Jays a definite '04 sleeper

Breaking down all 30 teams and giving their chances of making the postseason in 2004.

Originally Published: January 20, 2004
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

February approaches. Even the laziest pitchers and catchers have begun stirring to work off the pounds they picked up over the holidays.

Many teams still have some final brush strokes to add to their rosters. But the 2004 picture has largely taken shape. Here's an abridged look at how likely teams are to contend for playoff spots:

American League National League
Owner Arte Moreno has given Mike Scioscia more talent than he had when the Angels won the World Series in 2002. Vladimir Guerrero will thrive. Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar make the starting rotation seven deep, without counting three prospects knocking at the door (Chris Bootcheck, Kevin Gregg and Bobby Jenks). The bullpen is strong, too.
The first year at Citizens Bank Park could see the Phillies finally end Atlanta's run of division championships. With Kevin Millwood returning and Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Eric Milton being added, this should be one of the league's three best pitching staffs. The Larry Bowa factor is never far from the surface, but Jim Thome provides critical leadership in the clubhouse.
Except for when he was in his early 30s with Florida and San Diego, counting on Kevin Brown has always been a risky proposition. It's easy to imagine him being miserable in New York, which could have a carryover. But Gary Sheffield adds serious thump to a lineup better than the one Joe Torre ran out in the World Series last season.
This was going to be a good team if Roy Oswalt was healthy. It could be a great one with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and a healthy Oswalt. The starting rotation goes at least seven deep, creating the possibility that 15-game winner Jeriome Robertson could open the season in the bullpen, if not Triple-A New Orleans. Octavio Dotel, who inherits Billy Wagner's job as closer, will be the main focus in the spring.
The Red Sox don't have Alex Rodriguez, but they still have plenty of talent to win 100-plus games and overtake the Yankees if Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez put aside their personal concerns. Keith Foulke could be a more important addition than Curt Schilling. He needs to get off to a fast start to get the panicky Boston fans on his side.
A return to the postseason seems highly likely for a team that hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since Richard Nixon's first term as President. With or without Greg Maddux, this is a fearsome collection of pitchers and the lineup will produce more runs than a year ago, with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez as major contributors. If Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and Corey Patterson are all right, look out.

American League National League
When you've got Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, you've always got a chance at a special season. But Billy Beane has done a shaky job this time around, taking huge gambles on Mark Kotsay and Arthur Rhodes while signing off on big downgrades at shortstop (rookie Bobby Crosby) and catcher (Damian Miller). The Jermaine Dye contract could be a killer, as well.
Life after Greg Maddux will be interesting, but not because of the dropoff from Maddux to his replacement, John Thomson. There's no way this team scores the runs it did a year ago, not with four of their top six RBI men gone. The streak is very much on the line -- again -- for John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox.
It's hard to write off a team that has averaged 98 wins over the last four years, but the age of so many of the Mariners' core players remains a concern. The bullpen should be a major strength even with the loss of Kaz Sasaki. Either newcomer Eddie Guardado or Shigetoshi Hasegawa will hold down the closer's spot, and top young arms Rafael Soriano and Julio Mateo could play prominent roles.
This looks like a franchise that has begun the descent to a financially challenged future, in part because of the deferrals that helped produce the championship in 2001. Randy Johnson and new first baseman Richie Sexson carry a huge burden to make up for all the questions that exist elsewhere.
Nobody did more with less than Tony Pena in 2003. He'll have more this time around, with a full season of Brian Anderson and (maybe) Kevin Appier, an improved bullpen and Juan Gonzalez and Benito Santiago in the lineup.
A return to the playoffs is a reasonable goal for the World Series champs, who will miss Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee, Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper. A.J. Burnett's return could provide a lift for a pitching staff still heavy on good, young arms but don't be surprised if Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis experience dropoffs. Beckett bears watching after being abused by manager Jack McKeon during his great postseason run.
It will be another challenging year for Ron Gardenhire, who gets Shannon Stewart for a full season but loses bullpen anchors Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins. Catcher Joe Mauer might be the best prospect in baseball, but is he being pushed too fast? Who will replace the innings from Kenny Rogers, Eric Milton and Rick Reed?

American League National League
The cast around Cy Young winner Roy Halladay gets deeper with the addition of Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen. The bullpen has basically been rebuilt, with Justin Speier getting a chance to become the closer. Outfielder Alexis Rios could have an impact as a rookie.
A wire-to-wire winner in 2003, the Giants didn't miss Dusty Baker or Jeff Kent much, at least not until October. But there are major questions this time around: Other than Barry Bonds, who provides the thump? How healthy are ace Jason Schmidt and closer Robb Nen? Is Cody Ransom ready to be an everyday shortstop?
New manager Ozzie Guillen will provide some life for a team that could go either way. It has four All-Star caliber hitters, but is weak up the middle. GM Ken Williams has spent the winter chasing his tail, but still might have a big trade in him to improve a pitching staff reeling from the loss of Bartolo Colon, Tom Gordon and Scott Sullivan, not to mention reduced expectations for Billy Koch.
Tony La Russa always makes the most of what he's given, but there's not enough pitching to win, not in a division where the Cubs and Astros both have improved. The lineup has four All-Star caliber players, but won't be as good without Fernando Vina, J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. Adam Wainwright, who was acquired in the Drew trade and was Atlanta's top pitching prospect, is likely to open the year at Triple-A.
Homegrown pitchers like Shawn Chacon, Aaron Cook and Chin-hui Tsao could make this season a lot of fun for Colorado fans. Larry Walker appears rededicated, which could mean good things for a lineup that has added Jeromy Burnitz and Vinny Castilla while improving defensively with Royce Clayton at shortstop. Rookie second baseman Aaron Miles could put up All-Star numbers at Coors Field.

American League National League
Owner Peter Angelos is back in the game but don't expect Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez to pay big dividends right away. The key to this year will be the development of Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley and other young pitchers. High-scoring games should be in vogue at Camden Yards.
The timing of Fox's proposed sale couldn't have been worse as it tied the front office's hands at a time when Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada and Kaz Matsui could have been signed as centerpieces for a thin lineup. Kevin Brown was granted his wish for a trade, which weakens the starting rotation, which had been the team's strength. Fans hope the sale to Frank McCourt will be approved while deals for Magglio Ordonez, Nomar Garciaparra, Ivan Rodriguez or Greg Maddux are still possible.
No team has added more talent for less financial commitment than the Devil Rays, who are massively improved from a year ago. The starting rotation is the one area of serious concern but guys like Tino Martinez, Jose Cruz Jr., Danys Baez, Rey Sanchez, Geoff Blum, Mike Williams and Todd Jones bring a sense of upward mobility for a team that has big-time prospects on the way.
This is an improved team in a division without a heavyweight, but is probably a year away from being a contender. GM Kevin Towers has made some nice moves, especially the acquisition of catcher Ramon Hernandez, but he should have found a way to sign Greg Maddux rather than David Wells.
Fans at Great American Ball Park should expect many 10-7 and 8-6 ballgames, which might not be all bad. New GM Dan O'Brien wasn't given the resources to improve a pitching staff that has suffered a talent drain in recent years but the lineup has possibilities, although as always they depend on the fragile Ken Griffey Jr.
Morale will once again be low for baseball's orphans, who for the first time since 1998 open a season without Vladimir Guerrero. GM Omar Minaya is as resourceful as they come, but his roster is stretched thin. The question is whether he'll hold on to Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera or trade them in July.
Shortstop Kaz Matsui adds an intriguing storyline to a team that could make a run at .500 if it gets strong seasons from Al Leiter, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel. The bullpen is being rebuilt and some great arms are on the way, most notably Scott Kazmir and Matt Peterson.

American League National League
Does Ivan Rodriguez really want to catch a staff that will have the non-tendered Jason Johnson as its ace? If he says yes to president and GM Dave Dombrowski's four-year offer, Detroit could talk about following Kansas City's example in the weak AL Central but reality is that the Tigers haven't produced nearly as many homegrown contributors as the Royals.
A 12th straight losing season is certain but the Brewers could be better, in large part because of the Richie Sexson trade. GM Doug Melvin added depth with the addition of Junior Spivey, Lyle Overbay and Craig Counsell. The biggest storyline of the season will be the attempts of the Bud Selig group to find a deep-pocketed dreamer to buy a franchise with a better heritage than future.
If C.C. Sabathia stumbles, it could be tough to find an All-Star on this roster. Jody Gerut and center fielder Grady Sizemore (trying to make the jump from Double-A) bear watching as manager Eric Wedge continues to sift through kids and low-salaried veterans.
As in Milwaukee, a 12th straight losing season is a given for a franchise that has an embarrassing roster given the great digs taxpayers built for them to play in. The front of the rotation -- Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Kris Benson -- is the best part of a team that continues trying to get out from under long-term contracts signed years ago. Hard to imagine they got so little for the likes of Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton in 2003 trades.
Losing John Thomson to free agency was the latest blow for the major leagues' worst pitching staff. Kenny Rogers and Jeff Nelson will add a veteran presence, but the quality of arms in the organization is shocking. Alex Rodriguez trade talks will resurface in July, if not in spring training.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.