Phillies think he can blossom into a 20 homerun per year guy and can hit in the .270 range if he develops some discipline. Some Phillies scouts go so far as to compare him to another Jones...Chipper Jones of Atlanta.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Bobby Hill could find himself on another team after spring training. Scouts we talked to had many words for him, the most common being "overrated". Hill is out of minor league options and has fallen from grace since bursting on the scene with average, power and speed as a second round pick of the Chicago Cubs. Since getting to the big leagues with the Cubs, his numbers have declined and he has not shown enough to overtake Freddy Sanchez, thus he may have to pass through waivers and another team would likely claim him.
San Diego Padres: Ben Howard is among the top prospects in the Padres system and was poised to take over the number five spot in the rotation, starting several games down the stretch in 2003, going 1-3 with a 3.63 ERA. Then the team signed Ismael Valdes and Sterling Hitchcock, likely sending Howard back to Triple-A. "But don't count Ben out," Bruce Bochy told the Union Tribune. "I really liked the way he looked at the end of last season."
San Francisco Giants: After years of being set back by injuries, Carlos Valderrama has been able to stay healthy the past two years and he continues on the comeback trail with his stellar stats for Occidente Pastoria in the Venezuelan Winter League. He has cooled off a lot after a hot start but is still hitting .325/.375/.540/.915 in 45 games, 126 AB with 26 runs, 12 doubles, 5 homers, 14 RBI, though with 27 SO. However, with five outfielders already on the Giants' 25 man roster, Carlos looks to start 2004 in AAA and to stay there barring any injuries or trades.
St. Louis Cardinals: Raynar Laya was chosen by the Cardinals in the AAA phase of the Rule Five Draft. He spent his year in the Mexican Leagues, and after being sent to the Cardinals, Laya is in the Venezuela League. The short stop has hit very well in the winter league, and the Cardinals are becoming happy they drafted him. In 92 at bats, he is hitting .380 with five doubles, five triples, and seven RBI's. He also has four stolen bases and an on base percentage of .418. The Cardinals feel that Maya will have to bulk up a bit physically before he is ready to step up to the next level, but are happy with his progress. He is expected to begin the season at high-A ball after spending Spring Training with the team, but if he is very impressive, then he could easily move up to AA.