Expect plenty of sleepers to emerge

Last week I was part of a panel on a radio show, and the last question was, "What's going to be the biggest story in baseball this year?"

My answer was lame, but my colleague Ken Rosenthal nailed it. Essentially, Ken said the big story in 2004 is how many teams have a real chance to compete for postseason berths, and I would tend to agree. If we define "third-place teams" as those teams that are roughly the consensus third-place picks in their divisions, we find a bunch of teams that have real chances to do well this season. Here are those "third-place teams":

AL East Blue Jays
AL Central Royals
AL West Mariners
NL East Marlins
NL Central Cardinals
NL West ????

Let me take those in reverse order, because I want to explain those question marks while they're still fresh in your mind. They're there because I've not been able to discern anything like a consensus choice for third place in the National League West. I thought it was the Diamondbacks, until I looked at ESPN's Expert Picks and discovered that six of the 17 experts think the Diamondbacks will finish in first place. That ties them with the Giants, and the Padres are right behind with five votes. But whichever of these three teams you think will finish third, you probably have to admit it's got a fighting chance, because nobody in the division figures to run and hide.

None of the experts picked the Cardinals to win the NL Central, but it would be foolish to assume they can't.

As Baseball Prospectus points out, in 2003 the Cardinals boasted the best third baseman, center fielder and shortstop in the National League, and the second-best left fielder (and that's assuming that Albert Pujols, the league's MVP runnerup, ranked behind Barry Bonds). Nothing's changed since last season; the Cardinals still have four outstanding players in their lineup. Of course, the rest of the lineup isn't so hot and the bullpen is full of question marks. But if corner outfielders Reggie Sanders and Ray Lankford (or whoever plays left field) are reasonably productive and if Tony La Russa comes up with a few reasonably effective relievers, there's no reason the Cardinals shouldn't be in contention on September 1.

It's not often that a World Series winner is expected, the next season, to finish third, but then this seems to happen to the Marlins every few years. Let's see who the Marlins lost this offseason, and who they gained:

Pos. Coming Gone
C Ramon Castro Pudge Rodriguez
1B H. S. Choi Derrek Lee
OF Jeff Conine Juan Encarnacion
SP Da. Oliver Mark Redman
Cl Ar. Benitez Ugueth Urbina

It doesn't take Bill James to figure out the guys Coming aren't as good as the guys Gone. But it's not a disaster, by any means, as all five of the replacements are capable ball players (with the possible exception of Darren Oliver). What's more, the Marlins should benefit from a full season of Miguel Cabrera (who didn't join the Marlins until late June last year), and A.J. Burnett could return from Tommy John surgery at some point during the season.

I don't expect the Marlins to win the NL East. But they could easily finish second if the Braves collapse, and they just might capitalize if the Phillies implode.

The best "third-place team" has to be the Mariners, who won more games (93) last year than three postseason teams: Marlins (91), Twins (90) and Cubs (88). Yes, I think the A's will finish first again and I've bought into the Angels hype, so I'm picking the Mariners third. But it's not at all difficult to imagine the Mariners topping 90 wins for the fifth straight season. All it takes is Scott Spiezio playing fairly well (and thus representing a huge upgrade over Jeff Cirillo), Freddy Garcia bouncing back from a subpar season, and -- this is the one that scares you -- Jamie Moyer and Edgar Martinez continuing to defy the ravages of time. I won't be shocked if the M's finish around .500. But I'll be slightly less shocked if they win 92 games and win their division.

It seems strange to write about the Royals as a third-place team, because I read the K.C. papers every day, and if you believe what you read the Royals are going to win 90 games and have the division locked up by Independence Day.

Not likely. The Royals could win 85 games -- possibly enough to capture the flag in a weak AL Central -- but some things will have to happen that haven't happened lately, if at all. Juan Gonzalez and Mike Sweeney have to be healthy for most of the season. Jeremy Affeldt has to start 30 games (and pitch well in most of them). Tony Pena has to get over his strange affection for Ken Harvey (or, alternatively and less likely, Ken Harvey has to get over his strange inability to make contact against right-handed pitchers). Angel Berroa has to prove the numbers that made him Rookie of the Year numbers were no fluke.

No, all of those things don't have to happen for the Royals to compete. Most of them, though. And that's why most of the numbers-based analysis shows the Royals winning 78 or 80 games and finishing third. (And if you're wondering how a team that won 83 games in 2003 and clearly improved itself over the winter could be expected to win fewer games, the answer is that last year the Royals were exceptionally lucky in various ways.)

Did I say the Mariners are the best "third-place team"? I meant in 2003. There are a lot of people who think the best third-place team in 2004 will be the Blue Jays, and I can't really disagree. That said, I think their chance of winning their division is close to nil. Not only do the Jays have to play better than they actually are, but the Yankees and Red Sox would have to miss their projections by something like a dozen games. The Blue Jays' best (if faint) hope is that the Sox or Yanks suffer a rash of injuries, and the Jays sneak in and grab the wild card.

That's not going to happen. Here's what will happen, though: either the Royals or the Mariners or the Marlins or the Cardinals will be playing important games in October.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. 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.