Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox were setting all kinds of offensive records last season and catcher Jason Varitek turned in his best season as a pro. Boston should be good offensively again in 2004 and Varitek should be a key contributor, right? Not exactly. Varitek is 31 years old and is at the age when catchers' offensive production begins to wane a bit. Another bad sign for the signal caller is the dreadful second half he had last year, hitting .230 with 9 home runs after the All-Star break. Varitek is in a contract year so he could respond with a great season but the warning signs are there that he might be one to pass up in your fantasy draft.
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox are going with Miguel Olivo as their catcher in Spring Training this year, and the job will be his to lose. Olivo has always had a ton of potential, but as of yet, has not done much at the major league level. He played in his first full season last year, catching in 114 games for the Sox, hitting a meager .237 with 6 homer and only 27 RBI's. This was not what the Sox were hoping for, however, they are willing to give the 25 year old at least one more shot this year. Olivo has seen the majors for a year now, and his game should be much improved over last year. His potential should start to shine through in 2004, and his numbers will reflect that. Olivo is still a bit of a gamble though, so watch Spring Training and make sure that he will be their starter before drafting him. Olivo will not go high in any fantasy draft, but he could make a steal of a player in a later round.
Kansas City Royals: Does 39 year old Greg Swindell have anything left? He hasn't pitched in the majors since 2002 and spent last season at AAA Tucson (0-1, 6.53) after rehabbing from an injury. Swindell says he's healthy and ready to fight for a job on the Royals staff. Unless he's very impressive this spring, probably the best that he can hope for is to have the Royals keep him around at AAA for insurance.
Minnesota Twins: Brad Radke just continues to pitch in relative obscurity in Minnesota. Although he's not quite the pitcher that he once was, the 31 year old Radke still has something left and he is in the final year of his contract, which always gives players a little something extra. He's already been named Minnesota's opening day starter and finished last season 14-10, 4.49 with the Twins. If Minnesota falls out of the race, it's always possible that Radke will be traded elsewhere, which would only serve to help his numbers since he would wind up pitching on a contending team.
New York Yankees: Sometimes the best "sleepers" are the ones that bounce back from an injury. RHP Jon Lieber is the most notable AL player returning from an injury after not pitching all of last season. A former 20-game winner with the Cubs, Lieber will most likely be a cost-effective alternative to the other Yankees starters sure to get more notoriety at your fantasy drafts (Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez). Don't overlook Lieber who has the potential to collect 15 wins and tally more than 150 strikeouts in the back end of the Yankees' rotation.
Oakland Athletics: New arrival, Bobby Kielty, is excited about the upcoming season with Oakland, and will be competing with the popular Eric Byrnes for the starting job. The A's get ready for Spring Training with a new pitching coach, Curt Young, and a new bench coach, Chris Speier. Arthur Rhodes, who used to play for the Seattle Mariners, will be the A's new closer. Rhodes will be taking over All-Star closer, Keith Foulke's job after Foulke signed with the Boston Red Sox this offseason. Oakland will be heading into the season with a dangerous starting rotation that contains the Big Three, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. With the acquisition of Mark Redman and the upcoming young star, Rich Harden rounding up the end, the A's are very confident about their rotation. Rookie, Bobby Crosby, will be closely looked at as he takes over the shortstop position for the departed Miguel Tejada.
Seattle Mariners: The catcher spot has been one of offensive concern for the M's since Dan Wilson hit the career wall three seasons ago and never returned to his pre-wall form. This season the club will count on Ben Davis to have a breakout season and show his potential after two mediocre years in a row. Davis has 15+ homerun power and has flashed the ability to hit the gaps at the SAFE, but consistency has been a problem. If the M's go with the 26-year-old switch-hitter for 110 or more starts look for Davis to at least reach double digits in homers and possibly the 60 RBI plateau. Davis is well worth a spot as your second catcher. Newly acquired 3B Scott Spiezio's fantasy value will likely pale to his value to a clubhouse. The fourth best offensive 3B in the division behind Eric Chavez, Hank Blalock, and Troy Glaus, Spiezio will lean on his grit and competitiveness to land him in the 15 homer range. Getting to the 80 RBI area is also a possibility for the switch-hitter. Spiezio is a quality utility or bench player for your fantasy team in 2004, but not worth drafting in most leagues. Leagues with 20+ teams could use lower-tier players like Davis or Spiezio.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Where will John Halama fit in with Tampa Bay? Halama comes to Tampa Bay to pitch for Lou Piniella, who was his manager in Seattle and it still isn't clear how Piniella will use Halama. Don't count him out for a spot in the starting rotation. 100 of Halama's 171 career appearances have been as a starter, so he can fill a spot in the rotation or bullpen for the D'Rays. Halama's career ERA as a reliever (3.29) is better than it is as a starter (4.84) so Piniella may lean to using him as a left-hander out of the bullpen.
TexasRangers: Free agent signee Brad Fullmer will not likely match the numbers of Rafael Palmeiro, who bolted for Baltimore, but the days of solid production from the former Halo are not behind him. Fullmers' injuries are the only reason he hasn't vaulted to the top of the DH list in recent years. The full-time designated hitter spot could produce a 20+ homer 85+ RBI season for the left-handed Fullmer, making him an invaluable player in more leagues than not. Alfonso Soriano's probable move from 2B could land him at his former position of shortstop, removing the top fantasy second sacker from the draft board at the position. Whichever position Soriano plays, shortstop, second base, or the outfield, he will again be a major contributor with the stick and on the bases. Arlington is another hitter's park for Soriano to hit in and he will again be protected in a solid lineup. Expect the 28-year-old to again approach the 40-homer mark and possibly reach a career high in RBI, depending upon his lineup slot. Soriano is at worst a third round pick in any league.
Toronto Blue Jays: Having just celebrated his 27th birthday, Josh Towers is looking forward to the best years of his career. Many pitchers really come into their prime in their late 20s and Towers certainly took a big step last season when he went 8-1, 4.48 for Toronto. The Blue Jays used him as both a starter and reliever last season, but figure on having him in the fifth spot in their rotation this season. Getting locked into one job should help Towers career and should also make him more valuable in deeper fantasy leagues.
Atlanta Braves: Eli Marrero had a rough season in 2003, but the Braves are encouraged by his versatility and believe that he may be on the verge of becoming a key part of their ball club. In fact, they just extended his contract through 2005. The key to Marrero being of interest is how many positions he can play. That makes him valuable to your team and also means that Bobby Cox should be able to find a way to get him a good amount of at bats.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs played a game of Merry Go Round at catcher this offseason with their initial pursuit of Pudge Rodriguez, then trading Damian Miller to the A's for a player to be named, and then acquiring Michael Barrett from the A's for another player to be named. Throughout this swirling process, the Cubs saved a few million dollars, but may have actually downgraded at catcher. None the less, Cubs GM Jim Hendry sees something in Barrett, and thinks that he will fulfill his potential in a Cubs uniform. Barrett will have one of the best staffs in baseball to handle, so he won't have to worry about too much other than catching the ball and improving his hitting. Barrett hit a very week .208 in 70 games last year for Montreal, and looks to have the best year of his career in 2004, being given a fresh start. Barrett has always had the potential to be a top quality catcher, but he has not lived up to it yet. He will be given every chance to succeed in Chicago this year, and could be one of the top sleeper picks in any fantasy league.
Cincinnati Reds: At 30 years old, Mark Watson is still trying to make a name for himself. Watson pitched in relief at AAA Louisville last season with respectable numbers. Actually, in his 8 minor league seasons, Watson has generally always put up respectable numbers. The real problem is when he gets a major league shot. In parts of 3 seasons, Watson is 1-1, 11.25 in the majors. The Reds will give Watson a look to fill a job in their bullpen, but don't count on him.
Colorado Rockies: Preston Wilson is recovering from December surgery to reattach the ligament in his right pinky. Wilson is definitely out most of spring training and is looking for a return to the lineup for the opener. While he is one of the top fantasy players, he will likely start off slow at the plate until he can get his rhythm back. Unable to workout, Wilson showed up looking thinner in his upper body. His pinky could be a season long concern, even in the Mile High air. The recommendation is to drop his stock slightly, but if you have an IR spot he is worth the risk.
Florida Marlins: On Wednesday, Feb. 26th, after he completed is first public workout AJ Burnett was quoted as saying, "I'll be back sooner than a lot of people expect." Burnett said he threw at "85-90 percent" of his full velocity. He also was able to work through his full arsenal of pitches; fastballs, curveballs, and changes. "I'm throwing hard and I'm throwing strikes. So far I haven't missed a beat," Burnett boasted confidently. Team officials, however, are sticking to May 1st as a return target date. "AJ's probably not going to be back until May 1, but who knows?" manager Jack McKeon was quoted as saying. "He probably could start sooner than we're going to let him. I see a very determined young man that wants to prove something. I'm strong. I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," Burnett confidently expressed. "I couldn't be happier with where I am now, but I'm not going to rush it."
Houston Astros: Behind the plate for the Astros this year is again the reliable Brad Ausmus. Ausmus certainly isn't reliable for his .220 career average, but more for his defensive abilities, and how he handles the Astros pitching staff. He has always done very well with handling young pitchers, but in 2004, his job will be much easier with the Astros addition of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Ausmus will be lucking to hit .240 this year, but it won't matter for the Astros. They will stick with Ausmus for around 130 games this year for the simple fact that they don't really have anyone else, and that he will help their pitching staff a lot. Ausmus may not have very much fantasy value, however his presence with the Astros will raise the fantasy value of all the pitchers on the Astros team.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Juan Encarnacion, a 28-year-old Dominican, impressed teammates and coaches with a first-day power display that indicated he just might better the 19 home runs he hit last year for the Florida Marlins, which tied a career high, and the career-best 94 RBI. The Dodgers are his fourth organization in years. He was traded by Detroit after three seasons to Cincinnati, which traded him midway through the 2002 season to Florida, where he helped win a World Series but was dealt to the Dodgers in December for minor leaguer Travis Ezi.
Montreal Expos: Jose Vidro is going to be one of the big stories in baseball. He is in the final year of his contract and has come into spring training talking about the Expos being "his" team not what Vladimir Guerrero has exited. Vidro, who is rumored to be on the trading block, was given a further compliment when manager Frank Robinson said that Vidro was probably the best pure hitter that he has ever managed. You heard it here first, Vidro will have a huge season and with the number of superstar second basemen in the National League pretty low, he's a commodity.
New York Mets: Sometimes an oft-injured player can be a diamond in the rough for your fantasy squad since his injury history has become so infamous that everyone stays away. Take OF Cliff Floyd for example. He could be had relatively cheap in your fantasy drafts after Floyd failed to amass more than 450 at-bats for the second time in four years. Even still, Floyd's numbers are excellent in part-time duty. Take a gamble on Floyd and pray for a full season. He'll come cheaper than expected and could produce a .300-25-100-15 if healthy all year.
Philadelphia Phillies: The first real news out of spring training for the Phillies was that new closer Billy Wagner was leaving camp for an MRI of the middle finger on his left hand. Word is it's just some simple, unexplained swelling that some medication and rest should take care of. The Phillies have shut Wagner down for a week and will see how he's doing then, but they don't think it's anything to worry about. In fact, just 2 days after the MRI, Wagner reported that the finger felt great and the swelling was almost gone. Still, it's an example of why looking at Tim Worrell might not be a bad idea, since he would take over the closer's job if Wagner did suffer a serious injury.
San Diego Padres: After watching the first few days of spring training it is apparent that Trevor Hoffman is healthy. While other relievers, Rod Beck and Akinori Otsuka, will pick up the scraps, Hoffman looks to be on pace for his regular 40+ saves, a feat he has accomplished five times. The Padres are an improved club, which should give him more chances. The last time the Padres made the playoffs Hoffman had 53 saves.
San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds revealed that he almost retired last December and that, my friends, would have supremely sucked. The loss of his father is still gripping him and that was clearly evident when he broke down in the batting cage twice last Monday in Scottsdale. Expect to take out his grief over his father and the rage over Balco out on pitching staffs all across the land; closer Robb Nen is throwing at about 90% and has proclaimed himself ready and anxious to go. The gasping you keep hearing is the Giants front office after every throw he makes while playing long toss; if the light hitting Neifi Perez stinks up the joint in April, the Cody Ransom era could begin quicker than expected. Or, Felipe Alou may give utility man Pedro Feliz a shot; Alou and GM Brian Sabean were left awestruck after watching RHP Merkin Valdez in his first day in camp. He's a flame-throwing 22-year-old and he has an outside chance to be the No. 5 starter. He arrived from the Braves in the December 2002 Russ Ortiz trade, along with Damian Moss. At least they got something out of that turkey of a deal.
St. Louis Cardinals: Mike Matheny will come into the year as the Cardinals starting catcher, however like most catchers in the game, Matheny's numbers don't make fantasy players smile. Matheny did manage to hit .252 though, while driving in 47 runs on 8 homers. Those are not astounding numbers, but in the fantasy game, Matheny was one of the better catchers last year. This year he will have Chris Widger backing him up, and shouldn't play in quite as many games as he did last year when he played in 141 games. That's a lot of wear and tear on a catcher, but the Cardinals were battling injuries all year, and Matheny had to keep playing. That could negatively affect him this year, causing him to wear out quicker, and that was the main reason for the pickup of Widger, who while not a great catcher, he can step in and do a good job. Avoid Matheny when drafting this year though, he and Widger could very well split the year catching, and you'd be much better with a player who will get more games for you.