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Searching For Upgrades in 2008, are there any?

So kind of quiet in the big leagues this off-season, huh? Barely a peep out of the top players... business as usual so far... Just kidding. So there's obviously bigger fish to fry than trying to figure out how the reigning NL champs are going to defend their pennant, but I've got some nagging doubts about maintaining the course nonetheless. Let me give you a few reasons.

  1. Most of our primary position players have already peaked offensively or at the very least are in their peaks. We can't expect more offense from any of them except for possibly Tulo.
  2. We can't expect improvement from either catcher or second base. In fact, we should probably expect a downturn in production at second whether we re-sign Kaz or sign Tad Iguchi or go inside for help, and the pickings at catcher right now go from bleh to Sal Fasano. Chris Iannetta projects to be decent, but I want to make sure that we make a key distinction between what we project a player to do and what we expect that player to do. The same can be said of Michael Barrett, weighing in the very possible letdown either of these players are capable of in 2008 takes some air out of the sails.
  3. The one area where we would hope improvement comes more easily -the middle to back of our rotation- had a fairly lucky year in 2007, as so many breaks fell our way (Mark Redman successful? Franklin Morales dominant) that I have a feeling that while we might see legit improvement in this area, we won't necessarily see the same success.
  4. We still have three very tough teams in our division to get past, and none of them are showing signs of weakness in the early offseason. The Diamondbacks may have some rotation issues, but they really can expect ofeensive improvement, and the Dodgers and Padres are still pretty loaded.
So... that does it for the bad side so far, here's the good news:
  1. While improvement can't be expected, it's also not likely we'll get any worse at catcher, and the same can be said at most of our other positions as well, except for maybe left field and shortstop in the event of injuries to our current stars. Second is the only position that I think we should expect a downgrade from Kaz-Mat's 5.9 WARP3 season and there's an outside chance we might luck out that his replacement is able to maintain it. Obviously with some of our options this chance is more likely than others.
  2. Our rotation looks pretty good in the scouting reports, even if the stat tables show too many walks still. At any rate, it seems we can expect a clear talent upgrade in the starting five next season, and we have a couple of decent mid-season replacement options on the farm.
  3. Similarly, the bench has more young talented options rather than graying past their prime guys. We shouldn't lose as much when our starters need their rest.

Will that be enough next season? I've been working on the assumption that the team will have to try to squeeze two to four more wins out of what they had in 2007 to keep up with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. It's early still, and at this point last season the crowning move (the trade of Jennings) of the off season hadn't been made, but right now, I see us as pretty much treading water in 2008 without a breakout season from either Frankie or U-ball, wherein they establish themselves as consistent top of the rotation types. Treading water at 88-90 wins is a lot better than treading water at 75-77 wins, don't get me wrong, but I think complacency might not be the best policy given that our competitors haven't peaked yet.

So here are some things that might nudge us forward:

  1. A Brian Fuentes trade. According to a couple of the widely available cumulative measures of a player's value, Fuentes had a WARP3 of 3.9, or 8 Win Shares, meaning he was a relatively valuable reliever, but not the cream of the crop. Still, as a lefthander, he's got enormous value on the trade market and the team is saying it's looking for a mid rotation starter and a reliever in return for him, which should be a decent upgrade in value over what Brian did in 2007. The mid-rotation starter alone could be worth more by himself, and if you throw in another player this could be all we need to get over that two win threshold.  
  2. A breakthrough from a young player. As noted above, our candidates for this are limited, and are mostly confined to positions we have open. Here are the possibilities as I see them:

    Ian Stewart, 2B
    Jeff Baker, 2B

    These two would represent our best chance at having a real impact bat replace Matsui, if either of them can handle the position we will be in a most happy position for the next couple of seasons as far as our offense is concerned. If this should happen, all our worries about not making up ground could become moot.

    Troy Tulowitzki, SS

    As good as his season was last year, Troy's bat still has upside. If he can somehow maintain the same kind of defense and make improvements at the plate, forget the ROY, he will be in MVP conversations down the road.

    Ubaldo Jimenez SP
    Franklin Morales SP
    Greg Reynolds SP

    This -along with rebounds from Jason Hirsh and Aaron Cook- is where I see our best chance of seeing improvement. The rotation seemed to be just good enough for most of the year before becoming dominant in the last eighth of the season. If we can stretch that dominance out a bit, the burden of replacing Yorvit and Kazuo with equals on offense becomes a whole lot lighter.

    Chris Iannetta, C

    At some point in the future we're all going to wonder that there was ever any question that our catching position should go to Iannetta. I see his bat taking a Kevin Youkilis tack to success in the majors. Youk also looked unready his first season after a promising minor league career, but this is one contest that both patient tortoises and speedy hares win in the end. I think Chris has a good chance of being a key to our success in 2008, I just don't want to go in pinning my hopes on it.

    Jayson Nix, 2B

    Nix has to be my sleeper pick after I've written him off the last two seasons as irrelevant to our future thanks to an underperforming bat. I'll save my mea culpa and crow dinner for when he does arrive and perform, but I've been impressed by the effects of adjustments he's made to his swing and his defense can be eye-popping. He's batted .370 with Team USA in the second slot behind Colby Rasmus and ahead of Andy LaRoche, and helped lead the team to the finals in the World Cup. I think second base drowns us if we go with Barmes or Carroll as our starter, but here and to a lesser degree with Corey Wimberly, I see a chance for us to get most of Kaz Matsui's production back in the same lineup slot.

  3. Rebounds. Not a whole lot of opportunity here as last season none of our position players besides Iannetta really underperformed their projections heading into the year. That said, I think more health to the rotation, particularly with Jason Hirsh and Aaron Cook could be a huge factor.