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Where Do We Go From Here?

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The battle's done, and we kinda won.
So we sound our victory cheer.
Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear,
When we know home is near.
Understand we'll go hand in hand,
But we'll walk alone in fear. (Tell me)
Tell me where do we go from here?

Well, that's the bulk of the Christmas shopping done. Not too painful; nobody got killed (well, no-one important - and parking-lot stabbings don't count as criminal offenses in the month of December, anyway) and I'm back with everything except my credit-card balance intact. The flurry of activity seems to have resolved many of the issues swirling around the team. We've now got the rotation apparently set, with the trade for Haren, and Kuroda going to the Dodgers. Tony Clark will not be coming back. But there are still some questions that need to be resolved. A nod to Shoe, who posted a similar thread over on DBBP, and here we go, in increasing order of complexity.

  1. Who's going to close? Peña and Lyon are the two obvious choices, with an outside shot at Qualls. My immediate feeling is that it's probably going to be Peña, whose flame-throwing ferocity seems perhaps a bit better suited to the job than Brandon Lyon's four-pitch finesse. Both men had two saves last year; Lyon might seem to have more experience (25 career, compared to three for Peña), but he had none in the minors, where Peña had 13 in 2006. Perhaps we might even see Max Scherzer later in the year, but expectations of that are a bit premature, seeing he has pitched pro-ball for only one season.

  2. Back of the pen? Valverde has gone, but Qualls would appear, effectively, to fill up his spot as one of the Four Relievers of the Apocalypse. Do we now have to rename the existing members if everyone changes roles? Does Peña become Death if he closes? Or does he still remain Pestileñce? Can anyone think of any appropriate plagues which begin with the letter Q? Q Fever is the only one that comes to mind. Got some potential there though. I can imagine the seventh-inning comments: "I've got a fever...and the only cure is more Qualls."

    What? You thought this would be roster-related? Oh, alright - if you insist. Assuming we have the (New) Four Relievers and Slaten, that gives us two spots for long relief and mop-up duty. I'm thinking Nippert and EdGon for those roles perhaps?

  3. Starter #6? Yes, we know we run a five-man rotation, but how often is that enough? Last year, we needed 23 outings from pitchers outside the top five for starts; in the previous two seasons, that total was 38 and 27 games. So, basically, you need a sixth starter - single or by committee - who can fill up the gaps when one of your initial rotation goes down. And that's especially the case if you're looking at Randy Johnson in the rotation: I think we will all be rather more cautious in our expectations for him than previously. Personally, any more than the ten starts we got from the Big Unit last season will be a bonus.

    Edgar Gonzalez and Yusmeiro Petit would be the two most likely contenders. Both were spot/fringe starters in 2006, getting 12 and 10 starts respectively. Petit had a significantly better overall ERA - 4.58 to 5.03 - but EdGon's record was bloated by a number of unsuccessful relief outings. As a starter alone, his ERA was 4.67, basically the same as Petit, and he'd have been ahead, except for a meaningless late-season outing, the game after we clinched the playoffs, where he allowed five earned runs in three innings.

    Petit has youth on his side, being 21 months younger than Gonzalez, but that also means that, unlike Edgar, he can be optioned to the minors. I'd expect to see him in Tucson, but if Edgar is the long man out of the pen, the Petit Unit could be the regular go-to guy when needed. They may follow through with what they discussed doing at one point last year, shortly before Johnson's season gurgled down the plug-hole. Put Petit (or whoever is the #6 guy) on the same schedule as Johnson, so he's ready to go at any given start. On the other hand, Webb, Davis and Haren have averaged 33.8 starts per season over the past three years, so fingers crossed, we shouldn't have any problems there.

  4. What if Tracy isn't healthy? And, spending Thanksgiving night in a hospital emergency room makes that seem likely... That would leave us with Jackson at first, Reynolds at third, and no obvious backups at either position. At third in 2007, once you get past Special K and Chad, the next most-regular men are the 119 innings from Callaspo, 58 by Cirillo and 17 from Barden - none of whom will be with the team in 2008. Similarly, at first-base, apart from Jackson and Tracy, almost the entire balance of playing time was by Tony Clark (452 innings), who is very unlikely to be available. These are two areas where super-utility guy Chris Burke won't help us, since he has no apparent experience at either position.

    Jamie D'Antona may be a solution; 67 games for Tucson at third, and 47 at first, batting .308 with 13 HR. However, on looking at the fielding stats, he requires a radical redefinition of the word "solution". :-S D'Antona made 21 errors in 114 games, between the two positions, with a fielding percentage at third of just .909 - to put that into context, Tracy's worst year at third-base, he had a .935 F%. The team was so unconvinced of his value they didn't even add him to the 40-man roster, for protection in the Rule 5 draft earlier this month. It didn't matter though, as no other team was interested enough to pick him. A little further down the depth chart is Javier Brito, who batted .327 for Double-A Mobile, and made eight errors in 106 games at first. However, he has minimal experience at third, and like D'Antona, is also right-handed.

    That's important because we probably want a leftie off the bench: Jackson, over his career, has an OPS 173 points lower against righties. if we want a southpaw, we will likely need to dip into the free-agent or trade marketplace. Here's the list of free-agent first-basemen and third-baseman. The lefties/switch-hitters on the lists (not named "Clark"), are
    1B: Sean Casey, Robert Fick, Eric Hinske, Ryan Klesko, Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Sweeney, Brad Wilkerson
    3B: Russell Branyan, Corey Koskie, Abraham Nunez

    Hinske and Branyan are the only ones with any experience at both positions, but Hinske hit .204 for Boston last season, and Branyan was worse still, bouncing between the Padres, Phillies and Cards. Of course, we can always turn Micah Owings around! ;-)

  5. What if Tracy is healthy? Assuming Chad does make a full recovery in time for Opening Day, and proves himself in Spring Training - or, indeed, whenever he is ready to return. Does he get to reclaim his position at third-base? In about two-thirds of a full-season, Reynolds had an OPS of .844; Tracy was down at .800, albeit with obvious issues, though that is a few points better than his full figures for 2006. I got a sneak-peek at the Hardball Times predictions for 2007 [I'm doing the AZ preview for them] and they had the following expectations for the two players:
    Tracy - .284/.349/.483 = .832 OPS, 14 HR
    Reynolds - .252/.317/.462 = .779 OPS, 22 HR

    shoewizard's projections are similar; the gap is narrower, but it appears Tracy is the better bet.

    Of course, the question of platooning comes to mind again with regard to this, and the degree to which Tracy is protected from facing left-handed pitchers will likely have a significant impact on the results obtained. Ideally, we'd like to clone Tracy, and use him at first and third against a right-hander, because his career OPS is a cool 271 points better that way. Mark Reynolds, unlike Jackson, doesn't show much of a split; in fact, his OPS against LHP was 34 points better, the reverse of what you'd expect from a right-handed batter. It would thus perhaps make sense to have Jackson at 1B and Reynolds at 3B when facing left-handed pitching, but Tracy at 1B and Reynolds at 3B against righties.

    However, those same Hardball Times predictions give Jackson a line of .295/.375/.476 - better than both Tracy and Reynolds - so we probably want to get his bat into the line often too. It's a very interesting dilemma, compounded by the fact that, of our regular starting lineup, only Drew is a left-handed bat, so opposing managers will be throwing LHP at us wherever possible. In addition to Tracy, we would likely have Salazar and Montero as southpaw options off the bench, and Ojeda as a switch-hitter. But at the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, none of them are likely to be able to man the corner-infield spots, except in a dire emergency.

So, it's clear that, while we may have addressed the elephant in the corner of the room over the past couple of days, and solidified the rotation, the work is far from over for Josh Byrnes and his crew. The moves to be made will almost certainly be nowhere near as spectacular, but they will likely be almost as of much importance with regard to our chances in 2008.