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  1. 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.
  2. By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer NOTE: This article contains a detailed summary of each prospective bullpen candidate under the "Spoiler" bar. Some of you may just want to jump to the conclusion so the player contents are hidden from view. If you want to read that section, simply click on the bar and dive deeper into each of our reliever candidates, there are some interesting tidbits. In 2019, the Angels continued to develop a core group of relief options that produced to the tune of 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) across 761.2 innings pitched (IP). The latter number was the 2nd most IP, just behind the Rays bullpen at 772 IP. Assuredly, Eppler and staff would like to not only improve the bullpen's production, but also reduce the total number of IP, for the group as a whole, if possible. The good news is that most of that relief corps will remain this season and a key reliever, Keynan Middleton, should return to the fold, which could provide a real boost to a squad full of upside and potential, capable of closing out the later innings of any ballgame. It is the hope that the bullpen will potentially improve on their 2019 performances, giving reason to believe that the Angels relievers, as a collective, can build on last years 16th ranked production level and become a Top 10 relief staff. To start let us review 2019 results for the current, projected, 40-man relief staff as of December 16th, 2019: As you can see, the Halos bullpen was led by Hansel Robles (1.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR)) and Ty Buttrey (1.4 WAR). Other contributors included Noe Ramirez, Cam Bedrosian, Taylor Cole, Felix Pena, and Justin Anderson. The belief is that the group can potentially take a nice step forward in 2020 and there is reason to feel this could be the case. Part of that solution will come directly from upgrades made in the rotation to, funny enough, relieve the relievers. If the starting rotation can eat up more quality innings, the bullpen will, ideally, be fresh on a more regular basis, which generally should equate to some modest level of improved performance. Additionally, some relievers may make some needed adjustments to improve their performance. Finally, there is a reasonable likelihood that Eppler and the front office staff will still add to this group prior to Opening Day, next year. To better understand what the Halos have let us take an in-depth look at each relief candidate and what they can bring to the table in 2020. Simply click on the Spoiler bar to unroll the comprehensive, individual player analysis. Note that data is pulled from FanGraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, and BaseballSavant.com: Likely Outcome: The Angels will continue to use the waiver wire to pick up relief targets of opportunity as the off-season continues and avoid expending resources as is typical for this front office. The next, most likely, alternative is to find a target of opportunity in free agency or trade, probably the latter. This is because the FA market lacks quality options whereas there are some interesting names that might be available in deals with other teams. Author's Choice: Personally, if the price is right, acquiring a name like Brad Hand (someone Eppler has inquired on previously) or Mychal Givens would be great. Since Eppler and his team love high spin rates so much, names like Drew Steckenrider, David McKay, Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer, Jose Urena, Jeff Brigham, or Robert Gsellman might hold some level of interest. Ultimately this is not an area that I am to concerned about, as the Angels front office has done an outstanding job acquiring relievers that have the skills and tools to turn into effective relievers. All that the Angels need to do is start the season with an established group that can soak up innings and be effective to help the team reach the Trade Deadline in the right posture (wins) so that Eppler can reevaluate at that time whether the Halos need to acquire a rental bullpen option or two to help carry us over the Division finish line. Conclusion: Eppler probably understands that this unit, as a whole, might need some level of improvement, so it seems plausible that if he gets an opportunity to pick up a good reliever in trade (maybe names like Josh Hader, Jose LeClerc, Ken Giles, Mychal Givens, Scott Oberg, Keone Kela, Joe Jimenez, Jeurys Familia, Mark Melancon, Carlos Martinez, Richard Bleier, Ian Kennedy, Tim Hill, Paul Fry, Jared Hughes, Brad Hand, or Seth Lugo, among many others, might have some level of availability) or in free agency (maybe a guy like Arodys Vizcaino, Addison Reed, or, perhaps, Tyler Thornburg) he would do so, to help lift the squad a little further for the 2020 season and possibly beyond. Billy was recently quoted as saying, "There are a lot of ways to create a winning team." One of those ways is to build a really deep bullpen, not dissimilar to what the Yankees have done over the last couple of years, to help consistently build a bridge to success when transitioning from a starter to the later innings of a game. The good news is that the Angels have a good base of relievers to build upon, so the idea of a high quality relief corps is not a fantasy for the 2020 Angels. If Eppler was able to add a Hader, Giles, Givens, Hand, Martinez, or Jimenez type of player that would go a long way toward a consistent, sustainable run at the American League West Division championship. To be clear it does not have to be one of those names, either, there are plenty of other options out there to be had. Finally, the Angels could end up pulling one of their starters in and converting them to a relief role. Near the end of the season, the Halos used Jose Suarez in a long relief role four times, although they will likely start him in the Minors in the rotation. Jaime Barria and Dillon Peters made six and five long relief appearances, respectively, mostly early in the season. Jared Walsh is a two-way player, capable of relief work too, but he is most likely to do mop-up, low leverage work where the team is either ahead or behind by a significant amount of runs. Even Sandoval made a long relief appearance in early August. To be clear these guys are clear-cut starters (except Walsh) and will probably be used as such but they are available if the Halos switch course or have a need. Currently, it appears the Angels bullpen, barring an injury, trade or designation for assignment, will start the season with at least the following relievers in-tow: Hansel Robles Ty Buttrey Noe Ramirez Cam Bedrosian These four are the probable core base of the Angels 2020 bullpen. Behind them, the next group represents potential higher-probability adds and out-of-options players, in no particular order, that could be included on the 26-man active roster: Keynan Middleton Jake Jewell Taylor Cole Adalberto Mejia Mike Mayers Luke Bard Justin Anderson To be clear these seven will need to have good Spring Training outings to be included on the Opening Day roster, it will not be handed to any of them. Finally, the following names are very likely to start the year in the Minors no matter how well they perform in Spring Training (and in Pena's case he is on the IL for a while): Hector Yan Parker Markel Felix Pena So to wrap up this very long discussion, the author believes, based on the current 40-man roster, that the Opening Day starting eight (it is typical to start the season with eight relievers) will probably include these names: Hansel Robles Ty Buttrey Noe Ramirez Cam Bedrosian Keynan Middleton Adalberto Mejia Jake Jewell Mike Mayers If you do not feel we will carry eight out of the gate, then knock Mayers off the end of that list, probably. Also there is a real chance that if Eppler finds a reliever on the free agent or trade markets, that Mayers or Mejia (probably in that order) will be displaced off the 40-man and designated for assignment to make room for the new addition(s). This is what a good minimum resource bullpen looks like and this thriftiness allows the Halos to apply their monetary and trade resources elsewhere, for the betterment of the team as a whole. Longer term, once the Angels have an established rotation and position player group (which they are getting closer to this off-season), Eppler may be able to afford adding higher quality bullpen arms but, for now, he and the front office staff are doing this the right way. The Primer Series continues, next, with the Left Field article.
  3. By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer So if they call third base the "hot corner", should they call first base the "cold corner"? These are some of the random thoughts that pass through my head as the Primer Series progresses. However, the author suspects that Eppler would actually like to make sure that first base heats up in 2020 rather than reenact the cold spell that turned out to be a 27th placed ranking, in total WAR for the year, among all 30 Major League Baseball teams. Pujols, across 423 plate appearances (PA's) at 1B, provided some offensive productivity (wRC+ of 109) but made up for that by playing bad defense (-10.8 per FanGraphs 'Def' metric). Not Albert's fault though! He was forced there by necessity because Justin Bour was not supposed to put up a .179 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) and a pitiful offensive showing (wRC+ of 70). Young prospect Jared Walsh picked up 80 of those PA's to the tune of a wRC+ of 51 as well. The latter has a lot of promise if he can convert his upper Minor League offensive numbers into similar Major League results. Jared could become a left-handed version of Mark Trumbo with better on-base ability, potentially (versus RHP in particular). However, as much as Eppler wants to place some faith in the younger players to provide needed production this year, Walsh might be better suited to start off 2020 at AAA Salt Lake City and act as a depth piece behind a free agent or trade target for one, or perhaps two, more season(s) (Walsh has two options remaining). When you consider Jared's inexperience, the departure of Bour to Japan, and the fact that Albert should spend all of his PA's in the Designated Hitter spot, this situation screams for a short-term solution either internally, in trade, or via free agency. So to start let us examine the best defensive first basemen in the Majors because, as you should know by now, Eppler values quality defense at every position: 2017-2019 Top 35 First Basemen Sorted by FanGraphs 'Def' on a Per Game Rate Basis (Def/G) Minimum 50 G's Played Looking at the choices, you begin to realize why first base is usually a source of offense rather than defense. Based on the fact that the Angels might have a contributor to play first base long-term such as Walsh, Thaiss, or Ward, a likelier solution for the Angels this off-season would be to acquire, via free agency or trade, a first baseman with short-term control, say 1-2 years, if they really believe that one of the names above is their long-term answer at the "cold corner". If this is the case, clearly some of the names above like, Muncy, Vogelbach, Olson, and Hoskins, are unavailable or not as desirable as they are valuable, long-term contributors to their current, respective teams. Players that might be attainable include Belt, McMahon, Adams, Rizzo, Moreland, Bird, Santana, Carpenter, and Mancini, among others. Some, like Belt, Rizzo, Santana, and Carpenter, might be out of Eppler's budget as they are all signed to contracts that would pay them double-digit millions in 2020 Club Payroll, but, as evidenced via the Rendon signing, money is probably not a large barrier. The rest, like McMahon, Adams, Moreland, Bird, and Mancini, would be more affordable from a payroll perspective but may cost more in prospect capital, albeit, probably, for reasonable mid and low-level type farm assets in return (except Bird who is a free agent after the Yankees designated him recently). So if the defensive bar is so low at first base, it may make sense, as part of this Primer Series, to flip the script and look at the top offensive first basemen: 2017-2019 Top 35 First Basemen Sorted by FanGraphs 'Off' on a Per Game Rate Basis (Off/G) Minimum 50 G's Played No matter how you parse it, most of the top offensive and defensive first basemen in baseball right now are likely unavailable in free agency and trade. Names like Bellinger, Muncy, Alonso, Freeman, and Goldschmidt are all locked in with their current teams. Out of that list, above, the most available names include Eric Thames, Jose Martinez, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Carpenter, Trey Mancini, Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak, Matt Adams, and maybe Anthony Rizzo, Josh Bell, and Brandon Belt. Finding a complete first baseman in this current market is tough. Most of the candidates are good on only one of offense or defense. Additionally, some of those candidates have uneven splits, one way or the other, like Brandon Belt for example. However, most of the names above were at least League-average or better against both sides of the mound in 2019, making them viable additions to round out a lineup. That being said, the Angels could use improvement against both left and right-handed pitchers and the choice of which first baseman is utilized at the position will probably be driven not only by splits, but also, possibly, by positional versatility around the field. When you examine the likely positional set-up, players like Trout, Fletcher, Rendon, and Simmons have pretty even splits and above average defense or better, making them full-time candidates in CF, 2B, 3B, and SS. Beyond that the Angels may need to actually find a platoon partner for Upton who can hit lefties (Justin has struggled mightily with them in recent seasons). Goodwin will start the season, probably, in right field but shortly after the season begins, the Angels are very likely to call up young Jo Adell. Adell has run pretty even splits in the Minors but Goodwin can make a good platoon partner or day-off fill-in for our entire outfield. Catcher is less relevant as any offense you get out of the position is gravy. That leaves whatever solution Eppler comes up with at first base. Reasonably, the previous paragraph lists a lot of full-time Angels players and all of them are right-handed hitters which would normally beg the question of the need for a left-handed bat but those players have fairly even splits which mitigates the need to a large degree. This is, in part, why Tommy La Stella is more likely to stay on the roster for 2020 due to his more productive hitting versus RHP. Additionally, this is what makes Brian Goodwin such a perfect fit for next season, too, because, despite him being a left-handed hitter, he actually hits LHP better (114 wRC+ over the last three years) and he makes a fine temporary right fielder until Adell shows up and he can shift over to pick up some of Upton's at-bats against lefties as-needed. In the end, it seems reasonable that Eppler will simply try to acquire the best hitter he can find with good splits because the team's offense is, on paper, well balanced production-wise. Defense would be nice but is a secondary concern. So the Angels are probably searching for a player who can fill a lead-off role (more on-base ability) or as an additional power bat to place in the middle or back of the lineup. Likely Outcome: The Angels could run with one of Jared Walsh, Tommy La Stella, Matt Thaiss, Taylor Ward, or even Albert Pujols but it seems very reasonable that the Halos could add one more experienced bat on either a short-term free agent contract or via trade to increase team depth even further (something the Angels have seriously lacked in previous seasons). Based on the fact that Eppler and Moreno are going all-in on 2020 it would not be at all shocking to see the Angels take an interest in a free agent like Nick Castellanos on a long-term deal or possibly Justin Smoak or Edwin Encarnacion on a short-term deal that would not extend past the 2021 season (One to two years maximum). On the trade side names like Matt Carpenter, Trey Mancini, Josh Bell, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana, or Yandy Diaz might hold more appeal than some of the other options in the market. Probability leans toward one of Smoak (free agent), Carpenter (two years of club control), Encarnacion (free agent), Mancini (three years of arbitration control), or, more remotely, Rizzo (two years of club control). Those are the value plays that Eppler is likely targeting if they decide to not run out one of the young guys in 2020. If the Angels do not pick up another first baseman, Tommy La Stella, Matt Thaiss, or Taylor Ward are the more likely set of choices to start at 1B in 2020. Author's Choice: For me on the trade front, if the Angels manged to grab one of Carpenter (high dollars, low prospect cost) or Mancini (lower dollars, moderate prospect cost) that would be fantastic. On the free agent side Encarnacion or Smoak would be perfectly fine and affordable, costing only cash. Internally I think all three of Walsh, Thaiss, and Ward have the potential to break out (or get traded) but grabbing a guy like Smoak for 1-2 seasons would not only bring in an experienced MLB bat it would improve depth behind Justin, in case of injury or extended absence. Conclusion: Eppler would probably like to have more assured production at first base so finding a short-term solution while Jared Walsh, Matt Thaiss, and Taylor Ward gain more experience with high Minors pitching makes sense not only for the 2020 teams chances to win the Division but also as a depth move. Certainly he could have one or more of the young guys fight it out in Spring Training but why leave 2020 more to chance?
  4. 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.
  5. 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) 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 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' 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) 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) 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: Under $190M (2020 Club Payroll with Actual Club Payroll not to exceed $208M, most probable) Under $208M (Both 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll, less probable) Under $228M (1st Surcharge Threshold, unlikely) 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!