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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?
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.
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!