By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer
Once again the Primer Series discussion turns to Eppler's core belief in up-the-middle-defense, of which the keystone is a major component part.
When you think about Eppler's statement prior to the 2019 season, regarding young players with upside stepping up, you have to believe that second base is a position that could potentially be filled internally for the 2020 season, not only for real production purposes but also to relieve potential payroll expenditures at the keystone.
To emphasize this point, below is a list of 2B candidates sorted over the last three seasons using FanGraphs 'Def' statistic, sorted on a rate basis per game (Def/G) with a minimum of 50 Games played at the keystone:
2017-2019 Top 35 Second Basemen Sorted by FanGraphs 'Def' on a Per Game Rate Basis Minimum 50 G's Played
Perhaps, rather unshockingly, the Angels have two players, Fletcher and Rengifo, ranked in the Top 20 defensive players at the keystone (and three former Angels; Kinsler, Beckham, and Espinosa, ranked in the Top 15).
Leading the entire list is the sure-footed David Fletcher who, on a 155-games played basis, would average nearly 2.8 Wins Above Replacement if he played full-time. Well behind him, but a defensive force in his own right, is newcomer Luis Rengifo ranked 18th at the position.
If you firmly believe, as Eppler appears to do, that defense is critical at the keystone then there is no one even close to Fletcher, defensively at the position, over the last three seasons if you believe the sample size is sufficient (it may not be so take it with a grain of salt but it passes the eye test). He dwarfs even the gifted Ian Kinsler by quite a margin, making him an easy choice to man 2B in 2020, particularly since he has a near-League average wRC+ of 96 over that same time period which is slightly higher than League average. His elite glove and instincts combined with his excellent contact ability make him a prime choice for Eppler to place his faith in next season.
Rengifo, who is defensively talented as well, has put up good numbers against RHP (wRC+ of 98) but was far worse against lefties (wRC+ of 62) in 2019, unlike David who is more consistent offensively against both sides of the mound. Luis is young and can certainly improve but it is clear who the preferred choice is here, right now.
One name not on the list, but very well could be if he played the position, is Zack Cozart. He represents a real unknown heading into this off-season as the Angels are on the hook for his 2020 $12.7M salary. Cozart is discussed further in the Third Base article of this series but he too is an option at the keystone if the Angels don't play him at 3B. He is also a trade candidate if Eppler can wrangle together a bad contract swap or a partial or full salary dump for prospects deal.
Another potential choice that has not garnered any Major League playing time yet is young promising prospect Jahmai Jones who was recently added to the 40-man roster. If Jones is not traded he will probably act as quality depth at 2B and all of the outfield positions, in all probability, but is an unlikely choice to start the 2020 season in the Majors.
The Angels could certainly sign a free agent or trade for a keystone player, as the market is saturated with average-to-mediocre 2B candidates, but that seems inefficient and an unnecessary expenditure of payroll resources with such a talented defender like Fletcher in the fold. It would only make some level of sense if the Angels had an exciting opportunity to trade David for another position of need but that seems unlikely at this moment in time.
If the Angels go the trade route, there are probably only a small handful of targets that make any reasonable sense such as Kolten Wong, Ozzie Albies, Jed Lowrie, or much more remotely, Javier Baez, all of whom may cost more than the Angels are willing to part with in terms of players and prospects. On the free agent side, aging offensive stalwarts such as Brian Dozier, Jason Kipnis, Jonathan Schoop, and Jedd Gyorko, who recently had his option bought out, could be had at probably very reasonable prices but have offensive and defensive warts to one degree or another.
This time the choice for Eppler seems pretty clear.
Likely Outcome: Angels start David Fletcher at 2B to start the 2020 season and probably for the foreseeable future.
Author's Choice: This decision might be the easiest one for Eppler to make this off-season. Expecting 2.5-3 WAR (or possibly more) out of your keystone position is nice and Fletcher has a high probability of delivering that, hitting lead-off or toward the back-of-the-order on a regular basis.
If the Angels did run into a scenario where another team offered up a strong starting pitcher or position player in exchange for Fletcher, the Angels could run Cozart or Rengifo out at 2B and move David in trade but that would have to improve the team more than Fletcher leaving would hurt them.
Conclusion: Billy has to manage payroll, player, and prospect resources carefully and this is one position where he has a pretty clear-cut choice to fill at the League minimum, thus David Fletcher, barring a trade, is our likely starting second baseman for 2020 with Luis Rengifo, Jahmai Jones, or, more remotely, Zack Cozart, as the backup choices.