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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 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.
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!
By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer For the Angels starting rotation, 2019 was not a kind year. Unfortunately, the Halos starters were last out of all 30 MLB teams in total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with a measly 3.3 WAR. Other peripheral indicators support the poor performance. For reference, the Nationals led all of baseball with a total 21.4 WAR. So what do the Angels do to fix this situation? For reference, the table below shows a leader board of qualified starters, sorted by Wins Above Replacement on a per G (WAR/G) basis, over the last three seasons: If Moreno is serious about increasing payroll and making this team more competitive, as the hiring of Joe Maddon suggests and by his very own words, the Angels will need to invest a majority of their off-season payroll into starting pitching. It is the general consensus of the baseball community that the Angels will be in, heavily, on free agent ace Gerrit Cole or possibly Stephen Strasburg. Not only is Gerrit the agreed-upon available top starter, he throws 95+ mph heat, has an arsenal of wicked off-speed pitches, and took his team deep into the post-season this year. Strasburg helped carry his Nationals to a World Championship over Cole's Astros. Both are high-caliber options. Cole will cost a lot of money, likely something on the order of 30M+ average annual value (AAV) and $230M+ in total salary commitment over, probably, a 7-8 year deal. Strasburg will probably require a 5-6 year, $150M-$180M ($30M AAV) deal to secure his services. Either of these outlays will result in the Angels exceeding last years starting payroll number, thus the clear need for Arte to open the wallet if the team truly wants to contend in 2020. In the Finances article of the Primer Series we argued for a payroll increase to make significant improvements. The current starting point is approximately $162M for 2020 Club Payroll and $151M in Actual Club Payroll (AAV) and, in order to make big moves with Simmons and Cozart still on the books, Moreno will be forced to approach or, more remotely, exceed the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold barring an unexpected trade of Andrelton or Zack. Thus, if the club can acquire one or more game-changing stars (and it should be stressed that Arte would only exceed the CBT threshold for a high-end player), the author believes Moreno could possibly approach or exceed the CBT threshold of $208M and potentially go as high as the 1st Surcharge threshold of $228M, where the penalty is minimal (20% tax on the difference between AAV and the threshold of $208M, so no more than a $4M surcharge tax fee for 2020). Again, to reemphasize, this would only happen if Arte allows it and the player or players in question are first-rate acquisitions, so this is a low probability outcome that should be discussed but not expected. As a large market team the Angels have not significantly played in the payroll clouds (Luxury Tax) before, so this would be a complete break from previous seasons despite the fact that doing so now, in the new era of Mike Trout, could pay dividends across the board, particularly with the available slate of quality free agents this year and a complete dearth of them in next years market. In the end, though, Moreno has consistently authorized high payrolls but, rather than believing in the dream scenario, Angels fans should temper their expectations that the Opening Day payroll will exceed $208M and in all probability will be no more than $190M-$195M, give or take. It is the latter we will focus more on in this article and the remainder of the Primer Series. So, as MLBTradeRumors.com discussed, the Angels are likely to acquire a free agent front-of-the-rotation starter such as the aforementioned Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. For the purposes of this article, the author is going to assume that the Angels acquire one of them at $35M or $30M Average Annual Value (AAV) for Cole and Strasburg, respectively. Assuming a back-loaded contract ($20M-$25M in 2020), this puts the Angels 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll (AAV) at $182M-$187M and $181M-$186M AAV respectively, without any other transactions taking place to start 2020. Grabbing a top-shelf starter to compliment Ohtani and lead this rotation is a must-have in the author's opinion. A 1-2 punch at the top will help win more games and increase overall team confidence that, on any given start, the Top 2 starters will get the job done. Based on previous seasons, the Angels would be really smart to create solid depth here. Bringing in 2-3 starters from free agency and/or trade will allow Eppler and Maddon to build not only a strong rotation but also a very deep pitching bench. Depth has been a crippling issue over the last handful of years and it is high time the Angels address it directly with the application of a payroll increase and/or creative trades to add more at the top and in the middle of the rotation and supplement and perhaps even trade (no more than 1-2 starters) off of the back-end supply they currently have. Andrew Heaney, coming off a sterling peripherals season (28.9% K% rate, which is approaching elite-level), will make a fine #3 type behind a Top 2 set-up. Adding another free agent or trade acquisition such as Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jon Gray, Dylan Bundy, or Robbie Ray, would create a very competitive Top 4 and the Angels could easily round out that starting five with an in-house candidate such as Griffin Canning, Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez, or Patrick Sandoval for example. Rumors have placed Wheeler's projected salary at 5 years, $100M ($20M AAV). This seems high because when you look at a recent comparable, Nathan Eovaldi, Zack is a year older and enters his free agent year with a 3.96 ERA versus Nathan's walk-year where he had a more pristine 3.33 ERA and signed a 4-year, $68M ($17M AAV) contract. ERA certainly isn't an insightful tool but results matter and Wheeler's fatigue near the end of the season may add a touch of doubt to his market. However, in terms of velocity, Wheeler throws about as hard as Cole and Nathan and is only about one year older, albeit with his Tommy John Surgery (2015) in the rear-view mirror. Gerrit is likely to pull in a 7-year deal, so would teams be willing to throw in a 6th year for Zack to bring the offer to nine figures? Seems really unlikely but there is a broad market for his services. All that being said, Eovaldi may have taken a slight discount to go to the Red Sox, and this market appears to be highly competitive, but it appears that Wheeler will get that fifth, or maybe even sixth, year and climb to $100M or more. The author expects Zack to pull in a 5-year deal worth anywhere from $90M-$100M ($18M-$20M AAV) which may, if Arte spends above the tax threshold, be a plausible acquisition behind Cole/Strasburg. If a sixth year is attached, it could possibly inch over $100M (think 6 years, $102M, $17M AAV for example). Realistically, the other mid-tier free agent starters like Bumgarner, Ryu, and Hamels will probably command contracts with an AAV range of $15M-$18M per year, give or take. Including Wheeler, all four of them may be priced out of the Angels budget simply because a Cole or Strasburg acquisition automatically puts the Angels, as mentioned above, in the $181M-$187M range. Adding one of the above, would vault next year's payroll into the $195M-$210M realm and Moreno may not be willing to stomach the ticket price. It may be more practical for the Angels to snag one of Cole or Strasburg and then trade for a lower-salaried front or mid-tier starter and then shop in the lower-end of free agency or trade for a third back-end piece. If the Angels go this route, available trade targets might include names like Jon Gray, Jake Odorizzi (in trade, now that he accepted the Qualifying Offer, although this is unlikely), Dylan Bundy, Jose Quintana, Danny Duffy, Jose Urena, Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, Jakob Junis, Robbie Ray, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Archer, and Joe Musgrove, among many others. On the free agency side, names like Homer Bailey (93 mph FB), Andrew Cashner (94 mph FB), Rich Hill (Approximate 21% K%-BB% rate over last three years on limited innings pitched each of those seasons), Dallas Keuchel (Career 58.9% GB% rate), Matt Moore (touched 94 mph in 10 IP before knee surgery cut his 2019 season short), Martin Perez (50% GB% rate and 94 mph FB), Michael Pineda (18.7% K%-BB% rate but serving Performance-Enhancing Drug Suspension to start the 2020 season), Tanner Roark (14.8% K%-BB% rate), Michael Wacha (93 mph FB), Alex Wood (Career 49% GB% rate), Gabriel Ynoa (93.5 mph FB), and/or Brett Anderson (56.8% GB% rate) might have some level of appeal, particularly in terms of salary fit. So, as an example, say the Angels sign one of Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg and then trade for a lower-salaried, controllable starter like Jon Gray or Dylan Bundy (each will make approximately $5.5M-$6M in arbitration for 2020) and then sign someone like Homer Bailey, Matt Moore, Rich Hill, or Alex Wood in the $5M-$10M range on a one to three year deal. This would push 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll up toward the $200M mark which is high but still below the CBT threshold of $208M. The Angels would still have room for one or two low-level moves (such as an inexpensive catcher for example) but this would allow the team to spend significantly (as Moreno indicated was possible) while still sliding under the Luxury Tax at least up until the Trade Deadline where more information will be available to determine if the Angels should go further in improving the 2020 squad for a playoff push (which may then result in an overage over the CBT threshold). Rebuilding the rotation this off-season, by acquiring an ace, will set the stage for a more stable starting five, along with corresponding quality depth, for a long time to come. Strategically it will allow the Halos to enter a new window of contention immediately. Prioritizing starting pitcher additions for 2020 and beyond is the greatest need Eppler must address and, in fact, may be the only area he seriously deals with based on how far Moreno extends the payroll leash. Likely Outcome: Angels will sign one of Cole or Strasburg and then trade for a mid-tier type such as Gray, Bundy, Ray, or Boyd. From there they may sign a third starter such as Moore, Pineda, or Bailey but that will be dependent on payroll space. If three starters are acquired, this will allow the Angels to trade off one, or maybe two, of their back-end starters in trade with the likely candidates being Barria, Sandoval, or Suarez. The remainder of those candidates, not traded, would line up with the rest (Canning, Madero, Peters, et. al.) as quality rotation depth in the Minors and that depth does not even consider high Minor League players not on the 40-man roster like Chris Rodriguez, for instance. Hypothetically, if the Angels miss out on one of the Big 2, they can go to the backup plan of signing two of the remaining Tier 2 starters such as Wheeler, Bumgarner, Hamels, or Ryu and still trade for a mid-tier type as mentioned above. That won't be quite as strong but it will still improve the rotation considerably. Author's Choice: Gerrit Cole is a must have signing from my perspective. Nothing is promised in the off-season but Cole strikes me as a similar comparable to Scherzer and speculatively it feels like Gerrit will provide a lot of value over his next contract. Additionally, if Moreno extends the payroll leash, signing Zack Wheeler would be a huge plus, too. Beyond that, trading for one of Jon Gray, Matt Boyd and Robbie Ray would be a solid acquisition. Signing Matt Moore has some dangers but his velocity was great before his injury so that is a gamble I would like to see the Angels take but Pineda, Hill, or Bailey (in that order) would be perfectly fine outcomes as a third pickup, if wanted and/or needed. Assuming the Angels acquire three starters as speculated at, above, I would like to see a trade executed involving one (or possibly two) of Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez, or Patrick Sandoval (in that order, probably) as shown in the two independent examples below: Angels send MIF Zack Cozart, SP Jaime Barria, 3B/1B Matt Thaiss, 2B/OF Jahmai Jones, OF Orlando Martinez, and OF D'Shawn Knowles to the Orioles in exchange for 1B/COF Trey Mancini and LHR Tanner Scott Why? The Orioles are in a full rebuild and need to hoard prospects and players with multiple years of team control. By taking on all of Cozart's 2020 salary they get not only the veteran shortstop they are looking for, they also obtain a young starting pitcher in Barria, to add to their rotation with 5 years of team control. In addition they get Thaiss who can play the infield corners, a high quality prospect in Jones, and two upside OF prospects in Knowles and Martinez. Buying prospects through a salary dump is rare, but not unprecedented, as seen here and here. For the Angels, in this particular season with the situation our payroll is in, the ability to shave Zack's salary, based on his negative surplus value, would be a huge help in navigating this off-season, if Eppler can manage it. Additionally, a move like this, would give the Halos a tested, and possible breakout, bat in Mancini (his 2019 peripherals point to significant improvement) who can play first base and the corner outfield positions in a pinch for at least 2020 and possibly the succeeding two seasons based on how high his arbitration cost rises. Acquiring Trey lowers total team production risk, by allowing Walsh to develop further (and act as quality depth at 1B) in the Minors, while adding another power option to the lineup behind Trout. Finally it would also give the Angels five controllable seasons of a powerful lefty bullpen arm in Scott who would improve the bullpen's potential to close out games in the later innings of a game. Angels trade LHP Jose Suarez, OF Trent Deveaux, and RHP Cooper Criswell in exchange for LF/1B Kyle Schwarber Why? The Cubs reportedly need to trim payroll and Schwarber represents a potential $8M savings that can be replaced internally by Bryant or Happ for example. Certainly Chicago would miss his bat in the lineup but by all accounts cutting dollars is important for them this off-season. It allows the Cubs to bring in one Major League ready young, controllable left-handed starter, a prospect outfielder with upside and another right-handed pitching prospect, all while shaving the aforementioned salary and giving up the final two years of arbitration control over Kyle. For the Angels it would bring in a left-handed power bat (more so versus RHP) they can place at 1B and serve as a depth option for Upton in LF. Assuming Schwarber does well they could retain him for one more season in 2021 or potentially extend him if that is Eppler's desire. Conclusion: The Angels have no choice but to take two routes here in the author's opinion - Sign or trade for two starters, one of which is an ace-level pitcher like Cole and Strasburg, with the other a mid-tier type like Gray, Ray, or Boyd, or Sign or trade for three starters, two of which are upper (like Cole or Strasburg) or mid-tier (like Wheeler, Archer, Bumgarner, Gray, Ray, or Ryu) types and one additional mid-tier or lower-tier guy. In the first scenario the Halos can get by with a rotation of, for example, Strasburg, Ohtani, Heaney, Boyd, and Canning. The second scenario might be a rotation of Ohtani, Wheeler, Heaney, Ray, and Pineda, which isn't as strong at the former but is still a greatly improved starting five. Both options would improve bench depth. As fans we work with really imperfect information regarding the free agent and trade markets. If Eppler receives real interest in some of his back-end starters (Barria, Sandoval, Suarez, et. al.) the Angels would probably best be served by acquiring three starters and then trading one off for other areas of need, otherwise two rotation pieces, one an ace, is the most likely path. The former, spending more for three starters, will allow the Angels to more effectively open additional doors to address other concerns and will build natural depth all around the diamond (through the aforementioned trades). Again everything will rest on how much of the proverbial yacht fuel Moreno is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of these targets. If he does not commit to significant spending, Arte may find himself setting sail on the 2020 season rather than pulling into the playoffs port for the first time in a long while. If the rumors of Texas' interest in Anthony Rendon are true, the A.L. West is about to get really competitive across the board, so the Angels need to position themselves as a contender in the Division by taking an aggressive posture now. This off-season all eyes are on the moves Eppler makes for the starting rotation, as it is the crux of our success in 2020.