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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.
By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer Out of all of the positions of need the Angels might punt on this off-season, catcher seems the most likely out of the group. This is not because the Angels would not like to place the best catcher they can find in the position but rather more a resource allocation issue, due to the higher payroll priority need in the rotation. Realistically, catchers are, at most, in a 70%/30% split, typically leaning more toward 60%/40%, nominally in a platoon where one backstop picks up more at-bat's against RHP. There are a handful of backstops like Yasmani Grandal or Salvador Perez, for example, that play a lion's share of the games but, for most teams, the nominal split is standard. So investing in a guy that only plays about half the games is generally less appealing to a GM and Eppler is well aware of this, as it is not dissimilar to his approach for building the bullpen (investing to much in part-time and/or volatile players). For Billy it is typically more efficient to find defensive-minded catchers with good platoon splits to place into a backstop corps, because defense, particularly at the up-the-middle positions (C, SS, 2B, and CF), has always been a critical objective for him. Many casual fans of baseball do not fully understand how critical a good defensive catcher is and their impact on every pitch of the game (framing, relationships with the pitchers, umpire rapport, and other intangibles) so acquiring good backstops is important. The Angels current group of catchers all have warts of some sort. Stassi will probably not start the season but does combine excellent defense (see chart below) with weak overall offense, particularly against LHP. Kevan Smith, who was just non-tendered by the Angels, crushed LHP but was not the best overall defender in the world, which is why he is now off the roster. Finally, Anthony Bemboom, also a defensive-minded receiver, can hit decently against RHP but he, too, is probably a backup option only (he has an option remaining, however). So what does Eppler do here? If resources are tight in combination with the real possibility that Stassi may not be able to start the 2020 season, due to his injury, how does Billy proceed? The team is in a precarious position at the moment in a catching market that, on the surface, appears to be drying up. On top of all of that, our team depth at the catching position is also very light and our only top-level prospect, Jack Kruger, is currently exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. To help shed further light on this issue let us take a look at the top defensive catchers, based on FanGraphs 'Def' score, broken out on a rate basis per game (Def/G) over the last three seasons with a minimum of 30 Games (G) played, to see which backstops have consistently performed well behind the dish: 2017-2019 FanGraphs Top 35 Catchers Def/G with Minimum 30 G's Played As you can see Stassi has ranked quite high in Def/G over the last three seasons, which explains why Eppler made the trade for him. It seems likely that the Angels will monitor Max's surgery and recovery and if they feel comfortable they will retain him for the 2020 season (and may have to, now that Grandal and Zunino have signed with other teams). Looking deeper at the list above, for possible free agent signings and trade targets, you can see unlikely acquisitions like Hedges, Perez, and Vazquez who are all locked in with their respective teams in all probability. At the top of the list is Flowers who had an option year for 2020, worth $6M, that the Braves actually declined and paid his $2M buyout but then turned around and re-signed him to a $4M contract, thus reducing his AAV for 2020 down to $4M (an interesting technicality). At first glance this re-signing points to Flowers playing in Atlanta next year but the Braves just signed Travis d'Arnaud to a 2-year deal, probably as their primary catcher, so Tyler could prove to be expendable in trade which would probably pique Eppler's interest if true. Beyond those names our old friend Maldonado is a free agent. Willson Contreras could also be a target for the Angels but Eppler values defense so much, he seems a less likely acquisition. Other names like Luke Maile, Danny Jensen, Reese McGuire, Austin Barnes, Jacob Stallings, Jason Castro, John Ryan Murphy, and another familiar face, Rene Rivera, might be options too. Finally, if Billy wants to flirt with inexperience behind the plate, he could target near MLB-ready prospects such as Keibert Ruiz (as suggested by Angelswin.com member InsidePitch) or maybe Andrew Knizner, for example. This route seems really risky in such an important season for Eppler, however. Ultimately, the front office needs to add some depth here. This will require a modicum of payroll space, probably on the order of $1M-$10M give or take, dependent upon the target(s). Likely Outcome: Angels will sign a defense-first backstop to pair with Max Stassi such as Jason Castro or Martin Maldonado. Because defense is so important Max will probably pick up at least 50% (or more) of the starts with the primary/backup (Stassi could wind up as either) getting the rest. Stassi hits RHP better than LHP which is not saying a lot because he is poor against both sides of the mound. Having a platoon mate like those mentioned in this article will at least improve offense to a degree while still maintaining high quality defense or at least a semblance of it behind the plate. There is an outside possibility that Eppler signs two of the above and releases Stassi but Max feels more like a short-term (1-3 years) mainstay on the roster because of his top-notch defensive work behind the dish. Author's Choice: If Eppler does go low-level or punt, signing Jason Castro (good vs. RHP) or even simply picking up a recent non-tender like John Ryan Murphy or Luke Maile would be sufficient. Additionally, acquiring one or more Minor League catchers with options that are MLB-ready would be useful from a payroll perspective. Depth can also be improved by Minor League signings of any residual catchers left without a home on the open market. However I, personally, would like to see the Angels improve behind the dish by acquiring a high-quality defensive receiver with shorter years of control (reduces acquisition price) like Tyler Flowers (less likely) or Luke Maile (more likely). The former may not actually be available while the latter was recently non-tendered by the Blue Jays, making him a very attainable solution. Beyond those two I personally like Danny Jensen and Reese McGuire, both still on the Blue Jays 40-man roster. Supposedly the Blue Jays are listening to offers on both and it feels like McGuire would be the best fit in our lineup and for our payroll situation. Tucker Barnhart of the Reds would also be a nice target but he is not quite as good defensively as Reese, so he is a lesser choice. So based on this discussion either of the following two trades would make some degree of sense: Angels send RP Hansel Robles to the Braves in exchange for C Tyler Flowers Why? The Braves have built up their bullpen but adding another experienced reliever with two years of arbitration control (2020 and 2021) with a projected $4M 2020 salary is a reasonable exchange, particularly since it is a nearly equitable swap for Tyler's $4M salary and one year of contractual control. The d'Arnaud signing potentially gives Atlanta the freedom to move Flowers as well (less likely but possible). For the Angels this is a payroll neutral trade that gives them one of the best defensive catchers in baseball right now, who can also hit, for one year until they figure out a better solution long-term behind the dish (or extend Flowers, possibly if acquired). Angels send SP Jaime Barria and OF Orlando Martinez to the Blue Jays in exchange for C Reese McGuire Why? The Blue Jays are in need of starting pitching (in addition to OF and bullpen help) and the addition of Barria gives them a back-end starter with five years of team control. Jaime is still relatively young (23) and has upside. Also they get an OF prospect in Martinez that can potentially be part of a future Blue Jays squad 2-4 years down the road. In return the Angels get a long-term backstop option in McGuire who grades out well defensively and has hit well in a limited sample size in 2019. Reese can partner with Stassi to form a solid defensive tandem behind the dish for at least the next couple of years or more, thus settling our backstop situation for the foreseeable future. Conclusion: The Angels have more options to trade for, rather than sign, a defensive-oriented backstop and that is the slightly more likely route Eppler will take since he favors up-the-middle defense so much (actually good defense at every position period) and can find that more readily by swapping players and prospects with another team. Particularly catchers like Maile or McGuire, who still have an option left, are probably more appealing to Billy and the front office. Eppler could make a surprise left-turn and pursue an offensive-minded bat like Contreras, Chirinos, Cervelli, Ramos, or Astudillo but that seems less probable, barring a good value signing or ability to pick one of them up with an advantageous trade package. Based on published stories and trade rumors the catching market seems to have a lot of fluidity and moving parts to it where some teams want to move an extra catcher so it would not be surprising to see one team acquire a backstop and then move one of their current catchers to the Angels. So figuring out the field of Eppler's probable targets feels more difficult to predict this year but if you follow the trail of evidence, it points to strong defense as the primary suspect, thus the list above. In the end, as Billy said recently, the Angels could cross their fingers and simply roll with Stassi and Bemboom so there may be little, if any, movement behind the dish this off-season, but gut instinct, and the aggressive posture toward the 2020 season, begs otherwise.