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  1. By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer Special Request: Hope for Education is a small, targeted charity sponsored by Angelswin.com. I am humbly requesting a small donation as we enter the New Year and hope that you are in the giving mood as these kids need help to learn in a safe environment from this very deadly pandemic. Please lend a hand, even if it is only a couple of bucks, it does make a difference. Thank you for your time and attention! Important Note: First of all I would like to say Happy New Year! I hope all of you and your families are implementing best-practice safety guidelines as outlined by the Center for Disease Control, including wearing masks out in public, washing your hands often, and exercising physical distancing protocols. Not only is COVID-19 potentially life-threatening there are now reports of long-term physical and psychological damage to those that survive. Take care of yourselves out there both physically and mentally, the Angels family needs to stay strong so all of us can enjoy Mike Trout now and in the future! At this point in the off-season, it is easy to say that the Angels bullpen is already revamped and, in fact, may continue to evolve even further, prior to Opening Day, after a dizzying array of non-tendered contracts and Rule 5 and trade additions. The previous administration placed a lot of emphasis on acquiring relievers through the waiver wire, minor trades, and the rare free agent signing. By focusing resources in other areas, Eppler and company actually did a fair job of building a Major League bullpen, albeit it lacked a true, sustained closer type. Eppler’s front office focused a lot on high spin rates and acquiring arms that threw a good fastball and curveball; the latter is a good pitch that works against both sides of the plate, negating some of the need to find those lockdown lefties. Minasian’s reign has yet to give us a lot of information on how he will approach building a good relief corps but there are three data points to discuss here. First of all, the quick strike and addition of Raisel Iglesias is significant, as it adds a clear, proven back-end bullpen arm that is capable of closing out games on a regular basis for the Angels. Raisel is stronger from the right-side with his fastball, slider, and changeup combination which can shutdown a right-handed heavy team. Per FanGraphs, out of all qualified relievers in 2020, Iglesias was in the Top 5 of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). In fact, over the last two seasons, he ranks 8th with only lofty names like Nick Anderson, Taylor Rogers, Aroldis Chapman, and Brad Hand, ahead of him. Despite the fact that the Halos, currently, only have him for one season, there is a lot to like about bringing him into the fold for 2021, particularly due to the fact that the Angels are projected to have a fairly tight 5.12 Runs Scored per Game (RS/G) versus an 4.82 Runs Against per Game (RA/G), which means the team may find itself in more close games, where they will lead by a small amount of runs, creating a high leverage situation that Iglesias can help solve. Additionally, the Halos front office struck during the Rule 5 Draft, acquiring Jose Alberto Rivera, a young arm from the Astros organization. Rivera features a big fastball, averaging in the high-90’s, curveball, and splitter. Clearly the new Angels front office is gambling that the heater/curveball combination is mature enough to fit in middle relief and, just like the Eppler era, this feels like a worthy gamble, despite the fact that the Angels will need to keep him all season or send him back to Houston if they cannot keep him on the active roster. Also, the team recently signed left-hander Alex Claudio to a one-year deal, for $1.125M. Claudio is the pure definition of “soft-tossing lefty” and, as expected, gets left-handed hitters out at a pretty good clip, although he does okay versus right-handed hitters as well. This should give Joe Maddon a specialist option out of the bullpen on an as-needed basis. Finally, we can glean some information about the players Minasian non-tendered/traded versus the players he kept on the 40-man roster. Guys like Noe Ramirez, Hoby Milner, and Matt Andriese were lower velocity types, whereas arms like Gerardo Reyes, Luke Bard, Ty Buttrey, Mike Mayers, and Kyle Keller all throw in the mid-to-upper 90’s. High velocity appears to be a real draw for the new Angels GM. Notably most of these bullpen arms that were retained have fastball/slider combos in their repertoire lending to the idea that Minasian and company may be making a point to go with guys whose 2nd pitches are sliders, which is a notorious same-side strikeout weapon, i.e. pure strikeout potential seems to be preferred, over creating poor contact or pinpoint control by the new front office. Basically, it appears, on the surface, that the initial emphasis is on strong strikeout capability. High strikeout rates are an important element in Major League Baseball so it is a bit refreshing to see a little more importance placed on it, although it did appear that Eppler’s group was on to something regarding high spin rates (difficult for hitters to see) and targeting guys with good curveballs (ability to get batters out on both sides of the plate). We will see how this plays out moving forward with Minasian, but the route he is initially focusing on is also a good path to run prevention, i.e. less hitters on-base results in less runs scored. Moving beyond the philosophical discussion, the Angels currently have, as of Dec. 31st, 2020, the following pure, bullpen arms on the 40-man roster (number of Minor League options remaining are in parentheses after each name): Luke Bard (1) Ty Buttrey (2) Alex Claudio (0) Raisel Iglesias (0) Kyle Keller (1) Mike Mayers (0) Jose Quijada (1) Gerardo Reyes (1) Jose Alberto Rivera (R5, 3 after the 2021 season) In addition, as mentioned in the Rotation article, Dillon Peters (0), Jaime Barria (0), Felix Pena (1), and Hector Yan (2), may be viewed as starters but they could also, possibly, work out of the bullpen, too. In fact, Barria and Peters are out of options so they will need a home on the active roster if they are to play in 2021. So to start, it should be noted that the Angels may or may not retain all of these names. Player’s can always be designated for assignment, so none of this is set in stone yet. Trades, signings, and waiver wire acquisitions could still change the landscape, quickly, too. All that being said if you were to take what the Angels have now and line it up into a group of eight relievers to start the season, it may look like this: Raisel Iglesias (Closer) Mike Mayers (Setup) Ty Buttrey (Setup) Alex Claudio (Specialist) Gerardo Reyes (Middle Relief) Luke Bard (Middle Relief) Jose Alberto Rivera (Middle Relief) Felix Pena (Long Relief) Now, certainly, you could substitute Keller or Quijada in middle relief, if you like, but these two, as well as Reyes and Bard, have a Minor League option remaining and the Angels will need Minor League bullpen depth, so a couple of them will start the season down in AAA or AA. Additionally, Peters could easily be the long reliever with Pena starting the season in the Minors, as well. When you look at this projection, on paper, the back-end of the bullpen seems fairly strong, particularly with the addition of Iglesias. However, it is the middle of the bullpen that leaves some room for doubt. Reyes, Bard, and Rivera have some good stuff but they are mostly unproven in the Majors, particularly Rivera. It might be useful, then, for Minasian to acquire one more quality middle reliever with some experience in the Majors and a pedigree of success. Yes, that is not always easy to find in a relief arm, considering their year-to-year variance, but it is not impossible. Really if we can find one more back-end or good middle reliever, the bullpen will be in pretty good shape and could possibly absorb the loss of an Iglesias, Mayers, or Buttrey, if they were to go on the Injured List for an extended period of time. Additionally, it could allow the Halos front office to option down someone like Bard or Reyes to create more depth or even flat out replace a borderline relief candidate, with a preferred choice, on the 40-man roster. Considering how many relievers and Minor Leaguer’s were cut loose, due to financial impacts, finding another impact arm, at a reasonable price, should not be terribly difficult. Based on the Angels own payroll restraints, this will either be a trade, for an inexpensive, controllable, upside-type, or a simple less-costly Major League signing, not dissimilar to Alex Claudio. Certainly, Minasian could do more and perhaps he will when it is all said and done, particularly if we do not net a guy like Bauer or some other expensive starter, utilizing the old approach of spending on the bullpen if the market for starters is too overpriced to play in. In the end, the Angels bullpen was a bit above average in 2020 and, with the addition of Iglesias, it likely improved, despite the subtractions, so another addition now or later, at the Trade Deadline, could push the Halos bullpen into the Top 10 in baseball, potentially. Expect: It really feels like the Angels can make room for one more solid reliever by possibly trading one of their current relievers (maybe Bard or Peters) or even designating them for assignment, to create space on the 40-man roster. This addition could literally come from anywhere at this moment, through free agency (maybe Brad Hand or Archie Bradley, if the Angels lose out on Bauer, a mid-tier guy like Shane Greene, or perhaps a veteran like Darren O’Day or Mark Melancon) or trade (perhaps someone like Chris Stratton or Richard Rodriguez from the Pirates in a Joe Musgrove based trade or Rowan Wick, Hector Neris, or Scott Oberg, for example). Surely, Minasian and company could stand pat and add another arm closer to the Trade Deadline, but the opportunity to strike now, under a new regime that is remaking the team in their own image, may afford a more aggressive, fresh start to our relief corps, heading into 2021.
  2. By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer So as the author began to contemplate the intricacies of the 2019-2020 off-season, third base, on the surface, was a concern but not a priority as there appear to be multiple full-time and platoon scenarios on tap. However, upon further examination of the available options now, and in the near future, there is reason to think that Eppler should be placing greater emphasis on a more permanent, strategic solution at the hot corner this off-season, if at all possible. Part of the reason is the dearth of good free agent and trade choices in the immediate future. In fact if you look at free agency options, out beyond this off-season, there are no legitimate players that are both good defenders and have an impact bat, readily available, in the next four years. The trade market is very similar with many of the high quality players at the hot corner locked up for quite a while. This begs the following question: Should the Angels make an aggressive move, now, to upgrade at third base? Securing one of the Top 2 free agent third basemen (Rendon or Donaldson) would require an assertive payroll move that is not Moreno's normal modus operandi although interesting times (the era of Trout) call for interesting measures (paying the Luxury Tax). This off-season's free agent and trade markets offer a lot of opportunities for the Angels to improve across their primary areas of need (SP, 3B, 1B, and C), so it would behoove Arte to consider a temporary (no more than two years) large payroll increase to strike at starting pitching (Cole/Strasburg) and third base (Rendon/Donaldson) targets, in particular, if he has the bravado to spend in the stratosphere (and more importantly does not want to sacrifice prospect capital in trade). To give the reader a sense of who the high quality defenders at the hot corner are, take a look at the table below which is sorted using FanGraphs 'Def' statistic, on a per game basis (Def/G), over the last three seasons with a minimum of 50 games played (beware of sample size): 2017-2019 Top 30 Third Basemen Based on FanGraphs 'Def' on a per Game (Def/G) Basis Minimum 50 Games Played As you can see this list includes one former (Valbuena, may he Rest In Peace) and two current (Fletcher and La Stella) Angels players. Fletcher is ranked 2nd on this list over 3rd ranked Chapman. So clearly David, if he is slated for the keystone as outlined in the Second Base section of the Primer Series, will be difficult to clone and have him man the hot corner too. It is certainly possible the Angels could play Luis Rengifo at second base and Fletcher at third base (or even as a super utility player) but it seems to be an inefficient defensive alignment based on the current 40-man roster. Looking at the defensive list above, Brian Anderson might be available and Jedd Gyorko had his option declined so he could be a platoon option versus LHP but probably not a real, full-time solution. Travis Shaw was non-tendered but he could potentially provide value as a platoon partner, as well, against RHP. Eduardo Escobar may be accessible if the Diamondbacks decide that 2020 is a rebuilding year and would likely provide strong value. The Giants are probably dying to unload Longoria and as much as the author would love to see another Dirtbag on the team, this is one we should probably pass on. Of course, Anthony Rendon is available but the Angels need pitching more than a third baseman so Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg seem much likelier targets from a 10,000-foot strategic level. Donaldson, too, will cost a lot ($20M-25M per season), probably on a 3-year deal. Either of those two (Rendon or Donaldson) are pie-in-the-sky acquisitions based on a projected Angels 2020 Club Payroll amount of no more than $200M. Unless Moreno goes really big in the spending department (exceeding the Luxury Tax) or one of our current in-house options has the full confidence of Eppler before Spring Training even arrives, this spot seems destined to turn into a platoon of one left-handed hitter such as La Stella, Thaiss, or Rengifo (the latter a maybe, since he has not played third base since A-ball in 2017) and one right-handed hitter like Cozart or Ward. Out of that group Tommy La Stella and Zack Cozart are the only players with a wealth of playing time and experience in the Majors. If Eppler cannot find a way to trade off Zack's sunk-cost contract, the Angels may be forced to run out a platoon of La Stella and Cozart to start the 2020 season. In principle, assuming both are healthy, it is not a terrible idea. Zack could play against LHP, is a good defender, has played a lot at 3B (and very little at 2B), and might even enter in the later innings of a game as a defensive replacement. Tommy, who is an above average defender at the hot corner, carries a wRC+ of 119 over the last three seasons against RHP. Together they make a sort of marginally, above average hot corner Voltron. On the other hand, it may be more tenable to trade La Stella, place Cozart in a utility role, and run one of the other young players like Thaiss or Rengifo out at third rather than platoon Tommy and Zack. Ultimately, the most cost effective measure is a platoon, utilizing some combination of players currently on our 40-man roster. Individually they may lack a complete set of offensive and defensive skills, but as a two-man platoon they can provide a measure of value and it costs the Angels nothing further in terms of payroll or resources. Beyond those options, the Angels could look at offensive-based shortstops, such as Trevor Story for example, and acquire one to play third next to Simmons which would likely improve productivity at the hot corner. On the free agent market the Angels could get creative and sign Didi Gregorious to play at third and provide depth behind Simmons at shortstop which would likely have great defensive value for the team as a whole. Alternatively, pursuing a high Minors top prospect like Ke'Bryan Hayes (Pirates) or Jonathan India (Reds) would carry production risks for the near future that are likely unpalatable from the front office's point of view. If the Angels want to seriously compete in 2020, they have to reduce variability in total team performance, which may preclude taking to many risks on relatively unproven assets (prospects and somewhat untested MLB players). The Halos could, instead, trade for someone short-term like LeMahieu, Escobar, Taylor (Chris), or Turner who could be a stop-gap measure that tactically, but not strategically, solves the problem for a year or two. It is an option but perhaps not a value-added proposition when considering the breadth of choices in front of him. However, a short-term asset could give Angels internal solutions more development time. Finally, Eppler could get creative and pursue interesting players that could, at least for the short term, play at the hot corner. A bat-control type with power, like J.D. Davis, might fit in a full or part-time role at 3B and/or LF. Another Mets player, Jeff McNeil, had a breakout season in 2019 and would be a nice on-base presence manning the hot corner coupled with above average defense. Heck, New York even has Jed Lowrie who might hold interest for the Angels or maybe it is finding a way to snag someone like Yandy Diaz from the Rays. There are options out there but it really comes down to the asking price and if it adds value to the 2020 team and beyond. Only the Angels front office knows the truth and asking price of each candidate. Realistically, right now, Eppler is facing a long-term strategic decision at third base (not unlike shortstop). The hot corner is a conundrum and the fact that we have a lot of infield depth to choose from leads the author to believe that one viable path, beyond an internal candidate or platoon, is for the Halos to trade one or more of their young players and/or prospects, as Eppler alluded to recently, and simply make room to acquire a competent third baseman in free agency or trade. So many ways to go and all of it will be dependent on knowledge of Moreno's payroll leash, Eppler's available resources, and the asking price of each target, that we, as fans, have little access to, on the outside looking in. Likely Outcome: Barring a payroll increase, a savvy trade, or an improbable dealing of Cozart, the Angels will likely run a platoon of Tommy La Stella and Zack Cozart or perhaps, less likely, Matt Thaiss or Taylor Ward in a full-time role. This scenario represents a neutral expenditure with no additional resources being used at the hot corner so that they can be applied to the rotation and makes sense in a modest Moreno payroll increase authorization scenario (2020 Club Payroll at approximately $190M). Author's Choice: Personally, as painful as it would be, I would love to see the Angels package up Zack Cozart in a deal with one or more other players and/or prospects to a team that is not contending (think Orioles, Marlins, Tigers, perhaps the Mariners, or least likely the Pirates) but can absorb most, if not all, of Cozart's 2020 salary, thereby freeing up additional payroll for other needs (and possibly bringing in one or more assets in trade). This way Billy could try to make a sneaky play to pick up Didi Gregorious to play third base on a strong one-year or multi-year (3-years, $51M?) deal. Alternatively, an inexpensive, veteran platoon partner for La Stella or Thaiss, like Jedd Gyorko (3-year average wRC+ of 129 vs. LHP) would work or, also, someone like Travis Shaw could be matched with Cozart or Ward in a similar tandem. Really, I would love to see Thaiss or Ward step up and not only hit but play above average defense but they may not be ready to take over the role full-time. As a much more speculative move, the free payroll could even be applied toward a target like Trevor Story if the following trade could be executed: Angels send OF Jordyn Adams, SS Jeremiah Jackson, SP Jose Soriano, and SP Aaron Hernandez to the Rockies in exchange for SS Trevor Story Why? The Rockies are reportedly discussing an extension with Trevor Story (not surprising at all) but if they are unable to lock him down, this off-season may go from an attempt at competitiveness to a rebuild, as Colorado may decide that getting trade value out of his remaining two years of control (not to mention Jon Gray) takes priority. It is quite possible that the Rockies would demand Brandon Marsh instead of Adams so this deal is a long shot but the offer above does contain three of Angelswin.com's Top 10 prospects and another from our Top 15 so it does have a lot of value. For the Angels we would obtain two years of control over Story to man the hot corner and provide SS depth behind Simmons. Trevor's splits outside of Coors Field are not as impressive as those within but he still clobbers left-handed pitching and holds his own versus righties. He would add another complimentary bat to Trout and Ohtani in the heart of our lineup and his salary would fall off the books at the end of 2021, helping the Angels to reset under the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold if they do exceed it in the 2020-2021 window (very likely if they acquired Trevor in the first place). Conclusion: If Billy does not have carte blanche in regard to payroll, a platoon, as mentioned above, would make the most sense. The real hope, however, is that one of either Matt Thaiss or Taylor Ward has a good showing in Spring Training and wins the job outright (Ward in particular has had some very solid hitting splits over the last three years in AA and AAA). On the flip side if the wallet opens up really wide ($200M-$220M in 2020 Club Payroll), Rendon or Donaldson could easily come into play creating the potential for a really wild off-season and possibly turning the Angels into a truly complete and competitive ball club in 2020 and beyond. Adding Anthony in addition to Gerrit would instantly vault the Angels into Division contention and would create a really deep bench and depth chart. To be clear everything relies on how far Arte opens up the pocketbook so this is a real long shot (the 1% solution) outcome and should not be relied upon as a likely result.
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