By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Feature Writer
The way I see it, the hitting positions can be categorized thus in terms of probable production relative to positional league average:
Good to very good: None
Average to above average: 1B, RF, DH
Below average to poor: C, 2B, SS, 3B, LF
Obviously five below average hitters does not a championship team make, especially when there's really only one hitting star on the team. So the biggest task for Eppler is improving the offense. Of the nine positions, five seem pretty set in stone: Trout in CF, Calhoun in RF (or LF if Heyward is signing), Simmons at SS, Pujols at 1B and Cron at DH. That leaves four positions for possible upgrade: C, 2B, 3B, and LF.
Given Simmons at SS, the Angels will want to improve at least two of the four other weak lineup spots - as they really can't go with more than one-third of their lineup being below average (and perhaps not even that). In other words, my sense is that they need to, and will, improve at least two of those four spots through free agency or possibly trade (Santiago, Shoemaker). Let's take a look at them, position by position.
In-house Options: Carlos Perez, Jett Bandy
Free Agents: Dioner Navarro, Geovany Soto, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
While there aren't any big name free agents now that Matt Wieters accepted his qualifying offer, Soto, Navarro, and Salty are all decent platoon options and quite similar: solid both with the bat and glove. While Perez/Bandy is a decent platoon, both are also relatively unproven. I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the these three brought in to platoon with Perez, with Bandy providing depth in AAA.
In-house Options: Johnny Giavotella, Taylor Featherston
Free Agents: Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson, etc
Featherston is virtually useless, a bust as a Rule V protected pick last year. He'll be in AAA to provide depth. Gio is a decent if slightly below average hitter, but a terrible defender. The Angels might give him another shot as it isn't the worst thing in the world for him to be the starter on Opening Day, but there are some solid options in free agency. Zobrist is the best option but old. Murphy and Kendrick are pretty similar.
In-house Options: Kaleb Cowart, Kyle Kubitza
Free Agents: David Freese, Nobuhiro Matsuda
Cowart and Kubitza are probably seen as more risky than they actually are, especially Kubitza who seems capable of similar production to David Freese at league minimum. Cowart is the better defender and comes with a higher ceiling, but a much lower floor. Freese will probably require three years which seems like a bad idea. Matsuda is an interesting possibility - he hit .287/.357/.533 with 35 HR last year...in Japan. Still, he could be a plus hitter in the majors. Not sure about his defense.
In-house Options: Kyle Kubitza
Free Agents: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Denard Span, Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra, Nori Aoki
The outfield is the most likely to see an upgrade if only because they pretty much have to, plus there are the most free agent options. Want a star? Take your pick of four options. Want a solid major league regular? You've got half a dozen or so options. It isn't a matter if, but who.
C seems the least likely to upgrade, as the Angels have a solid tandem in Perez/Bandy and a nice prospect a couple years away in Ward. That said, one of Soto, Salty, or Navarro could double as the occasional DH, especially if Pujols is out for considerable time. LF is most likely to be upgraded - actually, it is definitely going to be upgraded as the Angels simply have no options there. 3B is a similar situation as C although with the two players even less proven and the fact that more offense is generation expected from the hot corner; but it also has more offensive upside as Cowart and Kubitza could both be at least league average as soon as 2016. 2B might be the least likely to be upgraded because another year of Gio is, if not exciting, at least somewhat palatable and with a solid floor of mediocrity.
My prediction is that the Angels go big on an outfielder, one of the Big Three. They'll also go pretty big at 2B with either Kendrick or Murphy (Zobrist will be too expensive). Alternately they might try to trade one or both of Santiago and Shoemaker to get a second baseman, although I have no idea who. They will probably sign a catcher and another infielder, but I think they'll give the young guys a chance at 3B and C.
Regardless of how exactly the lineup is improved, I think when all is said and done we'll see the first chart transformed into something like this:
Good to Very Good: OF
Average to above average: 1B, 2B, OF, DH
Below average: SS, 3B, C
So that's a little better. Basically it transformers one of the below average slots to good/very good, and one to average plus. If one of Cowart and Kubitza can hold their own, and if Bandy can be a plus bat, then the Angels will have a solidly improved lineup. Not great, but a lot better than last year.