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Count Cubs to be among
surprise teams in 2003
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Lou Piniella insisted from last January on that most of us didn't appreciate how good the Angels were, and even before spring training opened last year, there were a lot of people who believed the Twins were the team to beat in the AL Central, or that the Giants would not go away.
That's where we are again, not looking back at labor or bungled All-Star games or steroid-mania, but at the 2003 season.
So, here are the results of a poll of front-office executives and scouts looking ahead to 2003:
What teams are a lot better than we're thinking right now?
The Cubs: "I fear them the most because of their pitching," says one NL Central GM. "Everything went wrong last year. Those things aren't going wrong with (new manager) Dusty Baker."
Start with these numbers: 281 IP, 206 H, 153 BB, 445 SO. Those are the combined 2002 figures of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and they are only going to get better. Carlos Zambrano is a star on the rise, Matt Clement made exceptional progress with his command and there are a lot of players like Moises Alou who should come back strong behind the direction of Baker.
There are two levels to this team. First, there are veterans like Sammy Sosa and Alou. Second, there are the talented young products of one of the game's best farm systems, led by first baseman Hee Seop Choi, second baseman Bobby Hill and center fielder Corey Patterson.
GM Jim Hendry tried to address two principle areas: 1) The bullpen, which blew more saves (25) than it completed (23), added Mike Remlinger, and has a slimmed down (by 25 pounds) Antonio Alfonseca, big-time arms like Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth and veteran comebackers like Rod Beck, who has been throwing very well in Arizona, and Dave Veres; 2) The defense, which in the traditionally frigid first five weeks turned into a nightmare. They opened the season with Chris Stynes, Delino DeShields and Fred McGriff in the infield. And now, while Hendry would like an upgrade at third base, there is the hope that Hill and Choi break out and allow Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek to be valuable depth off the bench.
Hendry says he'd like more left-handed pitching and another bat, but with his farm system, he will be able to deal come June.
The Reds: With the Cardinals, Astros (Reds GM Jim Bowden thinks the Jeff Kent signing has been underappreciated), Cubs and Reds, this could be a terrific race. If Ken Griffey Jr. is healthy -- all reports indicate that he is working feverishly to restore his career -- and with Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, a healthy Sean Casey and Aaron Boone, this can be a high-scoring machine with one of the league's deepest bullpens, as Scott Williamson flips roles with Danny Graves.
Remember, the Reds were in first or second place for 123 days last season with a starting rotation that had the fewest quality starts (67) in the league. Granted, Bowden traded pitcher Elmer Dessens to get shortstop Felipe Lopez, but his efforts to get Brad Penny have been to get a low-cost starter to go with Ryan Dempster, Graves, Jimmy Haynes, Pete Harnisch, et al. Bowden has a low budget for a contender going into a new stadium, but never underestimate his creativity.
The White Sox: It will all come down to starting pitching, and while GM Ken Williams has been strapped by payroll issues -- he nearly had Russ Ortiz in a trade, then barely lost out on signing Omar Daal -- the makings behind Mark Buehrle are there, as evidenced by the fact that their starters' ERA after the All-Star break fell to 4.25 from 4.76.
"What I liked was that Jon Garland and Dan Wright got better in the second half and they pitched well against contending teams on the road," says Williams. They will look at Jon Rauch, Rocky Biddle and rookie Josh Stewart (11-7 at Double-A) as Williams keeps trying to find experience.
The bullpen (Billy Koch, Antonio Osuna, Kelly Wunsch, Damaso Marte, Gary Glover) is deep and versatile. They have the energetic leadership of Jose Valentin, who is a special person, and they have established producers like Magglio Ordonez and Paul Konerko. They also expect Frank Thomas to come back strong and they have young players like Joe Crede, Willie Harris, Miguel Olivo, Josh Paul and Aaron Rowand they hope will develop.
The Rangers: New manager Buck Showalter makes a huge difference, and while Pudge Rodriguez and their best starter, Kenny Rogers, will no longer be around, this is a team with veteran power and some rising stars like Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira plugging in behind the league's best player, Alex Rodriguez.
They know the pitching has to be better, but then it would be tough to be worse than their 5.15 ERA, or starters' ERA of 5.26. When John Thomson signed, it gave the Rangers two starters (along with Chan Ho Park) who won nine games last year. That is why Colby Lewis, Joaquin Benoit, Doug Davis, Ryan Drese and Ben Kozlowski will be given every chance to prove themselves. Last year, GM John Hart thought he had a power bullpen, but when Jeff Zimmerman went down, everything fell apart, and the pen blew 25 saves. Now adding Ugueth Urbina, Esteban Yan, Rudy Seanez and Aaron Fultz to Todd Van Poppel, Francisco Cordero and Jay Powell should hold leads that so often melted in 2002.
Showalter has to decide whether or not Carl Everett can play center, and if and when he can't, how to use Doug Glanville. Einar Diaz gives them an energetic receiver to handle the pitchers, along with Park's former personal catcher, Chad Kreuter.
Who will be the rookies that have the most impact?
1. Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Angels. The man with 11 days of major league service and five postseason wins.
Honorable mention: Mark Hendrickson, LHP, Blue Jays; Lyle Overbay, 1B, Diamondbacks; Mike MacDougal, RHP, Royals; Miguel Olivo, C, White Sox; Aaron Cook, RHP, Rockies; Felipe Lopez, SS-2B, Reds; Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Red Sox; Joe Thurston, 2B, Dodgers; Kyle Denny, RHP, Indians.
Eight more expected to impact the second half
And some names out of the blue: Danny Borrell, LHP, Yankees; Marty Duff, RHP, Cardinals.
10 players we can't wait to see drafted in the first round come June
Players who may have breakout seasons
1. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs
10 players who could vault to star level in 2003
10 players expected to make major comebacks
10 innocuous acquisitions who could surprise