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By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer In 2020, Justin Upton will be entering his 14th professional season in Major League Baseball at the tender age of 32 years young. He is one of those guys, like Brett Anderson, that you feel like they have played forever and should be old men but they still have kick and life left in them as they progress through the seasons. Certainly, last year is one of those seasons that Justin would prefer to forget. In 2019, Upton ended a 10-year streak of playing 130 games or more each season, playing in only 63 Major League games to the tune of a weak wRC+ of 92, which also broke his streak of posting at least a wRC+ of 105 over that same time period. Uncharacteristically, Justin suffered from ailments, including a quad and knee injury, that ultimately limited his playing time and forced him to end his season early to receive treatment. The good news is that he appears to be recovering well and is projected to return to good health prior to Spring Training. This is good because the Angels really need Upton to recover to form. His offensive woes in 2019, most likely tied directly to his injuries, can be seen in his three-year hitting history, below: Justin Upton's Three-Year (2017-2019) Hitting History It should be noted that Justin has a career wRC+ of 120, so, other than last year, he has been above his own average during his tenure with the Angels. Really last year seems to be an injury-related abnormality. In that light, assuming Upton recovers well and is healthy to start the 2020 campaign, it would not be unexpected to see his numbers regress to his career mean and see a more productive season (say a wRC+ in the 115 to 125 range) out of the Angels left fielder. This brings me to one important note. Justin has been strikingly poor against LHP the last two seasons. Quite honestly when the author looked this up during mid-season 2019, it was stunning to see how bad the numbers were, as it was unexpected: Justin Upton's Five-Year (2015-2019) Hitting History Vs. LHP In fact, over the last five years, he has had three really bad offensive seasons (2015: wRC+ of 58 , 2018: wRC+ of 66, and 2019: wRC+ of 47) against them. On the flip side he had better years in 2016 and 2017 where he had a wRC+ of 100 and 202, respectively, both on elevated BABIP numbers (.300 and .369, individually). He has been wildly inconsistent against lefties and the trend is worrisome. To be clear poor production against LHP is not going to hurt the 2020 Angels too much. In fact, the Angels can mitigate this by simply having a back-up outfielder such as Goodwin, Hermosillo, or even Ward, pick-up some of Justin's at-bat's against them. The Angels could even acquire another bat to play 1B with some outfield experience to split time between the two positions to pick up some of the slack. One thing Upton has done well, consistently, is hit RHP: Justin Upton's Five-Year (2015-2019) Hitting History Vs. RHP People do not realize or want to recognize what an accomplished hitter Justin has been in his thirteen seasons in Major League Baseball. Recently, on Twitter, @MLB asked the question, "Who is the best left fielder of the 2010's?", and Upton came in last, vote-wise, which is a shame but is a by-product of his relatively low profile in baseball. Certainly Braun, Gordon, and Yelich are great players but Ryan has a PED's history, Alex was a strong defender but not nearly as good of a hitter, and Christian may go down as the best LF of all-time but he picked up the most recency bias in the voting process, perhaps deservedly so. The point is that Upton has been a durable power-hitter across his entire career and heading into his age 32 season, there is no reason to believe that 2020 will be any different for him, from an offensive perspective. Defensively, it might be the same or it might begin getting progressively worse. By both FanGraphs and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Justin has been below average, mostly via unforced errors and an imprecise throwing arm. His range has been about average as well as his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Basically as he continues to age, his defense will get worse and his tendinitis issue from last season may or may not contribute to his defensive performance moving forward, only time will tell. It is this potential for worsening defensive skills that will ultimately drive Upton to the designated hitter spot once Pujols contract expires or he retires. Basically, Brandon Marsh, one of our really good young prospects, took a huge stride forward near the end of the Minor League season in the Arizona Fall League and he will almost assuredly be ready to play in the Majors next year or the year after. So these next two seasons will be the last that the Angels place Justin in left field, based on what happens with Pujols. Once that change occurs the Angels will have an incredible outfield of Trout, Adell, and Marsh, which should be very exciting for Angels fans as all three have really dynamic tools and Mike Trout is, of course, Mike Trout. Upton is owed $72M over the next three seasons. When Eppler signed him the Angels were, in-part, paying for his durability and for the most part he has been on the field pretty consistently minus last season. This is actually a trend across many of the players that Eppler is acquiring as evidenced by the Bundy trade and the Teheran signing. Having good players produce on a regular basis is what carries teams successfully through 162-game seasons as well as having excellent team depth at every position. Justin is a good example of this quality, consistent production. Finally, if Brandon Marsh has a breakout season in 2020 or 2021, there is always a possibility that the Angels might try to trade Upton, particularly if Justin also has an excellent season and the Halos are, for some reason, out of contention. This seems really unlikely and is further complicated by the fact that Upton has a no-trade clause, perhaps making this a moot conversation, but if the player and management agree a move is best for everyone involved, it could be a long-shot possibility, but highly doubtful. The expectation should be that Justin Upton will continue to play at an above average level for the next three seasons and, when Pujols is gone, take over full-time designated hitter duties, perhaps with a touch of left field, first base, and pinch hitter appearances until he, too, leaves after the 2022 season is complete and the Angels move forward with young prospects like the aforementioned Marsh and possibly others like Jordyn Adams or Trent Deveaux for example. Next up is the Right Field article of the Primer Series.
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.
From MLBTR: "Talk of a possible Stanton swap has been building in earnest for months. And it comes as little surprise to hear that the team is indeed preparing to market him, given its reported intentions of making significant payroll reductions in the first offseason under new ownership. Obvious as it may be that now is the time to part with the slugger, it’s notable that the team has evidently chosen its direction even as it prepares to sit downwith him in a few days’ time. (Stanton, of course, enjoys full no-trade protection and so will have a major say in things.) And the team’s reported intentions perhaps hint that the focus could be on moving all of Stanton’s salary rather than maximizing the prospect return." https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2017/10/marlins-hope-to-trade-stanton-gordon-prado.html