Friday, November 6, 2015

By Robert Cunningham, Staff Writer - 

Author’s Note - Player data displayed was pulled on September 25th and 26th, 2015. Additionally Grant Green was designated for assignment in late September which means, due to his ability to elect Minor League Free Agency, he has likely seen his last day in an Angels uniform.

The absence of Howie Kendrick was certainly noticed this year. His steady and generally reliable veteran production was missed.

Fortunately, for the Angels, Johnny Giavotella filled in admirably, especially down the stretch, and Andrew Heaney paid immediate dividends in the rotation so it hasn’t been the greater heartache that many thought it would be.

Internally the Angels don’t have one, single, high quality prospect or player to slot in at 2B in 2016.

Players include Johnny Giavotella, Grant Green, Alex Yarbrough, Sherman Johnson, Taylor Featherston, and possibly even Kaleb Cowart and Kyle Kubitza. Each has specific weaknesses and strengths for consideration at the keystone.

The Angels could certainly stand pat here and stick with Giavotella but it seems likely the Angels will reopen the competition in Spring Training for all of the players listed above unless they sign a free agent or trade for another second baseman.

To get a better idea of how these internal options compare let’s use our set of statistical benchmarks starting with ISO:

Here you begin to understand why the Angels stuck with Taylor Featherston the entire season as he has some solid power!

Of course spending an entire year riding the bench coupled with infrequent at-bats will make any player’s ISO dip so the 2015 spike downwards isn’t terribly concerning.

Kubitza and Green also have a consistent history of power, mainly from their ability to smack doubles and the occasional home run on a regular basis.

The remainder of the choices, Giavotella, Cowart, Yarbrough, and Johnson, are not as prolific producing extra base hits but in Kaleb’s case he’s had a rough ride in his Minor League career so there is still some possible upside.

Lack of league average contributions from Giavotella, in the power department, could ultimately be a reason why he might not be our starting 2B in 2016.

To further discriminate the elements of their respective games, let’s look at walk to strikeout ratios:

Here Giavotella, Johnson and, to a lesser degree, Kubitza have consistent histories of elevated walk to strikeout ratios. This may be the strongest discriminator and reason for why Giavotella should start again next season.

The remaining four are tightly packed lower on the graph although Kaleb has rebounded to his 2012 level in 2015. He’s shown a greater ability to take more walks over the last two years.

Finally to round out the discussion let’s look at wRC+:

Here Kubitza, Featherston, Johnson, and Green top the five year leaderboard. Overall Kubitza and Featherston show the most promise out of the group based on the three offensive categories discussed.

The bottom line is that this group of players has few offensive discriminators that seem to point to a real, definitive, potential option.

Fortunately most of them have above average impact in creating runs but who do you choose? Let’s look at the limited information we have on defensive scouting reports.

In terms of defense here are short summaries for each player. Clicking on their names will take you to links that discuss their defensive ability. Please note that not all of the sources are linked here and some of these links had very limited information so it is likely not 100% accurate:

1) Johnny Giavotella: Average range and hands and is able to turn an effective double play at the keystone.
2) Grant Green: Above average arm, fringe average to average range, and average glove at 2B.
3) Kyle Kubitza - Strong arm, average range, and improving glove at 3B. Range could be a concern if he moves to 2B.
4) Kaleb Cowart – Good range, first step, and hands with plus arm at 3B. Keystone would be more demanding but he has the tools to potentially stick.
5) Taylor Featherston – Above average range, arm, and glove at 2B.
6) Alex Yarbrough – Average range and consistent glove.
7) Sherman Johnson – Solid arm, instincts, and range at 2B. Consistently good glove at 3B too.

Out of that group of seven players, Featherston, Yarbrough, Johnson, and perhaps Cowart or Kubitza, if they moved there, would be at the top of a hypothetical keystone defensive list.

The organization asked Kubitza near the end of the season (see link above) to take fielding practice at 2B in part because of a potential 3B logjam but also because if he can be at least average defensively they would very likely consider starting him at the keystone in 2016.

Part of the reasoning is that the average wRC+ for 3B is about 98-99 while the average wRC+ for 2B is about 90-91. Moving to 2B and playing passable defense would make Kyle (or Cowart for that matter) a serious consideration for the starting 2B job. If for any reason he just doesn’t have the range, which is very possible, then he’s much more likely to be a trade chip in the offseason.

Basically, when you look at it, only Taylor has the clear defensive chops to be really good at the position and it seems like the Angels, depending on how this offseason plays out, would prefer having Featherston be the super utility guy now that Green is likely out of the fold.

If there were a battle royal in Spring Training you’d probably put your money on Featherston to earn the job but it really could be anyone’s to win.

Fortunately there are opportunities to upgrade here if the Angels want to spend the money or make a trade.

The free agent market includes names such as Ben Zobrist, Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy, and possibly Chase Utley if his option isn’t picked up.

Also the trade market has options that may include players such as Neil Walker, Rob Refsnyder, and Derek Dietrich.

To better understand their potential contributions lets apply the same set of offensive comparisons that we did to the Angels internal options starting with ISO. Please keep the Majors vs. Minors comparison in mind when examining this graph:

Here Dietrich’s calling card of power stands out. Zobrist, Utley, Walker and, to a lesser extent, Refsnyder are also standouts on the graph. If the Angels prefer power, above all else, any of the first four names makes a lot of sense.

It should also be noted that everyone on the graph except Refsnyder has proven this power at the Major League level. The only Angels candidate to do that is Giavotella so consistent, proven production is a big consideration here.

To further discriminate here is their BB/K ratios:

Zobrist is the clear leader in this category with Utley and Refsnyder showing glimpses of comparable numbers. Walker and Murphy are somewhere in between while Dietrich and Kendrick troll the bottom of the graph.

As we said above it’s important to note that Minor League numbers can skew a direct comparison of the graphs.

For instance, in the graph of the internal candidates further up, Giavotella’s 2013 and 2014 BB/K seasons are very strong. The problem is that he spent most of his playing time on the Royals AAA affiliate which is in the offensively-charged Pacific Coast League which will typically inflate any player’s numbers.

Finally let’s look at wRC+:

Clearly Ben Zobrist, Derek Dietrich, and Rob Refsnyder have the upper hand in this graph. The remaining players are all pretty tightly bound, however, so the rest of the group is a pick-your-pleasure adventure.

So the Angels could certainly stand pat here and stick with Johnny Giavotella but there is a real opportunity to improve here if the Angels want to invest the cash.

One free agent in particular stands out and that is Ben Zobrist.

Zobrist started off 2015 with a terrible first half. However he really picked it up in the second half and finished the regular season with approximately 2.1 WAR split primarily between 2B and LF.

Although Ben will be approaching age 35 at the start of next season he has shown a real ability to produce year after year. Other than this year he has consistently produced 5+ WAR over the last 4 years. He also has positional versatility which could prove quite useful for a team like the Angels.

More importantly aggressively going after and acquiring Zobrist would provide the Angels front office with flexibility in the rest of their offseason decision making. Ben can be plugged in at LF, 2B, or even 3B, maintaining their ability to pursue parallel free agent and trade discussions at all three positions if that is the course the front office takes.

It seems likely that in order to sign and acquire Ben, a contract in the 3-4 year and $55MM-80MM range is the probable outcome.

Victor Martinez signed a 4 year, $68MM contract and he was a year older than Zobrist will be when he signs this offseason so the precedent is there. Additionally Ben’s name has already been associated with multiple teams in Hot Stove discussions so he’s sure to be in demand.

The number of years may be too much for the Halos but a player like Zobrist, especially with his potential upside, despite his increasing age, will drive the market to its upper limit.

There is definite risk here but there is also a strong track record of performance that, when combined with the limited-years contract, helps to mitigate some of the danger.

Beyond Ben Zobrist it is pretty thin.

Howie Kendrick will likely be presented with a Qualifying Offer which he may or may not reject although it seems very likely he will explore free agency if the Dodgers don’t try to extend him.

Kendrick will cost a first round draft pick to acquire if the QO is attached making it very probable the Angels will pass on signing him.

However if the Angels have already lost their 1st round pick by signing another free agent with a Qualifying Offer attached it could open the door to additional free agent signings with QO’s attached because losing 2nd and 3rd round selections are not nearly as painful.

Daniel Murphy is so close to Giavotella in total production that it probably isn’t worth the small incremental value upgrade he would provide not to mention he might have a QO attached which would make him an even less appealing option to replace Giavotella.

Utley might be available if the Dodgers don’t want to keep him. If Chase does hit the free agent market he might be an attractive option on a short 2-3 year contract for, perhaps, $15MM-25MM.

Chase is very similar to Zobrist in that he could potentially play 2B, 3B, or LF, making him another attractive candidate to help maintain offseason flexibility in filling out the 25-man roster.

Utley, who will be 37 years old when the 2016 season starts, is only one year removed from a 4.4 WAR season so there is a risk-reward play there.

Otherwise the Angels will have to scour the trade market if Giavotella or one of the others isn’t the answer for them.

Keystone players such as Brian Dozier, Neil Walker, Derek Dietrich, Brandon Phillips, Chris Owings, Martin Prado, or Danny Espinosa could potentially be available in the right deal.

Out of that group Walker is probably the most obtainable candidate and although his defense is average at best his offensive contributions would be worth having on the 2016 Angels squad. The downside with Neil is that he’s in his last year of team control and projects to make about $10MM in 2016.

Additionally the Angels would have to replace Walker’s production next year and his acquisition price might be too high for the Angels taste. Neil would likely cost an acquiring team a little less than what Kendrick brought back in value, i.e. a quality, mid-tier prospect.

Dietrich is also a possibility but the Angels would need to have a platoon partner for him as his splits versus LHP aren’t good. The Marlins were rumored to be shopping him at the trade deadline in 2015 and he can play 2B, 3B, LF, and 1B with significant pop in his bat. Derek has four years of team control remaining and would require a higher quality prospect back in any potential trade.

The Marlins might make Prado available too and he’d be a defensive boost at the keystone but just like Walker he only has one year of team control remaining. Martin is affordable though at $5MM so he’s sure to attract interest if Miami wants to move him. Martin might bring back a young controllable relief prospect if the Marlins move him.

Finally prospects such as Arismendy Alcantara (Cubs AAA prospect), Alex Blandino (Reds AA prospect), Jorge Polanco (Twins AAA), Levi Michael (Twins AA), or Dean Anna (Cardinals AAA prospect) might be possibilities.

Educated Guess – If the Angels decide to spend significant money this offseason this is one potential spot where they’ll do it, going hard after Ben Zobrist by offering a 4 year contract in the $70MM-80MM range. Zobrist is a great fit at three positions of need and is only one year removed from a 5.5 WAR season.

More importantly there is no Qualifying Offer attached, he provides flexibility for how the Angels approach their offseason, he is above average both offensively and defensively, and he will improve the team in the near term during Trout’s controllable years.

It is possible the Angels sign Zobrist to play LF or 3B and let Giavotella continue at 2B or even battle it out for the starting job in Spring Training. However this scenario seems less likely in my opinion.

Outside possibilities, if Zobrist signs elsewhere, include Chase Utley, if his option is bought out, Derek Dietrich, Martin Prado, and Neil Walker.

Author’s Choice – The Angels will sign Ben Zobrist on a 4 year, $75MM contract with a Team Option for an additional $10MM. He will be in high demand this offseason and the aggressive contract with the Team Option will help put the offer over the top to convince him to sign with us.

In the next section we’ll discuss the Shortstop situation.
Love to hear what you think!

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