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AngelsWin.com Today: 2020 AngelsWin.com Primer Series - Eppler's Strategy

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By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer

To classify this off-season as the most important one in Eppler's career, to-date, is not an understatement.

Moreno has not yet publicly extended Billy's contract, which means 2020 is the last year under his current deal and he could be looking for a new position in the coming months if the off-season does not go as planned and/or the Angels get off to a terrible start in the upcoming season.

On top of that Arte has expressed a clear need for this team to push itself into a new window of contention after years of languishing in mediocrity in the A.L. West standings. Moreno wants to see action (fans in the seats too) and is helping Eppler's situation by promising to increase team payroll for 2020 and the acquisition of an experienced skipper in Joe Maddon (Billy might dispute the latter but the author's gut feeling is that Arte made the right move here).

So in order to understand the areas that need improvement (if they are not clear already) let us take a look at how the starting rotation, bullpen, defense, and position players (against both left and right handed pitching) fared in 2019:

2019 Team Starting Rotation Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

2019 Team Rotation WAR Results

So right off the bat (pardon the pun), it is clear that the starting rotation needs significant improvement, as the Angels ranked dead last in total WAR production as a group. Certainly the tragic passing of Tyler Skaggs contributed to the issue but overall the team failed to pitch meaningful innings and it showed in the end-of-year results. Fixing this issue will be Eppler's #1 priority this off-season without a doubt.

2019 Team Bullpen WAR

2019 Team Bullpen WAR Results

Here the Angels were more middle-of-the-pack in overall performance. In spite of the fact that relief pitching is so volatile by nature, Eppler has consistently done well in establishing competent bullpens during his tenure as General Manager of the Angels. Fortunately the Angels will be retaining some of their key pieces from 2019 and Keynan Middleton should return full-time in 2020 which should help bolster the unit as a whole.

The Angels front office has also consistently performed well in identifying inexpensive bullpen acquisitions via waiver and other means so it is likely that Eppler's team will continue to comb the wire, Rule 5 Draft opportunities, and even add-on's via trade that can help build a strong relief unit next season without expending significant resources to do so.

2019 Team Defense Using FanGraphs 'Def'

2019 Team Defense FanGraphs Def Results

Here the Angels did well above average, ranking 7th out of all 30 Major League clubs according to FanGraphs 'Def' rating. Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings (UZR/150) also supports the notion that the Halos were a strong defensive unit.

Billy has clearly stated in the past that team defense, particularly up-the-middle positions (C, SS, 2B, and CF), is the foundation of success for any team he builds and the above numbers reflect that philosophy.

Of course there is always room for improvement so it would not be surprising to see Eppler continue to tweak the roster and put good defensive players in a position to provide maximum on-field value, including any potential new acquisitions.

2019 Team Batting vs. Left-Handed Pitching (LHP)

2019 Team Batting vs LHP Results

Against LHP, the Angels struggled a bit throughout the season, ranking 19th overall out of all 30 Major League teams with a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 98. Of course Trout led the charge, followed by names like Smith, Simmons, Goodwin, Pujols, and Ohtani who all performed well.

This will almost certainly be an area that Eppler will try to improve upon but it is unlikely to be an area that he expends significant team resources on, because only about 30% of the teams at-bat's are against lefties during most seasons.

The addition of another bat or two that can pummel lefties would be nice, but not a must have, so there will probably be some marginal refinement during the off-season to address this need and could simply involve the addition of one or two farm assets (e.g. Ward, Adell, et. al.).

2019 Team Batting vs. Right-Handed Pitching (RHP)

2019 Team Batting vs RHP Results

Here the Halos were slightly above average, ranked 12th out of all 30 Major League teams with a wRC+ of 99.

Of course, once again, Trout dominated against RHP (188 wRC+) and was distantly followed by La Stella, Ohtani, Upton, Calhoun, Goodwin, and Fletcher.

Improvement here will be more important than against LHP so the expectation would be that the Angels will try to replace the loss of Calhoun's bat either directly at his position in RF or by filling another spot around the diamond with a player that can handle RHP.

Eppler will probably not expend a large amount of resources doing this unless he pursues a big bat at a position of need in free agency such as a 1B/LF/RF type like Castellanos, one of the Big 2 at the hot corner (Rendon or Donaldson), or even a trade opportunity like Schwarber, Bell, or Turner, for example. So expect Billy, barring the mystical Moreno unicorn payroll increase, to use 40-man roster players, farm resources, or lower-level signings to improve in this area.

Observations

So it is crystal clear that the starting rotation is where Eppler needs to focus most of his off-season attention and resources (this is not new news to most). Building a strong starting five plus bench depth is sorely needed and it will not be a successful off-season if the Angels do not significantly improve in this area through the acquisition of at least 2-3 quality starters with at least one being a top-of-the-rotation type ace.

Beyond the rotation our offense will need to improve, too, but likely in a less resource intensive manner. By declining Kole's option year, the Halos have set the stage for Brian Goodwin to man right field until the May/June time frame when the Angels gain the extra year of control over young Jo Adell and he gets called up to take over the position (likely full-time). That alone should provide some needed firepower, although fans should temper their expectations as Jo has some swing and miss in his game right now that will be tested by opposing teams in his first year in Anaheim. All that being said, Adell is a really exciting five-tool prospect, full of potential, that can make a long-term impact in Anaheim.

So, based on where the Angels put David Fletcher, 2B or 3B may see a platoon set-up via a free agent signing or low-level trade for a proper partner to one of our internal candidates. For example if David mans the keystone, third base might wind up being a platoon of Tommy La Stella (who hits well against RHP) and Zack Cozart (good defense) or even a free agent or trade acquisition that can crush LHP.

Alternatively if Fletcher mans the hot corner, a platoon of Luis Rengifo (good against righties) and Cozart or another outside candidate that can manage lefties might be the best choice. Of course, if Eppler has more payroll space than currently advertised, the hot corner could be improved even more than described above, particularly because the market lacks a quantity of good free agency and trade choices over the next few years.

Catcher may be a position where Eppler and the front office value defense so much that they purposely punt on offensive needs to get the best defensive catching tandem they can muster. Stassi grades out very well on defense so he seems a likely piece for next season but finding the right partner may be a challenge if the team does not apply the resources for a top-tier target in free agency (Grandal and Zunino were good examples before they signed with the White Sox and Rays, respectively) or trade (the latter seems more plausible with the activity in the catching market this off-season).

Also, the Angels could pick up a left-handed bat for first base if they do not feel that Jared Walsh or Matt Thaiss can provide the needed, immediate, production. Free agency has some interesting names that could be had on the cheap or, if the Angels want to expend more resources, the trade market has options too. Both of our internal candidates have potential but this may be too much risk for the front office to take in such a critical off-season so keep an eye out for what happens at that spot.

The bullpen could use a touch of reinforcement (perhaps a good lefty?) but the current cast the front office has assembled has a lot of potential to repeat and even improve upon the 2019 results. Robles, Buttrey, Ramirez (Noe), Bedrosian, Cole, Pena, Anderson, Middleton, et. al., form the basis of a strong core unit that may only need some polish added through the addition of 1-2 more relievers prior to the end of Spring Training. Probably an area where Eppler, as is his tradition, will expend only minimal resources, if any.

Finally, the only other position that we should probably discuss is shortstop. Simmons is entering his final year of control and it seems likely that Eppler will use this off-season to make a material decision about the future of the position. Extending Andrelton is certainly a possibility and would not be a shocker at all but there are a couple of options out on the trade market that could entice Billy to trade Simba rather than retain him for this year or even longer term through the aforementioned extension. Ultimately this is not a decision that Eppler can afford to wait on from a strategic point of view so it will be interesting to see what Billy does here for the future of the franchise.

Ultimately Eppler will roster-build based on his available resources (payroll, MLB players, prospects, and International Bonus Pool money) but it is Moreno's budget guidance that will really factor into how dynamic our off-season will or will not be. This will likely fall into four general categories:

  1. Under $190M (2020 Club Payroll with Actual Club Payroll not to exceed $208M, most probable)
  2. Under $208M (Both 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll, less probable)
  3. Under $228M (1st Surcharge Threshold, unlikely)
  4. Under $248M (2nd Surcharge Threshold, very unlikely)

The first two options represent the more likely scenarios and do allow sufficient room to improve the team enough to make an impact in 2020. The latter two are much less likely unless Arte has decided to go all-in for the next two seasons (2020-2021), knowing that the team can sneak back under the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold in the 2021-2022 off-season once Pujols contract comes off of the books (not an impossibility).

When you consider that Moreno has only exceeded the CBT threshold once, nearly 15 years ago, the odds of it happening seem remote. As much as this would be a great time to do it, particularly when you see such a barren free agent market next off-season, history shows that Arte has been very reluctant to cross that line, even by a smidge (to be fair though he has consistently supported high payrolls unlike some other owners).

Realistically, he might do it now or consider it closer to the trade deadline if exceeding the CBT threshold, for the right player, would improve the teams odds of making the playoffs but that is the author's speculation and shouldn't be relied upon as part of our discussion. In the final article of the series we will do some payroll scheme examples for the four scenarios above to give you an idea of the limits and possibilities.

So, now that we have gotten some of the pleasantries out of the way, lets dive into a position by position examination and discussion to see what plausible options the Angels have to consider when building next seasons squad as we continue to plunge into the 2020 Angelswin.com Primer Series!

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As always, your articles are packed with information that takes a couple of reads to fully digest. I have to wonder if the Angels front office don't think about giving you a call to be a consultant to the consultants. 

Speaking of which, I found it intresting that Moreno has fallen back to more familiar faces in Maddon for manager and now front office Special Consultant in Tony LaRussa. After two GM's that are talking analytics, one out his ass and the other out of Bill James Baseball Digest, it seems that Moreno wants to hear baseball spoken in a language he understands. The game that was instead of the numbers that are dominant in todays conversations.

There is room for both but it concerns me that these "old school guys" are getting more responsibility when the league is eschewing those resources for the sabermetrics guys. Could Eppler's job be on the line simply because Moreno isn't quite clear on the long term game plan? Sure, there is a plan and yes it involves changes in the development of players and in game decision making. But maybe Moreno doesn't see the plan moving fast enough and may be getting an itchy finger considering he spent a metric ton on Trout and lost more games than the franchise has in 20 years.

Let that settle in. The last time the Angels lost that many games Maddon was the only surving member of the coaching staff that was purged. And, in a way, history repeats itself with Maddon being the only recognizable Angels figurehead after the Ausmus purge. In 1999 Collins deserved to be ejected along with his staff of grumpy coaches that were even apt to fight with each other, while Ausmus was saddled with a horrible pitching staff, a tragic end to one of the pitchers, and another year of injuries that sapped the offense. He didn't lose the clubhouse but on no account did it seem as though he and his staff won it over.

Eppler is looking at an offseason that better go well and that carry over to a season with lesser injuries and more competitive play or all the strategy and planning will probably be trashed and some guy Moreno can talk to with on a 1980's baseball level will come in as GM and that may just be the end of the progression towards championship play.

Let's hope Eppler wins the hot stove season.

 

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Yeah I've thought about that too @Blarg, I am concerned that Moreno and Eppler are not seeing eye to eye all of a sudden. It may just be smoke so we will wait and see. It could just be a simple case that Moreno and Eppler thought Maddon wouldn't be available (or that the Cubs would extend him) and thus made the decision on Ausmus and when it changed they cut loose on Brad to grab him.

Either way the perception is odd and full of questions. I like Eppler (but then again I liked Dipoto for a spell, too) so I hope he sticks around, I think he understands how to manage a ballclub and a roster and this is his moment (and possibly his only one) to shine.

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2 hours ago, AngelsWin.com said:

By declining Kole's option year, the Halos have set the stage for Brian Goodwin to man right field until the May/June time frame when the Angels gain the extra year of control over young Jo Adell and he gets called up to take over the position (likely full-time).

The extra year of control is gained after about 2 weeks. The May-June threshold is about arbitration. Considering there will be a new CBA by the time Adell would possibly be a Super 2, I don’t think the Angels will really care about it.

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18 minutes ago, Jeff Fletcher said:

The extra year of control is gained after about 2 weeks. The May-June threshold is about arbitration. Considering there will be a new CBA by the time Adell would possibly be a Super 2, I don’t think the Angels will really care about it.

You caught my laziness, Jeff!

Thanks for the correction! Clearly I need to fire my editors, @Inside Pitch and @Dochalo, hahahahahaha....

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5 minutes ago, Chuckster70 said:

Hi @ettin, right now it's apparent that Eppler's only strategy is to sleep through the winter. 

cat sleeping GIF by Pusheen

Can you wake his ass up so he can get back to work?

Sorry Chuck you are just going to have to sit there and grin and bear it.

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5 minutes ago, Chuckster70 said:

Hi @ettin, right now it's apparent that Eppler's only strategy is to sleep through the winter. 

cat sleeping GIF by Pusheen

Can you wake his ass up so he can get back to work?

Actually when you consider Billy's most likely target (Gerrit) this may turn into a long off-season, potentially. Boras is not known for lightning fast off-season's and if he lets the market churn, the starting pitching market may linger for another two months or more....

Also I suspect Eppler has some proposed trades on the table and trades always seem to rely on other dominoes falling first and then suddenly you have a cascade of action as teams Plan A's turn into Plan B's and Plan C's, etc.

Patience grasshopper, Winter Meetings start Monday and usually there is a bit of action leading into them.

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@ettin I'm sure you grabbed the stats from somewhere, but I am interested to see how the pitching numbers are affected by using the "opener" which I do not expect to continue in 2020.

I think the number was even worse for the starters, if you include their "primary pitcher" and ditch the opener. And likewise, the pen actually probably ranks better if you include the 30 or so starts made by the openers, and drop out the poor "primary pitcher" stats.

 

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1 minute ago, Hubs said:

@ettin I'm sure you grabbed the stats from somewhere, but I am interested to see how the pitching numbers are affected by using the "opener" which I do not expect to continue in 2020.

I think the number was even worse for the starters, if you include their "primary pitcher" and ditch the opener. And likewise, the pen actually probably ranks better if you include the 30 or so starts made by the openers, and drop out the poor "primary pitcher" stats.

 

Hi Hubs, I just grabbed them from FanGraphs Team Stats and filtered by Starters only. I don't think it accounts for Openers so you are probably correct. Either way you slice it though, it was not good! 😄

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Actually, it was close: Starters and Primary Pitchers accounted for 779.1 IP, and a 5.68 ERA. Bullpen and Openers were close to 656.2 IP, and an ERA of 4.40.

I'd forgotten I did the spreadsheet.

I am missing one start of 6.2, with 7 ER / 10 R but I don't know where I messed up. I must've just mistyped one, now I can't figure it LOL.

Bottom Line is SP needs to be improved and BP should improve with less innings and the subtraction of the bad pitchers and a new pitching coach.

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As always, a good writeup and analysis @ettin. My only comments concern the bullpen. Yes, relief pitching is volatile, and yes, the Angels have been somewhat successful so far without spending outlandishly on the bullpen. But, that doesn't mean that better relievers (and more expensive relievers) wouldn't do better. It's just that with our current team construct, and budget limits, we have determined that it is an area where we will have some savings to field better players (or more expensive players) in other positions. I don't want fans to think that the Angels wouldn't spend on the bullpen if they had the arms to do so (imagine a K-Rod or Harvey in their prime). We would spend to keep them and keep a stronger bullpen. That's just not our current team's construct.

 

At the same time, because bullpen arms are volatile, this is where investing in scouting and working to get better deals with players makes a huge difference. Having that extra million to sign a reliever who has an incredible year can be so beneficial. Having the scouts to identify and target those arms is critical. For so many teams, it's the little deals for an unheralded bullpen piece that has a big impact on the season. That weighs against handing out money like candy to all players. The extra million or two spent on a bad deal often hampers a team from making what could be the right deal for a low level piece.

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1 hour ago, Dave Saltzer said:

As always, a good writeup and analysis @ettin. My only comments concern the bullpen. Yes, relief pitching is volatile, and yes, the Angels have been somewhat successful so far without spending outlandishly on the bullpen. But, that doesn't mean that better relievers (and more expensive relievers) wouldn't do better. It's just that with our current team construct, and budget limits, we have determined that it is an area where we will have some savings to field better players (or more expensive players) in other positions. I don't want fans to think that the Angels wouldn't spend on the bullpen if they had the arms to do so (imagine a K-Rod or Harvey in their prime). We would spend to keep them and keep a stronger bullpen. That's just not our current team's construct.

 

At the same time, because bullpen arms are volatile, this is where investing in scouting and working to get better deals with players makes a huge difference. Having that extra million to sign a reliever who has an incredible year can be so beneficial. Having the scouts to identify and target those arms is critical. For so many teams, it's the little deals for an unheralded bullpen piece that has a big impact on the season. That weighs against handing out money like candy to all players. The extra million or two spent on a bad deal often hampers a team from making what could be the right deal for a low level piece.

There is a link that I placed in the article under the bullpen table you should take a look at. Although I agree that good scouting and money can potentially help, the link shows, again, how truly volatile relievers are and how only the really elite ones buck the trend a bit (and not always).

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Good stuff, ettin. Lots to chew on. A few thoughts: 

I'd be surprised if Eppler spent significant resources on position players. The only position that really needs significant upgrade is catcher, ,and as you said they'll probably be ok punting offense in favor of defense, or at most go for a one-year deal on someone like Chirinos. 1B could use an upgrade, but they're not jettisoning Pujols and have enough spare parts in Walsh/Ward/Thaiss to audition for a longer-term post-Pujols tenure.

I also see no need to even consider upgrading 2B/SS/3B, unless they trade someone. Maybe a reliever, but probably nothing more than clean peanut depth.

I really think 90% of Eppler's attention and Arte's resources will be focused on starting pitching, with maybe a couple tweaks and minor pick-ups. Things might get interesting if Eppler misses out on Cole. I wouldn't be surprised to see them punt and take another shot at the budget and/or short-term contract route and re-group for 2021 and beyond, as the youth movement continues. I just hope that if he misses out on Cole, Strasburg, and Wheeler, he doesn't over-spend on Bumgarner or Ryu, or get desperate and trade Marsh and others. But we're not there yet.

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1 hour ago, Sean-Regan said:

La Stella platooning with Cozart? Yeah, I don’t think so. 

$15.7M in two players and they are not going to be played? The odds are in their favor I think barring a trade.

To be clear this is not MY preferred choice but the likely one based on the current 40-man roster. I discuss it more in the third base article but reality sucks in this particular situation. Maybe Zack sucks in Spring Training and they cut him (possible after his surgery). Just saying that if Cozart is serviceable in Spring Training they (Tommy and Zack) could be the initial duo starting the year at the hot corner.

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5 minutes ago, ettin said:

$15.7M in two players and they are not going to be played? The odds are in their favor I think barring a trade.

To be clear this is not MY preferred choice but the likely one based on the current 40-man roster. I discuss it more in the third base article but reality sucks in this particular situation. Maybe Zack sucks in Spring Training and they cut him (possible after his surgery). Just saying that if Cozart is serviceable in Spring Training they (Tommy and Zack) could be the initial duo starting the year at the hot corner.

He’s gonna be bought out. His shoulder is gone. And his defense sucked when he was healthy. I just don’t see a scenario where he plays another major league inning in an Angels uniform. 

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1 minute ago, Sean-Regan said:

He’s gonna be bought out. His shoulder is gone. And his defense sucked when he was healthy. I just don’t see a scenario where he plays another major league inning in an Angels uniform. 

He won't be "bought out." He'll get the full amount he's owed, whether the Angels keep him or ditch him. 

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9 minutes ago, Sean-Regan said:

I don’t think you understand what a buyout is. 

Maybe you don't? 😉 Typically, that term is used when a sports team tries to give a player less than he's owed to essentially go away.  That  really doesn't happen in baseball since contracts are guaranteed.

What did you mean by it?  That he'd be released? 

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18 minutes ago, Sean-Regan said:

He’s gonna be bought out. His shoulder is gone. And his defense sucked when he was healthy. I just don’t see a scenario where he plays another major league inning in an Angels uniform. 

I think it is not as plain as you make it out. Is it a possibility? Certainly it could be. The shoulder was operated on in July and he started a hitting program about 3 weeks ago, so the jury is still out on on the shoulder's health. His defense was not good in 2018 but UZR/150 liked his time at 3B in 2019.

So nothing is set in stone yet and I think it is premature to make a statement like that. All that being said, he is a big risk, I will not deny that S-R, but the jury is still out.

I still think it would be in the Angels best budgetary interest to package him up with one of our back-end starters and/or prospects and trade off his salary through a player/prospect dump (i.e. another team paying for players and prospects by taking on some or all of Zack's salary). I talk a little more about that in one of the upcoming Primer articles.

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28 minutes ago, jsnpritchett said:

Maybe you don't? 😉 Typically, that term is used when a sports team tries to give a player less than he's owed to essentially go away.  That  really doesn't happen in baseball since contracts are guaranteed.

What did you mean by it?  That he'd be released? 

That’s one use of the term. bBut generally without context, if someone else had written what I wrote, I would read it as synonymous with releasing them. Paying the salary and cutting bait. I’m not sure why you assumed I meant anything other than that. As you said, that doesn’t really happen in baseball. Other sports sometimes.

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12 minutes ago, Sean-Regan said:

That’s one use of the term. bBut generally without context, if someone else had written what I wrote, I would read it as synonymous with releasing them. Paying the salary and cutting bait. I’m not sure why you assumed I meant anything other than that. As you said, that doesn’t really happen in baseball. Other sports sometimes.

Why didn't you just say release, then,  given that you do seem to realize that the term buyout has specific connotations? Anyway, we do seem to be on the same page, so let's just move on..:)

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