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By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer Special Request: Hope for Education is a small, targeted charity sponsored by Angelswin.com. I am humbly requesting a small donation as we enter the New Year and hope that you are in the giving mood as these kids need help to learn in a safe environment from this very deadly pandemic. Please lend a hand, even if it is only a couple of bucks, it does make a difference. Thank you for your time and attention! Important Note: First of all I would like to say Happy New Year! I hope all of you and your families are implementing best-practice safety guidelines as outlined by the Center for Disease Control, including wearing masks out in public, washing your hands often, and exercising physical distancing protocols. Not only is COVID-19 potentially life-threatening there are now reports of long-term physical and psychological damage to those that survive. Take care of yourselves out there both physically and mentally, the Angels family needs to stay strong so all of us can enjoy Mike Trout now and in the future! At this point in the off-season, it is easy to say that the Angels bullpen is already revamped and, in fact, may continue to evolve even further, prior to Opening Day, after a dizzying array of non-tendered contracts and Rule 5 and trade additions. The previous administration placed a lot of emphasis on acquiring relievers through the waiver wire, minor trades, and the rare free agent signing. By focusing resources in other areas, Eppler and company actually did a fair job of building a Major League bullpen, albeit it lacked a true, sustained closer type. Eppler’s front office focused a lot on high spin rates and acquiring arms that threw a good fastball and curveball; the latter is a good pitch that works against both sides of the plate, negating some of the need to find those lockdown lefties. Minasian’s reign has yet to give us a lot of information on how he will approach building a good relief corps but there are three data points to discuss here. First of all, the quick strike and addition of Raisel Iglesias is significant, as it adds a clear, proven back-end bullpen arm that is capable of closing out games on a regular basis for the Angels. Raisel is stronger from the right-side with his fastball, slider, and changeup combination which can shutdown a right-handed heavy team. Per FanGraphs, out of all qualified relievers in 2020, Iglesias was in the Top 5 of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). In fact, over the last two seasons, he ranks 8th with only lofty names like Nick Anderson, Taylor Rogers, Aroldis Chapman, and Brad Hand, ahead of him. Despite the fact that the Halos, currently, only have him for one season, there is a lot to like about bringing him into the fold for 2021, particularly due to the fact that the Angels are projected to have a fairly tight 5.12 Runs Scored per Game (RS/G) versus an 4.82 Runs Against per Game (RA/G), which means the team may find itself in more close games, where they will lead by a small amount of runs, creating a high leverage situation that Iglesias can help solve. Additionally, the Halos front office struck during the Rule 5 Draft, acquiring Jose Alberto Rivera, a young arm from the Astros organization. Rivera features a big fastball, averaging in the high-90’s, curveball, and splitter. Clearly the new Angels front office is gambling that the heater/curveball combination is mature enough to fit in middle relief and, just like the Eppler era, this feels like a worthy gamble, despite the fact that the Angels will need to keep him all season or send him back to Houston if they cannot keep him on the active roster. Also, the team recently signed left-hander Alex Claudio to a one-year deal, for $1.125M. Claudio is the pure definition of “soft-tossing lefty” and, as expected, gets left-handed hitters out at a pretty good clip, although he does okay versus right-handed hitters as well. This should give Joe Maddon a specialist option out of the bullpen on an as-needed basis. Finally, we can glean some information about the players Minasian non-tendered/traded versus the players he kept on the 40-man roster. Guys like Noe Ramirez, Hoby Milner, and Matt Andriese were lower velocity types, whereas arms like Gerardo Reyes, Luke Bard, Ty Buttrey, Mike Mayers, and Kyle Keller all throw in the mid-to-upper 90’s. High velocity appears to be a real draw for the new Angels GM. Notably most of these bullpen arms that were retained have fastball/slider combos in their repertoire lending to the idea that Minasian and company may be making a point to go with guys whose 2nd pitches are sliders, which is a notorious same-side strikeout weapon, i.e. pure strikeout potential seems to be preferred, over creating poor contact or pinpoint control by the new front office. Basically, it appears, on the surface, that the initial emphasis is on strong strikeout capability. High strikeout rates are an important element in Major League Baseball so it is a bit refreshing to see a little more importance placed on it, although it did appear that Eppler’s group was on to something regarding high spin rates (difficult for hitters to see) and targeting guys with good curveballs (ability to get batters out on both sides of the plate). We will see how this plays out moving forward with Minasian, but the route he is initially focusing on is also a good path to run prevention, i.e. less hitters on-base results in less runs scored. Moving beyond the philosophical discussion, the Angels currently have, as of Dec. 31st, 2020, the following pure, bullpen arms on the 40-man roster (number of Minor League options remaining are in parentheses after each name): Luke Bard (1) Ty Buttrey (2) Alex Claudio (0) Raisel Iglesias (0) Kyle Keller (1) Mike Mayers (0) Jose Quijada (1) Gerardo Reyes (1) Jose Alberto Rivera (R5, 3 after the 2021 season) In addition, as mentioned in the Rotation article, Dillon Peters (0), Jaime Barria (0), Felix Pena (1), and Hector Yan (2), may be viewed as starters but they could also, possibly, work out of the bullpen, too. In fact, Barria and Peters are out of options so they will need a home on the active roster if they are to play in 2021. So to start, it should be noted that the Angels may or may not retain all of these names. Player’s can always be designated for assignment, so none of this is set in stone yet. Trades, signings, and waiver wire acquisitions could still change the landscape, quickly, too. All that being said if you were to take what the Angels have now and line it up into a group of eight relievers to start the season, it may look like this: Raisel Iglesias (Closer) Mike Mayers (Setup) Ty Buttrey (Setup) Alex Claudio (Specialist) Gerardo Reyes (Middle Relief) Luke Bard (Middle Relief) Jose Alberto Rivera (Middle Relief) Felix Pena (Long Relief) Now, certainly, you could substitute Keller or Quijada in middle relief, if you like, but these two, as well as Reyes and Bard, have a Minor League option remaining and the Angels will need Minor League bullpen depth, so a couple of them will start the season down in AAA or AA. Additionally, Peters could easily be the long reliever with Pena starting the season in the Minors, as well. When you look at this projection, on paper, the back-end of the bullpen seems fairly strong, particularly with the addition of Iglesias. However, it is the middle of the bullpen that leaves some room for doubt. Reyes, Bard, and Rivera have some good stuff but they are mostly unproven in the Majors, particularly Rivera. It might be useful, then, for Minasian to acquire one more quality middle reliever with some experience in the Majors and a pedigree of success. Yes, that is not always easy to find in a relief arm, considering their year-to-year variance, but it is not impossible. Really if we can find one more back-end or good middle reliever, the bullpen will be in pretty good shape and could possibly absorb the loss of an Iglesias, Mayers, or Buttrey, if they were to go on the Injured List for an extended period of time. Additionally, it could allow the Halos front office to option down someone like Bard or Reyes to create more depth or even flat out replace a borderline relief candidate, with a preferred choice, on the 40-man roster. Considering how many relievers and Minor Leaguer’s were cut loose, due to financial impacts, finding another impact arm, at a reasonable price, should not be terribly difficult. Based on the Angels own payroll restraints, this will either be a trade, for an inexpensive, controllable, upside-type, or a simple less-costly Major League signing, not dissimilar to Alex Claudio. Certainly, Minasian could do more and perhaps he will when it is all said and done, particularly if we do not net a guy like Bauer or some other expensive starter, utilizing the old approach of spending on the bullpen if the market for starters is too overpriced to play in. In the end, the Angels bullpen was a bit above average in 2020 and, with the addition of Iglesias, it likely improved, despite the subtractions, so another addition now or later, at the Trade Deadline, could push the Halos bullpen into the Top 10 in baseball, potentially. Expect: It really feels like the Angels can make room for one more solid reliever by possibly trading one of their current relievers (maybe Bard or Peters) or even designating them for assignment, to create space on the 40-man roster. This addition could literally come from anywhere at this moment, through free agency (maybe Brad Hand or Archie Bradley, if the Angels lose out on Bauer, a mid-tier guy like Shane Greene, or perhaps a veteran like Darren O’Day or Mark Melancon) or trade (perhaps someone like Chris Stratton or Richard Rodriguez from the Pirates in a Joe Musgrove based trade or Rowan Wick, Hector Neris, or Scott Oberg, for example). Surely, Minasian and company could stand pat and add another arm closer to the Trade Deadline, but the opportunity to strike now, under a new regime that is remaking the team in their own image, may afford a more aggressive, fresh start to our relief corps, heading into 2021.
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.