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By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer Excellence. This is the word that best describes Andrelton Simmons approach to baseball. It is best exhibited in his defensive glove-work which Simba is renowned for across MLB and, very likely, long after his career has come to an end. Although Simmons struggled a bit at the plate this year, he once again led all of baseball in defense based on FanGraphs 'Def' stat on a games played (Def/G) rate basis, in 2019, as seen below: 2019 Shortstops Sorted by FanGraphs 'Def' Statistic on a Per Game Rate Basis Minimum 50 G's Played Really it is not even close. Adalberto Mondesi, another clearly superior defender to other shortstops in baseball, is a tier below Simba. It is Tier 1, Andrelton, Tier 2, Adalberto, and then Tier 3, DeJong and Baez, and then the rest. Simmons, in an off-year, was 8% better than Adalberto and nearly 20% better than Baez, below Mondesi, on a Def/G rate basis. In fact if you look at recent history, it becomes even more apparent that Simmons is a true defensive beast in a class of his own. Below, is the same chart for the last three years with a minimum of 50 Games (G's) played: 2017-2019 Top 35 Shortstops Sorted by FanGraphs 'Def' Statistic on a Per Game Rate Basis Minimum 50 G's Played Here the difference is even more stark. There is God-level defense and the rest of the wannabes trying not to embarrass themselves. Simmons is a full 47% better than his nearest neighbor, Mondesi. Based on this alone, you have to suspect that Eppler, who is a big believer in superior defense particularly at the up-the-middle (CF, SS, 2B, and C) positions, has to be considering a possible extension for Simmons in the upcoming off-season. Andrelton is simply on a different planet defensively and even if he begins a decline in his age 30 season he is just heading back down to be with the rest of the mortals on earth. When you combine Simba's superlative defense, his roughly League-average weighted runs created plus (wRC+), his excellent in-game instincts, and leadership, on and off the field, they are great traits to consider when determining the value of keeping Andrelton in the fold. Really this decision boils down to a value play and what Eppler wants for the future of the franchise. Does he sign Simba to a 4-6 year deal, likely around $13M-$17M per season, for a rough average of 5 years, $75M (much lower than my original estimate last season) or does he look to trade Andrelton and find a replacement to bridge the gap to a prospect like Jerimiah Jackson, Kyren Paris, or even a different, long-term signing or acquisition of a high-caliber shortstop of the future? If you believe that Eppler really values defense then you have to look at the chart above and think that it is a choice, among the Major League candidates, between Simmons, Mondesi, Iglesias, DeJong, and Lindor. Adalberto has four years of control and could be a reboot of Andrelton minus the really low strikeout rate but with enhanced base stealing, making him a lesser choice overall out of the group. Iglesias is available but he too would pull the offense down even further, making him a bit of a non-starter as well. DeJong is signed to a long-term deal making him the Cardinals shortstop for years to come and an improbable trade candidate barring a wild redirection by the St. Louis front office. That leaves Francisco Lindor who has two years of relatively expensive arbitration control left. Salary estimations probably place him at $17M and $26M in 2020 and 2021, respectively, making him an expensive but quality acquisition if the Indians are indeed interested in moving him as reported by Jeff Passan. Lindor would bring youth, lesser defense but greater offense to the position and might be an extension candidate before or after the 2020 season. He would likely be a good lead-off hitter for a team that hasn't had one for quite a while. This will ultimately be a tough call for Eppler and staff. It will really come down to what projected value they can get at the position once they have addressed the rotation questions that are of more immediate and urgent concern. Likely Outcome: Angels extend Andrelton Simmons at approximately 5 years, $70M-$80M or perhaps 4 years, $64M. This extension can save money in 2020, by resetting Simba's year-to-year salary and freeing up a bit of payroll for rotation needs. Andrelton can man shortstop through the length of that contract or he can slide over to 2B or utility at the tail-end of it to make room for another as needed. The next alternative is to put someone like David Fletcher or Luis Rengifo at shortstop and even though both are fine defenders, they are not Simba at the most critical defensive position in baseball. This is a more cost-effective solution if Eppler finds himself needing to shed additional payroll, based on a known salary cap handed down from Moreno, to accommodate expenditures in other areas (starting pitching basically). Author's Choice: Personally I have always liked Simmons and I hope they extend him on a 4-5 year deal. Certainly, it would be tremendous if Eppler could pull off a trade for Francisco Lindor but with our miss on Cole and Strasburg in free agency, the Angels now have to trade for one (or even two) more starters, which will likely deplete their available players and prospects in trade. Conclusion: Eppler will have to manage payroll carefully and the probable best way to do that is to extend Simmons and restructure his contract so that his 2020 salary goes from $15M down to something like $11M give or take. David Fletcher is the cost-effective solution, but that means the Angels need to find a solution at the keystone where Fletcher would probably fit best. Rengifo could be that solution at second base now that the Angels have signed Anthony Rendon. This, however, puts a lot of the weight on the younger, less experienced members of the roster, creating a lot of potential performance risk that Eppler probably does not want to take in a critical season for his own employment. Lindor will likely make $17M or so, which is problematic money-wise but also adds more to the Angels lineup. His ability to lead-off and steal in front of Trout (actually now Rendon, then Mike, probably) would be very valuable and would bolster an already strong lineup. To be clear there will be a LOT of interest in Lindor from a majority of teams around the league, if the Indians put him on the block, so the Angels will have to pay a hefty price and it may be completely out of our reach (say if the Indians ask for Jo Adell instead of MLB-ready players). Of course, Billy could do nothing and simply pay Simba his final contractual year's salary and punt this decision down the road but that seems ill-planned and ill-advised and the Angels GM is anything but that, particularly at such a critical position.
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.