Arizona Diamondbacks: The team and 3B Shea Hillenbrand agreed to a $2.6 million, 1-year contract and avoided an arbitration hearing. He gets a $50K bonus if he's selected to the All-Star team; C Robby Hammock (.282, 8 HR's and 28 RBI in 65 games in 2003) underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and - as an insurance policy - the team signed free agent (and light hitting) C Bobby Estella.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Frank McCourt must have breathed a slight sigh of relief when the team beat P Eric Gagne in his arbitration hearing. The dominating closer will earn $5 million instead of the $8 million he and super agent Scott Boras originally sought. In 2003, Gagne converted all 55 save opportunities while posting a 1.28 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Wow; C Todd Hundley's surgery on Nov. 25th will keep him sidelined when pitchers and catchers report. Previously, he underwent the same procedure on June 5th. In 2003, he played in only 21 games, batting .182 with two homers and 11 RBIs. Count on Paul Lo Duca (.273, 7 HR's and 52 RBI in 2003) to be more than happy to pick up the slack. Lo Duca's a superstar in the making. If he can stay healthy, he'll shore up the tough catcher's spot in any fantasy line-up; Billy Beane protégé and wunderkind Paul DePodesta took over as GM earlier this week.
Atlanta Braves: Looking for a young upstart? Well, Atlanta isn't quite the pitching Holy Land that it once was, but don't forget about Horacio Ramirez. As a 24 year old last season, Ramirez went 12-4, 4.00 in 29 starts for Atlanta. Most baseball people expect that Ramirez will settle in and put up even better numbers in 2004. He won't have quite as explosive of a lineup to back him up this season, so the wins may be a little tougher to come by, but if he lowers his ERA even a little, he won't suffer too much.
Cincinnati Reds: Well, here's the obligatory Ken Griffey, Jr. prediction. With the sorry bunch of players assembled in Cincinnati, Junior will be the big story. Don't fall prey to all of the "he's completely healthy and ready for a comeback season" stories that are going to be out there. Unfortunately, the man is a shell of his former self and even if he does stay healthy, there aren't enough strong bats in the lineup to really give him much support. Sure, if he drops low enough and you have the room, you can grab him, but otherwise, stay clear and let someone else buy into the comeback predictions.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs added a huge addition this week when they signed pitcher Greg Maddux to a three year deal. Maddux has won at least 15 games in each of the last 16 seasons, and has not had an ERA above 4.00 since 1987. Maddux is the perfect type of pitcher for a fantasy league for one main reason: consistency. Maddux has continually been one of the top tier pitchers in the game of baseball. Despite a slow start in the 2003 season, Maddux still finished the year with 16 wins and an ERA of 3.96. His slow start could make Maddux's fantasy stock drop a bit, but he would be the ultimate sleeper pick because of that. With a stocked Cubs lineup, and a very good bullpen, Maddux will again hit at least the 15 win mark and have a low ERA. With 11 wins, Maddux will have 300 wins for his career, becoming only the second active pitcher with 300 wins. Maddux will make a solid pickup for any fantasy team, as well as for the Cubs.
Colorado Rockies: LHP Shawn Estes has had two miserable seasons, but he's only 31 and he's healthy. He was an NL All-Star when he won 19 games in 1997 and was a 15-game winner in 1999. Playing in the Rocky Mountain air won't help his chances for a return to dominance. Look for him to win ten games, a sign to stay away from him.
Florida Marlins: Mike Lowell set career highs in homeruns (32) and RBI (105) while playing in his fewest number of games (130) since 1999. Nice numbers and a pretty good sign that if Lowell can stay healthy - which he should be able to do - he is a very good addition. It will be interesting to see how things shape up in Florida, but with Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo ahead of him in the order, Lowell should get plenty of RBI chances and he usually makes the most of them.
Houston Astros: The Astros picked up two big pitchers that use to pitch in New York with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Clemens has been one of the better pitchers in the game for his entire career, in fact, his 6 Cy Young awards are the most ever by any pitcher. He hit his 300th career win last year with the Yankees, and then appeared to retire until the Astros coerced him out of retirement to pitch in his backyard with his old friend and teammate. However, the contract was on Clemens terms. Clemens has stated that his family is more important to him than baseball right now, and that means he will be staying in Houston during most road trips. They will also be tailoring to Clemens so that he will be pitching at home most of the time. This is bad news for fantasy owners. Clemens will probably not make a full year of starts so that he can see his kids play ball, and playing most of your games in the Juice Box is never good for the ERA. The balls fly out of that place, and while that may not hurt his win stat, since Houston has a very good lineup, his ERA will take a hit. There are many other pitchers out there than Clemens, and he is a bit of a risky pick for a fantasy owner. He could be a good late round pick if other owners are scared too, but don't waste a high round pick on him.
Milwaukee Brewers: 1B Lyle Overbay never got a chance with the Arizona Diamondbacks, as Manager Bob Brenly preferred to go with veterans as opposed to the younger prospects. However, just because Overbay never got a chance to play full-time, doesn't mean he can't hit. Overbay isn't as good as Richie Sexson, but he can still be a productive player for the Brewers. He won't be a top First Baseman, but could definitely be a good sleeper pick in the later rounds.
Montreal Expos: Tony Armas, Jr. This guy was on his way to being a superstar before winding up on the DL last season. You never know how someone will respond to an injury and the Expos really haven't had much to say about Armas' health. You have to think that it's going to be a season of readjustment for Armas and you have to believe that he is at least a little bit of a health risk. Keep him in mind though. If you already have a strong enough rotation and can spare a pick, take him and see what happens. Otherwise, stay away and look for healthier pitchers to fill your roster with.
New York Mets: For those of you in deep, NL only leagues...keep an eye on RHP Grant Roberts as a sleeper this year. It's not clear as to whether or not Roberts will be in the pen or in the rotation. Either way Roberts could be a steal in your draft. Roberts has overcome injury problems while still stringing together two good seasons for the Mets. Once considered a top prospect, Roberts has a shot at the #5 spot in the rotation or could be very solid out of the bullpen. Watch his situation closely in spring training. If he does wind up in the pen Roberts could be a saves darkhorse should Braden Looper falter or befall an extensive injury.
Philadelphia Phillies: Any reason to worry about Vicente Padilla? First, was the off-season car accident that he was in. Initial reports were that Padilla suffered right shoulder and hand injuries, but those reports were then disputed and it turned out he just suffered bumps and bruises. Then, there were published reports that Padilla has been known to drink a little too much alcohol. Whether or not the reports are true, there has to be at least a little concern around Padilla. He is probably the weak link in the Phillies rotation and should really only be considered after Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Eric Milton and even Brett Myers have been picked.
Pittsburgh Pirates: RHP Kris Benson came up form the minors in 2001 and looked to be a star in the making, but arm injuries have side-tracked his career, and he's now trying to pick up where he left off. Benson, when on his game, has 4 quality pitches and can still be one of the top starters in all of baseball. But the Pirates are beginning to tire and are anxious to promote some of their top prospects to the rotation, so if Benson doesn't have a strong start, he might be out in Pittsburgh. Selecting Benson comes with quite a high risk at this point, but he still has a chance to be a very good pitcher – and a good fantasy contributor.
San Diego Padres: Ryan Klesko has a plethora of questions heading into ‘04. He hit only two homers after the All-Star break last season before undergoing shoulder surgery to remove the tip of his right clavicle and relieve an impingement. The shoulder problems nearly eliminated Klesko's ability to drive the ball for power. If his shoulder is healthy, Klesko will get his power back. But right field at the Padres' new Petco Park serves as a double whammy for Klesko. First, the field is so unusually shaped and spacious (411 feet to the power alley) that the transplanted first baseman might be better suited to play left. Second, the spaciousness of right field could swallow many of the left-handed hitter's drives. Bump him down a few rounds come draft time and you will be happy you did.
San Francisco Giants: Other than the BALCO mess, all's pretty much status quo for Felipe's kids; All-Star starter P Jason Schmidt proclaimed himself "healthy" and "not rehabbing"; this is good news for the front office and fantasy gm's. The guy's a horse and should be considered in the upper tier of starting pitchers last year he chewed up innings (207.2) and hitters (208 K's, 2.34 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. That's not a misprint. 0.95.); the front office took one in the shorts when new arrival C A.J. Pierzynski beat the team in his arbitration hearing. The team wanted to pay Pierzynski $2.25 million and will have to, instead, pony up $3.5 million. While owner Peter Magowan is probably miffed paying anyone minimum wage, let alone $3.5 million, great catchers AND clubhouse personalities are premium commodities. Consider him a bargain, especially when he posts numbers like he did in 2003 (.312, 11 HR's and 74 RBI).
St. Louis Cardinals: Some teams make the mistakes of signing poor free agents to make up for holes in their team. The Cardinals did that this year when they picked up Jeff Suppan from free agency. Suppan has never been that great of a pitcher since he broke into the league in 1997. The most wins he has ever had in a season was 13 last year, which was 3 wins higher than his previous career high. Suppan's lowest ERA in his 8 years in the league was a mediocre 4.37 with Kansas City in 2001. Suppan should be a 5th starter, however the Cardinals have 3 pitchers who should be 5th starters. Instead of spending money to improve their pitching, or trading for some really good pitchers, they picked up several 5th starters. Suppan will struggle to perform against the central, because every team is able of putting up some big numbers, but most teams do lack pitching. Suppan will not be worth a fantasy pick this year, and if Danny Haren and Jason Marquis have good spring trainings, he may not even be a starter.
Anaheim Angels: RHP Kelvim Escobar proved that the pickings weren't so slim for free agents after all this winter. The Angels handed him a three-year, $18.75 million deal though he has never won more than 13 games in a season. He was the beneficiary of GM Bill Stoneman's intention to load the team up with hard throwers. Escobar has long had one of the AL's most powerful arms, but he has yet to put all the pieces together and emerge into a consistent starting pitcher. He is listed high already on some auto-pick boards, but it would be wise to drop him a few rounds in the interest of safety.
Baltimore Orioles: Instead of giving advice on whom to select, here are a couple of names to avoid like the plague on draft day: Marty Cordova and David Segui. Both players are winding down big time in their careers and both have seemingly been relegated to bench material after the Orioles off-season spending frenzy. With the likes of Larry Bigbie, Jay Gibbons, Luis Matos, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jack Cust, both Segui and Cordova (both over the hill) will have a hard time finding at-bats. Not that they were all that productive last season when they could have had the ABs.
Boston Red Sox: Nomar Garciaparra may have just become your top fantasy shortstop, at least from the list of those playing the position on an everyday basis. Despite hitting at a .301 mark with 28 homers and 105 RBI on a record setting Boston offense during 2004, it was below Nomar's seasonal averages over the course of his career. In addition, he swiped nineteen bases to go along with just sixty-one strikeouts. Though there are rumblings that he and the Red Sox are talking about a contract extension, he is still slated to enter his walk year. Don't be surprised to see an enormous year from the twenty-eight-year-old, a man on a mission to prove that the city doesn't need a shortstop like Alex Rodriguez to win a championship. They already have their All-Star.
Chicago White Sox: CF Aaron Rowand wasn't healthy to start the 2003 season after suffering a bad collarbone break in a dirt-bike accident during the offseason. When he finally did start to feel good, the Sox traded for Carl Everett, making Rowand a reserve. Rowand hit .387 with a .408 on-base percentage from June 10 until the end of the season, playing in that reserve role. Now he is 100 percent and will get the chance to be an everyday starter. He could be a surprise player this seasons and warrants a look.
Cleveland Indians: A name sure to fall off your radar is LHP Cliff Lee. Lee, the best of the pitchers that came over from Montreal in the trade for Bartolo Colon, has very good stuff and is a strikeout pitcher. Lee went 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA in 9 starts last season and has the benefit of pitching most of his games against the horrendous hitters of the AL Central. He has the make-up of a solid #2 starter in Cleveland and could easily be overlooked.
Detroit Tigers: So the Tigers have signed future Hall-of-Famer Ivan Rodriguez – this must spell the end of Rodriguez's days as one of the top Catchers for fantasy, right? Wrong. Expect to see similar numbers as what Rodriguez put up last year, maybe even better if the Tigers use Brandon Inge as his backup, allowing Rodriguez to DH possibly once a week. Rodriguez won't be in the same lineup as last year, but Dmitri Young should still provide plenty of protection, and Rodriguez should get plenty of RBI opportunities in the 3-hole for the Tigers.
Kansas City Royals: A lot of attention will be paid to Jeremy Affeldt's middle finger. No, he's not being crude, he's just prone to blisters on the finger that have kept him from making numerous starts. Where is Affeldt going to wind up? Nobody knows for sure. Hopefully, if all goes well, the blisters will stay away and Affeldt will be a productive member of the Royals staff and will likely win a spot in the rotation. Keep an ear out for word on Affeldt's finger.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Nathan is faced with the opportunity that he's always wanted. He comes into camp with a chance to win the Minnesota closer's job. The reports on Nathan are that he definitely has the stuff to get the job done and that his mentality is more than tough enough to stand the rigors of the job. It's always to completely trust a guy getting his first shot at closing, but hey, everybody's got to start somewhere.
New York Yankees: Well the whole world has been turned upside down since the trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees this past week. Sure A-Rod's presence has World Series implications. But what about fantasy implications? The first thing to keep in mind is that Yankees Stadium, while not know as a pitchers park, is not exactly the hitters' haven that the Ballpark at Arlington is...so just keep that in mind. A-Rod should have no problems producing unbelievable numbers in that lineup. But Jason Giambi might have been the biggest beneficiary of the trade. After hitting a career low .250 last season, Giambi is currently slated to be batting after A-Rod and could see quite a few more better pitchers. Expect Giambi to put up much better numbers in 2004.
Oakland Athletics: LHP Arthur Rhodes is the latest new A's closer with a question mark as he enters the season. The same things being said about Rhodes -- i.e., "Can he handle the ninth inning?" and "How does he rebound after an off year?" -- were said about Keith Foulke in 2003, Billy Koch in 2002 and Jason Isringhausen in 2000. Rhodes has the stuff, a power slider and overpowering fastball. He holds runners on very well, a talent most closers neglect, and could put up monster numbers if he merely pitches the same in the ninth as he's done in the seventh and eighth inning the last four years. If you haven't considered Rhodes, it would be wise you did now. He has the benefit of pitching for a team that boasts a top three rotation and the A's know how to win.
Seattle Mariners: Eddie Guardado was handed the closer's job when Kaz Sasaki opted to surrender his guaranteed $8 million salary and return home to Japan. Obviously the 33-year-old southpaw's fantasy value skyrocketed with the move and his value as a Mariner could be even higher than it was as a Minnesota Twin where he saved 40 or more games in three consecutive seasons through 2003. Safeco Field is much more pitcher friendly than the homer dome Guardado pitched in with the Twins. Look for another 40+-save season and similar secondary statistics in his first year with the M's. Guardado's role also makes right-hander's Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Rafael Soriano much more vital to the bullpen but their roles should stay as setup men without too many save opportunities.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: First round pick Delmon Young will be in major league camp with the D'Rays, but don't get too excited. He's not going north with the team, so don't start asking if you can draft him. At age 18, most players are years away from the majors, but Young feels he could hit the majors this season. Whether or not that happens, remains to be seen. This time next season, we could be talking about the draft potential of Delmon Young, but right now, he's just in camp to see the sights.
Texas Rangers: Rangers closer Francisco Cordero might be the sleeper closer of the fantasy season. Coming off of a fine season in 2003 where the 28-year-old saved 15 games, won five others, and made 73 appearances producing a 2.94 ERA. Cordero should approach the 25-save plateau and with any help from John Hart with another quality setup man to add to Jeff Nelson, Ryan Drese, and a crop of unproven second year relievers, could conceivably reach the mid-30's. Should Cordero suffer an injury or unexpected struggles, the 36-year-old Nelson would get the call in the closer's role where he struggled himself a year ago in Seattle. Don't expect too much from Nelson in the save category.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays will get good looks at a couple of recovering pitchers this spring. Justin Miller and Bob File both missed the 2003 season with injuries and both look like they're ready to go for spring training. They're both decent pitchers, who can help Toronto, but neither will likely be in a spot to help your fantasy team even if they are healthy. If you want to watch though, Miller - who won 9 games in 2002 - would be the one to keep an eye on.