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Count Cubs to be among
surprise teams in 2003



Special to ESPN.com

Jan. 10

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.

Mark Prior
At the age of 22, Mark Prior could become a star in 2003.

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?
This is not about a team like the Phillies, who have worked so hard through their farm system and free agency and now are considered serious contenders. This is about those teams who may be better than middle-of-the-division finishers.

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?
It was a universal given that the best rookies, if healthy, could be Teixeira and Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, but they may not be playing in the big leagues until well into the season. Here are the poll winners, excluding Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras:

1. Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Angels. The man with 11 days of major league service and five postseason wins.
2. Travis Hafner, 1B, Indians.
3. John Patterson, RHP, Diamondbacks.
4. Hee Seop Choi, 1B, Cubs.
5. Marlon Byrd, CF, Phillies.
6. Franklyn German, RHP, Tigers.
7. Mike Cuddyer, Mike Restovich, RFs, Twins. The problem is that the Twins have so many real good young outfielders, the door may be blocked.
8. Cliff Lee, LHP, Indians. With Ricardo Rodriguez, Billy Traber, et al, new manager Eric Wedge will have a lot of fun rebuilding the Cleveland staff.
9. Rocco Baldelli, CF, Tampa Bay. Lou Piniella wants him to open the season in Tampa, although that may be a rush.
10. Kurt Ainsworth and Jesse Foppert, RHPs, San Francisco. These two, along with Jerome Williams, give the Giants a new wave of starters.

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
1. Mark Teixeira, 3B-1B, Rangers
2. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets; as long as his winter ball injury doesn't linger
3. Victor Martinez, C, Indians
4. Joe Borchard, CF, White Sox
5. Francis Beltran, RHP, Cubs
6. Brandon Phillips, 2B-SS, Indians
7. Rich Harden, RHP, A's
8. Jason Arnold, RHP, Blue Jays

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
1. Kyle Sleeth, RHP, Wake Forest
2. Matt Murton, OF, Georgia Tech
3. Delvin Young, OF, Los Angeles HS. Simply great.
4. Richie Weeks, 2B, Southern
5. Pete Stonard, OF, San Diego State
6. David Aardsma, RHP, Rice
7. Matt Brown, RHP, California
8. Tim Stauffer, RHP, Richmond
9. Scott Baker, RHP, Oklahoma State
10. Anthony Gwynn and Rod Allen, OFs, San Diego State and Arizona State. Gwynn and Allen, like Jonathan Schuerholz, prove that just because your father is famous doesn't mean you can't be the type of person that everyone would like to call son.

Players who may have breakout seasons
(in order of votes and mentions)

1. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Cubs
2. Nick Johnson, 1B, Yankees
3. Erubiel Durazo, 1B, A's
4. Jeremy Giambi, 1B-DH, Red Sox
5. Jake Peavy, RHP, Padres
6. Bobby Kielty, OF, Twins. Give him 500 plate appearances ...
7. Carlos Lee, OF, White Sox. A ton of mentions
8. Brandon Duckworth, RHP, Phillies. Just throw first-pitch strikes
9. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers
10. Aubrey Huff, 1B, Devil Rays
11. Casey Fossum, LHP, Red Sox
12. Kyle Lohse, RHP, Twins
13. Preston Wilson, OF, Rockies. Light air, new start, 50 HR?
14. Jay Gibbons, RF, Orioles
15. Tony Armas, RHP, Expos
16. Toby Hall, C, Devil Rays
17. Corey Patterson, CF, Cubs
18. Joe Crede, 3B, White Sox
19. Danys Baez, RHP, Indians
20. Kevin Mench, OF, Rangers

10 players who could vault to star level in 2003
1. A.J. Burnett, RHP, Marlins
2. Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs
3. Johan Santana, LHP, Twins
4. Troy Glaus, 3B, Angels. The feeling is that he's been a star, but the adjustments he made in the postseason could lead him to superstardom
5. Vernon Wells, Blue Jays
6. Pat Burrell, LF, Phillies
7. Austin Kearns, OF, Reds
8. Vicente Padilla, RHP, Phillies
9. Randy Wolf, LHP, Phillies
10. Derrek Lee, 1B, Marlins

10 players expected to make major comebacks
1. Kris Benson, RHP, Pirates
2. Roberto Alomar, 2B, Mets
3. Jason Kendall, C, Pirates
4. Frank Thomas, DH, White Sox
5. Pudge Rodriguez, C, TBD
6. Jermaine Dye, OF, A's
7. Moises Alou, OF, Cubs
8. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Pirates
9. Keith Foulke, RHP, A's
10. Adam Eaton, RHP, Padres

10 innocuous acquisitions who could surprise
1. Victor Hall, CF, Astros, Rule 5 draft
2. Chad Fox, RHP, Red Sox
3. Buddy Hernandez, RHP, A's, Rule 5 draft
4. Hector Luna, SS, Devil Rays, Rule 5 draft
5. Jeff Tam, RHP, Blue Jays
6. Brad Mills, bench coach, Expos
7. Travis Chapman, 3B, Tigers, Rule 5 draft
8. Joe Valentine, RHP, A's
9. Ramon Martinez, Inf., Cubs
10. Koufax, the band. Humorous, pop band (koufaxmusic.com is their website) that emerged at the same time that the Sandy Koufax biography was the best sports book of the year.

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