Boston Red Sox: Many people expect Red Sox top prospect Kevin Youkilis to seriously compete for playing time in the upcoming season. After being promoted to Pawtucket, though, Youkilis struggled to repeat the success he had at Portland, hitting a mere .165. This winter in the Mexican League Youkilis has gotten his stroke back. He batted a solid .259 for the Navajoa Mayos. The major bright spot for Youkilis is the fact that he continues to get on base. He drew 29 walks this winter while compiling a .413 OBP. Also playing in the Mexican League was Andy Dominique. Dominique continues the success from the regular season hitting .295 for the Los Mochis Sugarcane Growers. Dominique really asserted himself as a prospect this past season and along with Youkilis will prepare to play for a job in spring training.
Detroit Tigers: Last June, the Tigers used their top pick on RHP Kyle Sleeth, a big powerful righty out of Wake Forest. However, due to recent injury histories of many Tiger top picks (see: Kenny Baugh, Matt Wheatland), the Tigers elected to shut him down for the year rather than have him throw anymore. However, don't take that as indication that the Tigers will slow-play him on his way to the majors. While it has yet to be determined, expect Sleeth to start out at AA-Erie. If he performs well there, a September call-up wouldn't be out of the question. Sleeth already possesses a mid-90's fastball and good command, so the development of his off-speed pitches will be the key to how fast he makes it to the majors.
New York Yankees: The Yankees have spent a ton of money this offseason revamping their pitching staff, including their bullpen. A prospect to keep an eye on is right-handed reliever Scott Proctor. Proctor, acquired from the Dodgers in the Robin Ventura trade, has hit 100 MPH with his fastball on several occasions but his average range is usually in the upper 90's. Proctor K'd 85 batters in 2003 in 85 innings between three minor league stops and could be counted on to fill in as a setup man should more injuries befall the Yankees bullpen in 2004.
Oakland Athletics: Jed Morris has been fighting the odds for some time, drafted in the 36th round by Oakland in 2002. But the catcher has produced well enough to garner some attention, batting .264 in 2002 at Low-A Vancouver and .281 in 2003 at High-A Modesto of the California League. The left-handed-hitting catcher added 13 homers and 75 RBI to his cause at Modesto, and showed plate discipline that is hard to find in the low level of the minor leagues. He'll be 24 by Opening Day, and will likely start the season at Double-A Midland.
Seattle Mariners: Left-hander Travis Blackley only recently turned 21 years old, and is on the fast track to the major leagues. While pitching with the Double-A San Antonio Missions at the age of 20 last season, Blackley went 17-3 with a 2.61 ERA. He will be given a shot, albeit a small one, to make the Mariners roster out of Spring Training as one of the team's lefty relievers. Otherwise, he'll likely start 2004 in Triple-A at Tacoma.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The D'Rays didn't figure to get James Houser in the 2003 Draft. Luckily for Tampa Bay, Houser snuck through the first round and the D'Rays got him with their second round pick. Houser is the total package and features a low 90s fastball, a strong changeup and two versions of his curve ball, both of which freeze hitters. At just 19, the lefty made his way easily through Rookie League ball in 2003 and should jump to class A for the 2004 season. Tampa Bay figures he could be in the majors for the 2007 season at the latest.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers need pitching, and they have a good up-and-comer in youngster Juan Dominguez, who worked his way up from Single-A to Triple-A last season by producing at each stop. Dominguez went 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA at Stockton of the California League, starting in nine of his 16 appearances. He then moved to Double-A Frisco, where he went 5-1 with a 2.60 ERA, starting all nine of his games. At Triple-A Oklahoma, Dominguez got three starts and went 1-1 with a 3.50 ERA. Don't be surprised if the 23-year-old right-hander finds his way in the Rangers' rotation at some point in 2004.
Toronto Blue Jays: Top Blue Jays prospect Alex Rios was named the MVP of the Puerto Rican League. The 22 year old 1999 first round pick is ticketed for AAA in 2004 unless he makes it impossible for Toronto to overlook him this spring. The Blue Jays hope that Rios can get a better grasp of the strike zone and figure that he could wind up hitting 30 homeruns per year in the majors and contend for a batting title if his discipline comes around. Rios hit .348 with 12 homeruns in the Puerto Rican Winter League on his way to the league MVP. He is continuing his hot hitting in the playoffs, going 3-4 with a homerun in the opening game of the Puerto Rican League Championship.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Conor Jackson, the 19th pick overall in the 2003 draft, had a bear-y good start to his professional career. After starring at the University of California Bears, hitting for average and power there, the 21 year old righthander went to the Yakima Bears of the Northwest League and hit .319/.410/.533/.943 with 35 doubles and 6 homers in 257 AB and 68 games, with 60 RBI and 44 runs scored. He also walked 36 times and struck out 41 times. He led the Northwest League in doubles, extra base hits (just by doubles alone!), and RBI, was second in hits and slugging percentage, third in batting average, and fourth in on-base percentage. Two more homers and he would have been tied for fifth in homers and fifth in runs scored. He'll probably start the year with the Lancaster JetHawks, the Diamondback's high-A affiliate.
Chicago Cubs: The Chicago Cubs have high hopes for their young prospect out of William and Mary College in Brendan Harris. He had shown good progress moving smoothing from rookie ball to A ball to AA ball, and 2003 was no exception. Harris had a good year in AA, even though it was not a great one. He proved that he can play many positions in the infield, wherever he is needed in the Cubs system. He saw the majority of his time split between 2B and 3B, as the Cubs system switched prospect Bobby Hill for Aramis Ramirez. He did well in the field, but the Cubs continue to groom him as a third baseman, and sent him to the Arizona Fall League as such. He did very well in the desert, hitting .302 with a .358 on base percentage. He showed a little power, hitting 2 homers in just 96 at bats. He managed both 19 runs and 19 RBIs in the league, while only striking out 12 times. His defense also was very good in the league, when he only committed one error in the 25 games he played in. Harris should begin 2004 in AAA, trying to prove that he can hit the best pitching in the minor leagues. If he can manage to do so, then Harris would be useful to the Cubs in September, and possibly in 2005, after the have opening at SS, 2B, and currently 3B. The future looks good for Harris, and he has shown nothing to depress the hopes of the parent club.
Cincinnati Reds: Last summer's Scott Williamson deal with Boston may turn out to be very good for the Reds. Phil Dumatrait and lefty Tyler Pelland came to Cincinnati for Williamson and both are highly ranked among Reds top prospects. Pelland pitched for both the Reds and Red Sox in the Gulf Coast League last season and went a combined 3-4, 1.51 for the two teams. The Reds believe Pelland, who throws in the low 90s will be ready for A ball in 2004 and could be in Cincinnati within three years.
Colorado Rockies: Choo Freeman busted on the scene in 2002 and earned instant prospect status after a few disappointing seasons, but last year regressed in the PCL. After an OBP of .400 in 2002, Freeman had a .315 OBP in 2003. In fact, all of his numbers went into a funk and the thinking is 2002 was the mirage season and 2003 reflects the norm for the youngster.
Houston Astros: The Astros drafted Phillip Barzilla with high hopes that the left hander out of Rice University would be a great left handed reliever for them in the future. Unfortunately for the Astros, things haven't gone the way they planned. Three years out of college, and Barzilla was still playing A ball for the Houston organization. They still have hopes for him though, and sent him to Arizona for Fall Ball. Too bad for Barzilla that fall ball was even worse for him than A ball, as he had an ERA of 12.86 in only 7 innings of work. The biggest problems for the lefty? Giving up too many hits, and too many walks. The kinds of things that kill pitchers. In fall ball, his opponents hit .474 off him, and he gave up 5 walks in just 7 innings. The Astros are beginning to sour on the prospect, and are rather disappointed that their fourth round pick hasn't figured it out. He will probably start next year in AA, just because he's rather old to be in A ball at the age of 25. His status as a prospect has probably fallen off, and Barzilla will need a huge season to become a cog in the Astros future plans again. He is going to have to prove that he can get opponents out at higher levels than he has pitched before, and he was not that successful at the lower levels, not good news for the young man. The Astros will leave him unprotected after next year if he doesn't drastically improve his game.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Brandon Weeden, a right-handed starter who was acquired in the Kevin Brown/Jeff Weaver trade, had a good year in 2003. Only 19 years old last season (he turned 20 during the off season), he started out well with the Gulf Coast Yankees (rookie league), with a 1.73 ERA in 4 starts, 7 games, 26.0 IP, 17 Hits, 9 BB, 21 SO. However, when he moved up to the Staten Island Yankees (A-ball), he had a 3.72 ERA in 5 starts, 19.1 IP, 14 hits, 14 BB, 17 SO. At least in both stints he gave up no homers and was able to keep the hits from falling in but he needs to work on his walks as he moves up the farm system. He most likely will report to Vero Beach, the Dodger's high-A minor league team for the 2004 season.
Milwaukee Brewers: It must be nice to hit .391 and have an OBP of .458, but expectations will be high for the MVP of the Pioneer League, Lou Palmisano. In short season, Palmisano simply had 68 hits in 47 games, showing power (21 extra base hits) and speed (13 stolen bases). Now he will have to stay consistent to be considered a prospect in the deep Milwaukee system.
Montreal Expos: Left-hander Mike Hinckley had two separate seasons in 2003. In his first 12 starts Hinckley had an ERA of 5.64, but finished the season as one of the toughest pitchers around. He put together a 9-2 record with an ERA under 2.00 after his rough start and finished with very respectable numbers. The Expos are continuing to work on Hinckley's changeup and if he ever develops his changeup, the sky is the limit for Hinckley. It's not out of the question that the Expos could promote Hinckley to AA Harrisburg for 2004, but it's likely that they'll want to give him a little more work at class A Brevard County until he gets the changeup where they want it to be.
New York Mets: A prospect that has seemed forgotten in baseball circles is Mets' former first round pick Aaron Heilman. Rick Peterson becoming the Mets' new pitching coach will be a great asset to Heilman and the two began working on Heilman's game the minute mini-camp opened this month. People forget that Heilman, who went just 2-7 with a 6.75 ERA in 14 games for the Mets in 2003, boasts a career minor league ERA of 3.35 in 50 games. Under Rick Peterson, Heilman is a prospect to watch in 2004.
Philadelphia Phillies: If you've never heard of Alfredo Simon, perhaps, you heard of his alter ego, Carlos Cabrera. While visa problems were snagging young players on their real ages, Simon got caught with a different age - he's 21 months older than the Phillies thought - and with a different name. Simon's identity crisis kept him from pitching until June, but when he returned, he was as strong as ever. With his identity and age straightened out, the Phillies are still happy with Simon's potential even though he is almost two years older than they first thought. With a fastball in the mid 90s, the only problem is getting the rest of Simon's repertoire on track. Don't count out Simon as the Phillies closer of the future even though they've used him as a starter from time to time.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Yurendell DeCaster lit it up in Hickory in 2001 and many thought it was a formality that he would ascend quickly. When he arrived in Lynchburg, DeCaster had 43 extra base hits, but only hit .250 and had a OBP of .309. That prompted a repeat of Double-A and he struggled even more. With his hit or miss approach, he belted 13 homers but hit just .230 and despite all his power had a .283 OBP. This could be the last year for the former Rule V selection to shine in the Pirate system.
San Diego Padres: Aussie Chris Oxspring had a great season for the Mobile BayBears. He has only been pitching for three years and the strides he made in 2003 vaulted him up the prospect list, at 26 years old. Oxspring has four pitches he throws well, his slider being the best pitch. Last year he went 10-6 splitting time between the bullpen and starting, compiling a 2.92 ERA and averaging just under a strikeout an inning.
San Francisco Giants: The Giants invited these pitchers to spring training: David Aardsma (1st round 2003; future closer for Giants after Nen leaves?), Luke Anderson (good showing in the Arizona Fall League), Matt Cain (only 19 for 2004 season, 2.55 ERA in 14 starts for low-A Hagerstown 74 IP, 57 hits, 24 BB, 90 SO; rated by most as a top three Giant's prospect), Lee Gardner, Brad Hennessey, Erick Threets, and Jeff Urban. They also invited these position players: catchers Todd Jennings (2nd round 2003) and Craig Kuzmic, infielders Brian Buscher (3rd round 2003), David Doster, Timothy Hutting (8th round 2003), and Jacob Wald, and outfielders Doug Clark (finally, 7th round 1998), Freddy Lewis, Daniel Ortmeier (22 year old last year who opened many eyes at San Jose Giants in 2003, hitting .304/.378/.471/.849; he'll probably start out at Norwich as a 23 year old in 2004) and Adam Shabala.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals sent Johnson to the Arizona Fall League this year with high hopes for the 22 year old. He had pitched well in both A ball, and even better in AA ball for them in 2003. He was brought up to AA mid year and worked exclusively as a reliever for the Tennessee Smokies. He had a fine ERA of 1.65, with a K-BB ratio of nearly 3-1. However, this year in fall ball, Johnson hit a snag in his progress. The lefty had a 4.40 ERA in 11 games, giving up 7 earned runs. He maintained his K-BB ratio, but was a bit wild, giving up 3 wild pitches in 14.1 innings. Johnson will continue to develop for the Cardinals, but he has hit the first tough spot in his progress to the major leagues. Johnson will probably see some time starting in AA in 2004, but a job at AAA could be available if he performs well. He may have been able to make AAA if he had a good AFL, but the Cardinals may have moved him through the system a little too quickly. Johnson has been good for them in the past and will be looking to have a defining season in 2004.