Arizona Diamondbacks: Other than elbows, arbitrations and salary purges, not too much going on in the Valley of the Sun. Team officials are closely monitoring the progress of LF Luis Gonzalez's rehab. The Grade 2 sprain (or slight tear) of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow is definitely a cause for concern. While he's been throwing for close to a month and hopes to be at full steam for Opening Day, the front office also has to consider a worst-case scenario, i.e., a setback and, ultimately, a season ending "Tommy John" surgery. With Gonzo's status in the air, the team has admired the Twins' Jacque Jones from afar (but don't count on a deal getting done). The team is also close to a half million apart from 3B Shea Hillenbrand's salary demand and that all but assures an arbitration hearing. Look for the team to dump closer Matt Mantei and his $7 million contract.
Atlanta Braves: If Russ Ortiz is in your plans for 2004, you can help yourself by watching where he pitches. Over the last three seasons in Atlanta, hitters have hit just .202 off Ortiz and he's 15-3 at Turner Field. He also does well against division foes Montreal and Philadelphia when he's pitching in their parks (keep in mind that the Phillies will have a new home this summer). In Shea Stadium, Ortiz is average and in four starts at Pro Player Stadium, Ortiz is 0-4, 7.65 over the past three seasons.
Cincinnati Reds: Mike Mathews went 6-4, 4.45 in San Diego last season, making 77 appearances. He is likely to be called upon a lot in Cincinnati and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his numbers in good shape. Mathews ERA has moved from 3.24 in 2001 to 3.94 in 2002 and climbed to 4.45 in 2003; Not a good trend. Word is that if all falls apart, Mathews could get a shot at closing games or will at least be the key setup man for the Reds. Depending on how your league scores, Mathews may give you a few pluses here and there, but he's not someone to draft. He may however, be someone that you look at to cover injuries later in the season.
Colorado Rockies: Touted as a possible steal when he initially joined the Rockies, rookie Aaron Miles will be placed in a fantastic position at Coors Field. Not only can he hit, he benefits from the swelled numbers in the Mountain air. Miles could very well hit close to .300 this season and 15 homers and 75 RBI's is not out of the question. Keep him close by when making out your second baseman rosters as a late round steal.
Chicago Cubs:Cubs: Mark Grudzielanek will likely get the nod at second base over Todd Walker once opening day arrives. In Grudzielanek, the Cubs may also have their leadoff hitter. Grudzielanek started 69 games as the Cubs' leadoff hitter in 2003, batting .314. While some experts feel his 2003 season was a career-year, Grudzielanek heads into 2004 a solid option on every fantasy owner's infield.
Houston Astros:Astros: RHP Octavio Dotel held opponents to a .172 batting average last season. Since becoming a full-time reliever in May 2001, he's 18-11 with a 2.07 ERA in 216 appearances. With Billy Wagner finally out of the way, Dotel can now settle into the role of closer, where he is a natural fit.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Wow, tough talk to the recently approved owner of the Dodgers, Frank McCourt. He criticized the team by saying it "lacks excitement" and the front office as one that "lacks innovation". That's putting it mildly. In short, everyone's job is jeopardy with McCourt in town, including manager Jim Tracy and GM Dan Evans. While Billy Beane is most certainly on his wish list (among 20+ other owners' wish lists), former Mariner GM Pat Gillick could grab the reins. As for what's happening on the field, RF Shawn Green could find a new position at first base now that OF Juan Encarnacion joined the club. RHP's Darren Dreifort and Hideo Nomo are doing fine after off-season surgeries and are expected to take an active part in training camp. The Dodgers are rumored to be a potential suitor of free agent pitcher Greg Maddux.
Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Ben Sheets came up in the Brewers system as a very highly-touted prospect, with a live arm and the make up to be a dominating starter. Last season Sheets gave mixed results, but with the current state of the Brewers rotation, don't expect him to lose a spot in the rotation anytime soon. He's been consistently average since he made his first appearance in the majors three years ago, with his ERA staying in the mid-4's over the course of his career. Sheets has the arm though, so if you are in an NL-only league, or looking for a late round sleeper, Sheets could be your guy.
New York Mets: Shea Stadium is known to be one of the better pitcher's parks in all of baseball. Someone forgot to tell Tom Glavine that last season. Glavine, who went 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA last season with the Mets, posted a dreadful 3-9 mark and a un-Glavinesque 5.22 ERA at Shea. Glavine had a very good 2002 when he had a 2.96 ERA. But throw in the fact his post-All Star record in 2002 was 7-7 with a 3.93 ERA, Glavine's 2003 season was perhaps a signal of his declining productivity. He'll turn 38 before the start of the 2004 campaign. Glavine is risky pick among National League pitchers. Chances are he won't bounce back to his former self as this crafty left-hander is on the wrong side of old.
Philadelphia Phillies: Early word on Pat Burrell is good. Burrell went through a season long slump in 2003 and reported to camp this past week to get a jump on his spring training. Under the watchful eye of manager Larry Bowa and hitting guru Charlie Manuel, Burrell came out on day one and was slamming the ball with authority. Burrell hadn't picked up a bat since the season ended, but did a lot of mental exercises on what he wanted to do and how he could adjust his swing. He's now closer to the plate and has dropped his hands a little, giving him a little more bat speed. Get this guy early; 2004 could be big for Pat Burrell.
Pittsburgh Pirates: This past week RHP Jose Mesa agreed to a minor-league deal with the club, but don't expect him to be sitting in AAA for too long. Mesa lost his job as the Phillies' closer at the end of last season, but don't be surprised if he breaks camp with the Pirates as the team's closer. Mesa, while struggling last year, still has been a reliable closer in the past and could very well return to that role, especially given a less pressure situation (as the Pirates aren't quite ready to compete yet). While it's no guarantee, don't be surprised if Mesa returns to his old form and is good for 30 saves this season.
San Diego Padres: The return to health of Phil Nevin is a huge boon to the Padres franchise. In 59 games, Nevin drove in 46, scored 30 runs, and hit 13 homers. Translating that over a full season with the occasional day off projects to 33 homers, 75 runs scored and 115 RBI's. Considering the support around him is improved, his runs scored could also top 100. The added bonus is Nevin will likely be available as both a first baseman and outfielder. On the downside, Nevin has already started a front to move in the right field fence at Petco. He believes it will be a place where homers go to die and doubles will be plentiful. The wind that was supposed to push out to right-center has been non-existent and no one knows if it will ever show. That could knock five homers or more off his 2004 season
San Francisco Giants: Nothing new with the defending National League Western Division Champions. Wait! Check that! They renamed their park, SBC Park, which is about as exciting as bad mime troupe. Too bad they didn't get SBC to throw in a few more million ducats to land what they really needed: A front line pitcher and right fielder with a bat. This could hurt all fantasy aspirations of players not named Bonds.
Anaheim Angels: When the Anaheim Angels signed Vladimier Guerrero not only did they sign the best RF in the game, they made fans out of all the fantasy baseball owners that have Vlad on their team. If you thought Vlad was good in Montreal, just wait till he gets 500 to 600 at bats batting in front of Team MVP Garret Anderson. No one will want to pitch around Vlad with Garret looming on deck behind him. Who knows his final 2004 stats until the end of the season. I would not be suprised if Vlad hits .330 to .340 with 45 to 50 home runs with 130+ RBI's. Be wise choose Vlad with your number 1 pick.
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles made a flurry of moves this offseason and were one Vlad signing away from a blockbuster winter. Of course individually speaking there's always winner and losers to an offseason. DH Jack Cust certainly became a loser as a result of the moves. Heading into the winter, Cust had finally appeared set for a breakout season heading into Spring 2004. He had finally been traded to an AL team where he could DH; he went to a young team looking for some pop; and along comes the likes of Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro. Cust could be a deep sleeper in AL only leagues in case of an injury, but he's not someone you can count for regular at-bats....not in that Baltimore lineup.
Boston Red Sox: Defense wins championships. Nothing has been made clearer throughout the sports world of late, culminating with the New England Patriots latest Super Bowl victory. Nobody is questioning the Red Sox record setting offense or even their newly reloaded pitching staff. The key to winning in the postseason though, is pitching and defense. People do not need to be reminded about Todd Walker's error in Game 2 of the ALDS in Oakland that broke the game open for the A's. The Sox were eventually able to overcome that deficit, but it is not a position that a team should want to be in. The defense, with the addition of Pokey Reese at second base, is looking as solid as ever--especially up the middle. Varitek is as good as they come behind the dish and the Nomar Garciaparra to Pokey Reese combo will put a few more smiles on the faces of Red Sox pitchers, Derek Lowe especially. The only chinks in the armor, so to speak, are in left field and first base. Millar plays a very average first base and won't kill you, but he is nowhere close to the Doug Mientkiewicz's of the league. Manny Ramirez will continue to be Manny in left, causing people to collectively hold their breath anytime the ball is hit his way. Overall, the offense will win the Sox plenty of games, but the defense and pitching will win them what they really want.
Cleveland IndiansThe Cleveland Indians were a bad team in 2003. But in all honesty, not many people were expecting much from this squad in a major rebuilding program. Not too many great fantasy players could have been found in Cleveland, but there were some good fantasy sleepers. And there will be again in 2004. LHP Cliff Lee is one of those starting pitchers that could really fall under the radar and have an All-Star type season in 2004. Injured most of the year, Lee came back to go 3-4 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 9 starts...all with a hernia!!! With just 11 starts in his Major League career, Lee has the stuff, and make-up, of a very good pitcher. He's one to get in '04.
Chicago White Sox:RHP Billy Koch is being called "my closer" by new manager Ozzie Guillen, but newly acquired RHP Shingo Takatsu is showing he's not short on confidence. "I've played in Japan as a closer for 10 years, so definitely, yes, I would like to be the closer," Takatsu said through an interpreter. Look for the new addition to get a few chances at closing with the Sox looking at a trading deadline deal to move Koch. While Takatsu is a bit of an unknown, he has the experience and closer's mentality. His signing was a formality to signify the eventual trading of Koch.
Detroit Tigers: Two seasons ago, there was no question as to who the Tigers closer was. RHP Matt Anderson had secured the role after an impressive season as the Tigers full-time closer. However, inconsistency, lost velocity and arm injuries have set him back, and now he appears to be on the outside looking in for the closer's role. The front-runner? Youngster Fernando Rodney, with a high-90's fastball and a devastating change-up, the Tiger front office believes Rodney can become dominating. He has the makeup, now it'll just depend on whether or not he can turn his talent into production. A good late-round sleeper pick that could pay off big time.
Kansas City Royals: Over his career, Juan Gonzalez has averaged 42 homeruns, 136 RBI and a .296 average for every 162 games played. He suffered through injuries in 2002, but proved that he was healthy last season and bounced back with 24 homeruns for Texas. Gonzalez will be a big addition to the Kansas City lineup and should be able to post numbers that will rival what he usually puts up. The other plus is that Gonzalez' presence will make the rest of the Royals lineup better.
Minnesota Twins: Shannon Stewart's average was almost 30 points higher after the all-star game than it was prior to the midsummer classic. Plus, Stewart hit .367 at the Metrodome last season and is a .350 hitter in Minnesota over the past three seasons. Outside of Toronto's Sky Dome, the Metrodome has been Stewart's favorite place to hit homeruns, too. Bottom line is that the trade to Minnesota was likely a good thing for Stewart and his 2004 numbers should see at least some spike because of his new address. Don't take Stewart too high, because he's not a great all around player, but he's worth watching and could be a nice pick as the draft moves on.
New York Yankees: With Aaron Boone most likely gone for most, if not all, of the 2004 season, the Yankees traded for 3B Mike Lamb from the Texas Rangers this week. Lamb hardly puts power into the Bombers lineup, hitting a career-high 9 home runs for the Rangers in 2002. In fact, throughout his entire professional career, Lamb has only "slugged" more than nine home runs once and that was way back in 1999 in the minors at Tulsa of the Texas League. While the Yankees lineup is one of the more powerful offenses in baseball, Lamb is not someone you want manning your hot corner. The Yankees won't have enough patience for his offense and neither should you.
Oakland Athletics:Eric Karros hit 270 homers during his 11-year career with the Dodgers, the most of any player since the team moved to Los Angeles. He is now a member of the A's. Last year in Chicago, Karros, 36, hit .286 with 12 homers and 40 RBI's. Look for about the same from him this season, and perhaps less for the slugger who had five seasons with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs or more. Karros figures to fight for playing time with Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo in line to play first.
Seattle Mariners:Raul Ibanez played in the best hitter's park in the AL in 2003. This year he moves into a park much more favorable for pitchers. However, he will hit in a stronger overall lineup which should help keep the RBI production up. Look for Ibanez to hit somewhere in the top 6 spots in order and drive in and score over 80 runs. His HR production might suffer and cause his overall value to drop below his 2003 level.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The D'Rays seem to be somewhat of a homeless shelter. They've signed a lot of players like Mike Williams and Fernando Tatis that were looking for homes and weren't sure they would find one this winter. Consider that Williams, Tatis, Todd Jones, Damian Moss and Todd Ritchie all signed with Toronto and you have a collection of guys with invitations to spring training that are trying to prolong their careers (only Moss has a major league guarantee). Sometimes though, players on their last leg get a second (or third) wind and put up surprising numbers. Keep an eye on spring stats and maybe play some hunches when it comes to Tampa Bay.
Texas Rangers: Mark Teixeira's power display in 2003 was just the tip of the iceberg. The Rangers' youngster should improve his HR total in 2004. Hitting in the heart of the order with Alex Rodriguez and Hank Blalock should allow him to improve in the other categories as well. Teixeira has the potential to hit 35+ HR while driving in and scoring over 100 runs. He won't lead the league in batting average, but he should have no problem improving on last year's .259 mark.
Toronto Blue Jays: Josh Phelps average fell 40 points from his 2002 high of .309. It's easy to see why. He opened up his swing and was looking for power. He hit 20 homeruns (he had 15 in 2002), but his strikeouts went from 82 to 115. Not enough of a power increase to warrant the drop in average or the increase in strikeouts. To his credit, Phelps did keep his OBP right around the .360 mark. The Blue Jays would like to see him even out his numbers a little and since he's just 25, odds are that Phelps best days are still ahead of him. Phelps played in 119 games last season and should see at least as much action in 2004. Look for an improvement on the .368 average and figure that his homeruns will stick between 15 and 20, meaning that Phelps could be a nice pick up late in the draft, depending on how your league is scoring.