By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer
Out of all of the positions of need the Angels might punt on this off-season, catcher seems the most likely out of the group.
This is not because the Angels would not like to place the best catcher they can find in the position but rather more a resource allocation issue, due to the higher payroll priority need in the rotation.
Realistically, catchers are, at most, in a 70%/30% split, typically leaning more toward 60%/40%, nominally in a platoon where one backstop picks up more at-bat's against RHP. There are a handful of backstops like Yasmani Grandal or Salvador Perez, for example, that play a lion's share of the games but, for most teams, the nominal split is standard. So investing in a guy that only plays about half the games is generally less appealing to a GM and Eppler is well aware of this, as it is not dissimilar to his approach for building the bullpen (investing to much in part-time and/or volatile players).
For Billy it is typically more efficient to find defensive-minded catchers with good platoon splits to place into a backstop corps, because defense, particularly at the up-the-middle positions (C, SS, 2B, and CF), has always been a critical objective for him. Many casual fans of baseball do not fully understand how critical a good defensive catcher is and their impact on every pitch of the game (framing, relationships with the pitchers, umpire rapport, and other intangibles) so acquiring good backstops is important.
The Angels current group of catchers all have warts of some sort. Stassi will probably not start the season but does combine excellent defense (see chart below) with weak overall offense, particularly against LHP. Kevan Smith, who was just non-tendered by the Angels, crushed LHP but was not the best overall defender in the world, which is why he is now off the roster. Finally, Anthony Bemboom, also a defensive-minded receiver, can hit decently against RHP but he, too, is probably a backup option only (he has an option remaining, however).
So what does Eppler do here? If resources are tight in combination with the real possibility that Stassi may not be able to start the 2020 season, due to his injury, how does Billy proceed? The team is in a precarious position at the moment in a catching market that, on the surface, appears to be drying up. On top of all of that, our team depth at the catching position is also very light and our only top-level prospect, Jack Kruger, is currently exposed to the Rule 5 Draft.
To help shed further light on this issue let us take a look at the top defensive catchers, based on FanGraphs 'Def' score, broken out on a rate basis per game (Def/G) over the last three seasons with a minimum of 30 Games (G) played, to see which backstops have consistently performed well behind the dish:
2017-2019 FanGraphs Top 35 Catchers Def/G with Minimum 30 G's Played
As you can see Stassi has ranked quite high in Def/G over the last three seasons, which explains why Eppler made the trade for him. It seems likely that the Angels will monitor Max's surgery and recovery and if they feel comfortable they will retain him for the 2020 season (and may have to, now that Grandal and Zunino have signed with other teams).
Looking deeper at the list above, for possible free agent signings and trade targets, you can see unlikely acquisitions like Hedges, Perez, and Vazquez who are all locked in with their respective teams in all probability.
At the top of the list is Flowers who had an option year for 2020, worth $6M, that the Braves actually declined and paid his $2M buyout but then turned around and re-signed him to a $4M contract, thus reducing his AAV for 2020 down to $4M (an interesting technicality). At first glance this re-signing points to Flowers playing in Atlanta next year but the Braves just signed Travis d'Arnaud to a 2-year deal, probably as their primary catcher, so Tyler could prove to be expendable in trade which would probably pique Eppler's interest if true.
Beyond those names our old friend Maldonado is a free agent. Willson Contreras could also be a target for the Angels but Eppler values defense so much, he seems a less likely acquisition. Other names like Luke Maile, Danny Jensen, Reese McGuire, Austin Barnes, Jacob Stallings, Jason Castro, John Ryan Murphy, and another familiar face, Rene Rivera, might be options too.
Finally, if Billy wants to flirt with inexperience behind the plate, he could target near MLB-ready prospects such as Keibert Ruiz (as suggested by Angelswin.com member InsidePitch) or maybe Andrew Knizner, for example. This route seems really risky in such an important season for Eppler, however.
Ultimately, the front office needs to add some depth here. This will require a modicum of payroll space, probably on the order of $1M-$10M give or take, dependent upon the target(s).
Likely Outcome: Angels will sign a defense-first backstop to pair with Max Stassi such as Jason Castro or Martin Maldonado. Because defense is so important Max will probably pick up at least 50% (or more) of the starts with the primary/backup (Stassi could wind up as either) getting the rest. Stassi hits RHP better than LHP which is not saying a lot because he is poor against both sides of the mound.
Having a platoon mate like those mentioned in this article will at least improve offense to a degree while still maintaining high quality defense or at least a semblance of it behind the plate. There is an outside possibility that Eppler signs two of the above and releases Stassi but Max feels more like a short-term (1-3 years) mainstay on the roster because of his top-notch defensive work behind the dish.
Author's Choice: If Eppler does go low-level or punt, signing Jason Castro (good vs. RHP) or even simply picking up a recent non-tender like John Ryan Murphy or Luke Maile would be sufficient. Additionally, acquiring one or more Minor League catchers with options that are MLB-ready would be useful from a payroll perspective. Depth can also be improved by Minor League signings of any residual catchers left without a home on the open market.
However I, personally, would like to see the Angels improve behind the dish by acquiring a high-quality defensive receiver with shorter years of control (reduces acquisition price) like Tyler Flowers (less likely) or Luke Maile (more likely). The former may not actually be available while the latter was recently non-tendered by the Blue Jays, making him a very attainable solution.
Beyond those two I personally like Danny Jensen and Reese McGuire, both still on the Blue Jays 40-man roster. Supposedly the Blue Jays are listening to offers on both and it feels like McGuire would be the best fit in our lineup and for our payroll situation. Tucker Barnhart of the Reds would also be a nice target but he is not quite as good defensively as Reese, so he is a lesser choice.
So based on this discussion either of the following two trades would make some degree of sense:
Angels send RP Hansel Robles to the Braves in exchange for C Tyler Flowers
The Braves have built up their bullpen but adding another experienced reliever with two years of arbitration control (2020 and 2021) with a projected $4M 2020 salary is a reasonable exchange, particularly since it is a nearly equitable swap for Tyler's $4M salary and one year of contractual control. The d'Arnaud signing potentially gives Atlanta the freedom to move Flowers as well (less likely but possible).
For the Angels this is a payroll neutral trade that gives them one of the best defensive catchers in baseball right now, who can also hit, for one year until they figure out a better solution long-term behind the dish (or extend Flowers, possibly if acquired).
Angels send SP Jaime Barria and OF Orlando Martinez to the Blue Jays in exchange for C Reese McGuire
The Blue Jays are in need of starting pitching (in addition to OF and bullpen help) and the addition of Barria gives them a back-end starter with five years of team control. Jaime is still relatively young (23) and has upside. Also they get an OF prospect in Martinez that can potentially be part of a future Blue Jays squad 2-4 years down the road.
In return the Angels get a long-term backstop option in McGuire who grades out well defensively and has hit well in a limited sample size in 2019. Reese can partner with Stassi to form a solid defensive tandem behind the dish for at least the next couple of years or more, thus settling our backstop situation for the foreseeable future.
Conclusion: The Angels have more options to trade for, rather than sign, a defensive-oriented backstop and that is the slightly more likely route Eppler will take since he favors up-the-middle defense so much (actually good defense at every position period) and can find that more readily by swapping players and prospects with another team. Particularly catchers like Maile or McGuire, who still have an option left, are probably more appealing to Billy and the front office.
Eppler could make a surprise left-turn and pursue an offensive-minded bat like Contreras, Chirinos, Cervelli, Ramos, or Astudillo but that seems less probable, barring a good value signing or ability to pick one of them up with an advantageous trade package.
Based on published stories and trade rumors the catching market seems to have a lot of fluidity and moving parts to it where some teams want to move an extra catcher so it would not be surprising to see one team acquire a backstop and then move one of their current catchers to the Angels. So figuring out the field of Eppler's probable targets feels more difficult to predict this year but if you follow the trail of evidence, it points to strong defense as the primary suspect, thus the list above.
In the end, as Billy said recently, the Angels could cross their fingers and simply roll with Stassi and Bemboom so there may be little, if any, movement behind the dish this off-season, but gut instinct, and the aggressive posture toward the 2020 season, begs otherwise.