Perhaps it's not fair to start talking about 2005 when we haven't even arrived in May of 2004 yet. But as I'm sure you've heard, things are moving faster all the time. In fact, theoretical physicist James Dunkings recently theorized that 2004 has already happened, but most of us are just too stupid to know it. With that in mind, then, let's look at some of the very best baseball players who could become (or perhaps already have become) free men at the conclusion of this season, and who will take their places ...
Player: Moises Alou
Team, Position: Cubs, LF
Replacement: Moises Alou
Alou can become a free agent, but I don't think he will. He and the Cubs have a mutual option for 2005, which if exercised by both parties will pay Alou $11.5 million. Alou's not going to make that much anywhere else, and the Cubs don't have anybody in the minors remotely ready to take over in left field. So unless he doesn't play well this season, he'll likely be back for at least one more season in the Friendly Confines.
Beltran's probably going to wind up with the Yankees, and the only real question is when; if the Royals turn things around this season, Beltran signs the five-year, $75 million contract next November. If the Royals continue to struggle, Beltran gets traded in July to the Yankees for Dioner Navarro and a Grade B pitching prospect.
In the short-term, Beltran's place in center field will be taken by David DeJesus, who recently has been installed as the regular left fielder. Long-term, the Royals are hopeful that Chris Lubanski, their No. 1 draft pick last June, will take over in the center field, with DeJesus moving back to left.
Player: Adrian Beltre
Team, Position: Dodgers, 3B
Replacement: Adrian Beltre
The Dodgers have approximately one outstanding young hitter in the minor leagues, and he (James Loney) is two years from the majors and can't play third base because he throws with the wrong hand. So if Beltre plays well this season -- and he's off to a great start -- the Dodgers will likely do whatever they can to re-sign him. If that doesn't work out, they'll almost certainly have to go outside the organization, and there will be a number of top third basemen available: Troy Glaus, Corey Koskie, and perhaps Mike Lowell (see below for more on all of them).
As well as Delgado played last season, Blue Jays management has been wanting out from under his contract since the moment J.P. Ricciardi took over as GM. It's not that Delgado's not a great hitter, because of course he is. But it's hard to win when you're spending (as the Blue Jays are this season) nearly $20 million on one player (Delgado) and roughly $30 million on the rest of the team.
The Blue Jays' top lower-level prospect at first base is Vito Chiaravolotti, who terrorized New York-Penn League pitchers in 2003 and is off to a good start this spring in the Florida State League. If he's any help at the major league level, though, it won't be until 2006 at the earliest. So that leaves Josh Phelps, whose best position is the batter's box. But then somebody still has to DH in place of Phelps, and it's at least possible that Delgado could return at a somewhat lower salary.
Player: Orlando Cabrera
Team, Position: Expos, SS
Replacement: Josh Labandeira
Cabrera's a very good player, which means he'll probably be playing very good for somebody else the first chance he gets. Fortunately, the Expos do have a pretty decent shortstop waiting in the wings. Labandeira's very small, only 5-foot-7, but he's advanced quickly through the minors with an attractive combination of line drives and hustle. He projects as a utility man in the major leagues, but considering the state of affairs in Montreal, Labandeira might wind up as the Expos' starting shortstop for a few years.
Yes, Kielty's a cop-out on my part, as he's already playing regularly for the A's, in left field. He throws well enough to play in right, though, so the next question is, "Who's the new left fielder?" There is, of course, no way to predict what GM Billy Beane might do between now and next March, but my money's on Nick Swisher. Beane's been ridiculed by naysayers for the so-called "Moneyball draft" from 2001, and Swisher was Oakland's first choice in that draft. He struggled terribly in Double-A last summer, but the A's promoted him this spring anyway, and thus far he's been outstanding (.302/.426/.605) with Triple-A Sacramento. Yes, it's early and the Pacific Coast League is generally hitter-friendly, but nothing would give Beane more pleasure than to see Swisher in the lineup on Opening Day next spring.
Finley's had a nice run, but (can you believe it?) he turns 40 next March, so it's probably time for the Diamondbacks to think about a new center fielder. Luis Terrero is exceptionally "toolsy" (to use a term that I despise). Last year with Triple-A Tucson, Terrero played 118 games, hit three home runs, and drew 31 walks. Nevertheless, 1) scouts love him and 2) he's batting .422 with Tucson this season, so he's generally regarded as the organization's Center Fielder of the Future.
Do I really think the Red Sox are going to let Garciaparra get away? No, I don't. They need him, and he needs them (because they can afford to pay him more than anybody else except the Yankees, and the Yankees already have two shortstops). That said, Garciaparra's not particularly happy with management and the Red Sox could take the money they'd plow into Garciaparra and go after Carlos Beltran or Jose Vidro. See, the organization's No. 1 prospect just happens to be a shortstop, Hanley Ramirez. He's still very young, though, and not nearly ready for the AL East pennant race. So perhaps Pokey Reese can flash the leather in 2005, with Ramirez graduating to the majors in '06.
Player: Troy Glaus
Team, Position: Angels, 3B
Replacement: Dallas McPherson (?)
Why the question mark after Dallas McPherson? Not because McPherson lacks the requisite talent. McPherson's blown through the minor leagues, and in many organizations he'd be knocking on the major league door. But McPherson's not going to move Glaus off third base this season, and there's not room for him in the outfield any time soon, either. Considering 1) how well Glaus is swinging the bat this season, 2) how poorly Tim Salmon is swinging the bat, and 3) how loose owner Arte Moreno is with the purse strings, it seems likely that Glaus will be signed to a long-term contract extension, with McPherson taking over as the Angels' DH, perhaps as soon as next year.
The Astros have an option on Hidalgo's 2005 services ... but $15 million is a lot of dough, especially these days, so they're likely to let him walk unless a postseason run gives the franchise a bit of extra spending money. Right now Jason Lane is serving as the Astros' fifth outfielder (behind Orlando Palmeiro?), but he's a talented hitter and figures to hit 25-30 home runs if given the chance to play every day.
Player: Corey Koskie
Team, Position: Twins, 3B
Replacement: Terry Tiffee
The Twins used their first-round draft pick last June on a high-school shortstop named Matt Moses, and immediately announced that Moses was actually a third baseman. We'll see. He's had some problems throwing the ball, and observers have predicted he'll wind up at second base, in the outfield, or perhaps even at first. And wherever he plays, he won't arrive with the Twins until 2006 at the very earliest. In the meantime, Terry Tiffee could serve as a decent place-holder. Tiffee is nobody's idea of a hot prospect, but he's a line-drive hitter who could eventually enjoy a decent major-league career.
Player: Mike Lowell
Team, Position: Marlins, 3B
Replacement: Miguel Cabrera
If ever a team was stacked at a position, it's the Marlins right now. Lowell's one of the best third basemen in the business, of course, which is why Cabrera's playing right field. But Cabrera played third base in the minors and was considered a potential Gold Glover, so he could return to third and in fact is probably more valuable there.
So is Lowell leaving? Not necessarily. He has a strange clause in his contract that allows him to become a free agent after the 2004 season if the Marlins don't have financing for a new ballpark in place by November 1. That financing is unlikely, but that doesn't mean Lowell is gone. He can void the deal, which currently runs through 2007, but at the same time exercise a player option that would pay him $14 million in 2005. That's a lot of money, especially if he figures the Marlins will be competitive next season. I think Lowell will return in '05, but make way in '06 for Cabrera (who should be taking ground balls every so often, just in case).
Player: Magglio Ordonez
Team, Position: White Sox, RF
Replacement: Magglio Ordonez
No, the White Sox don't make money like the Cubs do. But thanks to a big market and a fairly lucrative TV deal, the Sox can afford to pay their best player the going rate for hard-hitting right fielders, and Ordonez will probably sign a long-term extension during the season. On the other hand, if Ordonez does sign with the Dodgers or something, the White Sox have prospect Jeremy Reed, who batted .409 -- yes, .409 -- in half a season at Double-A last summer. Ideally, though, the White Sox would retain Ordonez and let Reed play center field, which would give them one of the best outfields in the majors.
Player: Aramis Ramirez
Team, Position: Cubs, 3B
Replacement: Aramis Ramirez
The Cubs are blessed with three pretty good prospects who can play third base, but they're also blessed with Wrigley Field and WGN, which means they can afford to spend whatever it takes to keep Ramirez. So the only real question is whether they want to keep him, as Ramirez hasn't been the most consistent player. He's still only 25, though, and figures to get better before he gets worse.
The Cardinals would certainly like to bring Renteria back after his current contract expires, and they probably will. But they're hedging their bets with Hector Luna, who was selected in the Rule 5 Draft last December. Luna is 24, makes a lot of errors, and doesn't have any power, despite all of which the Cardinals think he's worth a roster spot all season. But if Luna spends most of his time on the bench, how can the Cardinals be convinced that Renteria is expendable (which he isn't anyway)? They won't be, and Renteria will be re-signed with a contract that looks silly a few years down the road.
The Diamondbacks don't have any minor-league first basemen worth talking about, but they do have third baseman Chad Tracy, who in the absence of Sexson would allow Hillenbrand to slide over to first base, his natural position anyway. And the D-Backs will probably need a first baseman, especially if Sexson keeps hitting 500-foot home runs.
Player: Jason Varitek
Team, Position: Red Sox, C
Replacement: Kelly Shoppach
The Red Sox don't exactly have a deep farm system, but their No. 2 prospect happens to be a catcher, Kelly Shoppach. The first college catcher drafted in 2001, Shoppach is already playing for Boston's Triple-A club. He's not currently playing well, but if Shoppach turns things around he'll give the Red Sox a legitimate alternative to spending a lot of money on the decline phase of Varitek's career.
Player: Jose Vidro
Team, Position: Expos, 2B
Idle speculation. The Expos have already dug themselves a deep hole, but will their owners -- the 29 moguls and corporations who own the other 29 franchises -- take the public-relations hit and trade Vidro to the Yankees in June? Will the Expos be sold this summer to a real owner, with pockets deep enough to re-sign the franchise's best remaining player to a long-term extension? Of course, that assumes the player wants to be re-signed, and this player will probably be lured to the Yankees or the Red Sox, who have deep pockets and lofty postseason hopes.
It's unlikely that Vidro will still be an Expo -- or a Lobbyist, or a Steelhead, or a Boulder, or whatever -- in 2005. And considering that the Expos' only second-base prospect spent last season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last season, there's just no way of knowing who's going to fill Vidro's big spikes. It probably won't be Andy Fox or Jamey Carroll, though.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.