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  1. 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.
  2. 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!