Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By Robert Cunningham, Staff Writer - 

There are a handful of prospective paths that Billy Eppler and the Angels can take during the offseason as they prepare for 2017.

The first is the minimalist route where the team makes small, affordable value moves in free agency or trade that enhance the team and conserves payroll but may not move the needle excessively in terms of impacting their odds of winning the Division.

A case could be made that if the Angels keep most of their offense intact next year combined with elevated performances from Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, and the rest of the rotation along with certain bullpen pieces making advanced strides that the Angels might have a chance of effectively competing. Might being the key word here.

If the Angels do decide to go that route expect them to make moves not dissimilar from last year where they sign one or more lower tier free agents or execute one or more moderate trades to fill out the 40-man roster.

Players like Geovany Soto, C.J. Wilson, Wade Miley, Brett Anderson, Santiago Casilla, Brandon Guyer, Brad Ziegler, Tony Watson, Eric O’Flaherty, or Chase Utley could be signed to short one or two year deals or, in the case of the Angels targeting a player in trade, have only one or two years remaining on their existing contracts. These possible additions could help bridge the gap to some of the prospects coming up in the Angels Minor League farm system or simply provide a temporary solution to a roster problem.

This certainly isn’t the sexiest option but it is the one with the least amount of financial and asset risk. The signings of Andrew Bailey (1 year, $1MM) and Jesse Chavez (1 year, $5.75MM plus $2.5M in potential incentives) are examples of this strategic approach.

The advantage to this is that you do not tie up a lot of long-term payroll, giving the Angels the freedom to approach the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 free agent classes with more aggression or even try to extend Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun for instance. Also the Angels will be able to enter the Minor League draft with all of their draft rounds intact which helps build for the future.

The disadvantage to this minimalist course of action is that you improve the team marginally, making a repeat of 2016 more probable if key members of the team don’t step up or develop as expected. It will require a lot of things to go “just right” and that, as Angels fans witnessed in 2016, seems dicey.

Alternatively, the second route the Halos can take is one where they spend some money on free agents but not those that have a draft pick loss attached due to a Qualifying Offer. This route could, of course, also include one or more mid-level trades where we take on cash for a higher quality player with one or two years left on their contract or even a long-term asset with a more payroll friendly deal.

Free agents that do not have a Qualifying Offer attached include names like Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon, Rich Hill, Ivan Nova, Carlos Beltran, Steve Pearce, and a host of other minor role players in free agency.

Here the Angels could potentially improve the rotation depth and length by going after Hill or Nova, overall bullpen quality by going after Chapman or Melancon, and the power of the offense by going after Pearce for instance.

There are a wide variety of rumored trade candidates on the market as well including names like Tyson Ross, Wade Davis, Drew Smyly, Jaime Garcia, Derek Dietrich, Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, Brian Dozier, Jarrod Dyson, Cesar Hernandez, Todd Frazier, Adam Eaton, Brett Gardner, Clay Buchholz, and Gio Gonzalez among others.

Most of those names, above, have only one more year of team control whether it is through a team option or arbitration control. Others like Smyly, Gardner, Dietrich, Wong, and Eaton are under longer team control and have had their names floated out as trade candidates over the last year.

This strategic option is a little more palatable as it does improve the team significantly in one or more areas and can provide depth at certain positions that need it. It could also enable Eppler to make a trade, say if, for instance, he signed Chapman and traded Street, to reduce payroll, and fill another area of need or add to the farm system. The Cameron Maybin trade (1 year, $9MM) falls under the umbrella of this middle-of-the-road strategic approach.

The advantage here is that you potentially improve the 2017 squad and their chances of contention without compromising next year’s Minor League draft allowing the Angels to retain all of their picks.

Of course the disadvantage is that you will be spending more money because someone like Chapman will command $15MM-20MM per year in free agency and/or you continue to deplete an already barren farm system to make one or more trades.

Eppler, if he signs or trades for one or more middle-tier players will move the needle further towards contention but potentially at a pretty steep price if the Angels target a big-ticket name.

Finally the third option revolves around the Angels spending money to sign free agents including ones that have a Qualifying Offer and draft pick loss attached or they make a major trade for an impact player utilizing what is left of their financial muscle (which could require them to breach the CBT) and any expendable assets at both the Major League and Minor League levels.

The Angels secured the 10th round protected draft pick for next year’s Minor League draft which might make signing a free agent with a Qualifying Offer attached a bit more palatable as the Angels would only lose their 2nd round pick (and 3rd and 4th, etc. for each subsequent free agent signed that has a Qualifying Offer attached).

Here the Angels could sign one or more of the free agents with a draft pick loss attached which include Jose Bautista, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Kenley Jansen, Edwin Encarnacion, and Dexter Fowler. Based on Eppler’s quick moves to start the offseason, the only likely players, above, that the Angels would have any remaining interest in would be Ian Desmond and Kenley Jansen.

The continuing disadvantage here is that signing free agents costs money. Players like Cespedes, Desmond, Jansen, and Encarnacion will not come cheap especially if there is a high market demand for a particular player. In all likelihood the Angels can probably, at best, only afford to purchase one of them with the approximately $21.1MM currently available in free payroll (more if the CBT threshold rises beyond the current $189MM). That $21MM is probably not enough for one of the big bats.

Of course the advantage is that the Angels fill one or more areas of need by spending cash without having to sacrifice farm assets other than a 2017 2nd round draft pick (and perhaps a 3rd, etc.). Certainly giving up one or more picks is painful but the Angels have to weigh that versus the ability to potentially improve the team.

Additionally if the Angels manage to pull off a major trade for a big name player it would almost certainly eat up most if not all of our remaining payroll space plus it would very likely cost us Major League players and the remaining vestiges of our farm system. The advantage here is that we do not sacrifice a draft pick but we do sacrifice team cash and more established, well-known, assets.

This scenario really only makes sense if the Angels feel that one or more of the free agents with Qualifying Offers is more desirable than our internal options and other less expensive targets or the assets we are giving up in a trade are non-critical to our long term farm system recovery.

Taking this, or the middle-of-the-road route, might allow Eppler greater luxury to take advantage of the free agent and trade markets at specific positions by signing one or more free agents where the Angels do have depth, or at least a tradable asset, and then move that depth/asset for help in another area of need or for prospects.

Additionally “going big” must be viewed through the lens of improving the team short term versus long term. Can the team afford to lose one or more of their best prospects like Taylor Ward, Grayson Long, or Jahmai Jones in order to strengthen the team now or in the near future? This is a problematic question when you are facing the next four years of Mike Trout’s control.

Clearly the Angels will have to weigh the potential changes of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement combined with the fact they have a protected 10th round draft pick, and where they sit in relation to their AL West competition in order to determine the best course of action.

If the Qualifying Offer is eliminated entirely, under the new CBA, it may push some of the free agents with Qualifying Offers attached to accept the offer in order to sign long-term deals next offseason where they could potentially earn more money in free agency.

Alternatively the Qualifying Offer might be modified in other ways that could impact the free agent market in an unforeseen manner so this offseason could prove to be an interesting one, from a procedural standpoint, despite the lack of high-end talent.

Ultimately Billy Eppler has clearly stated that the team will be competitive in 2017 and there is no reason to doubt him.

However in order to really do that the Angels will, realistically, have to spend some money because the projected roster of players, while above average, will probably not get the team to the Promised Land.

Additionally the farm system is pretty bare making trades more difficult to execute and there are simply too many significant holes in the rotation, bullpen, at 2B, and overall team depth is still weak.

Team depth is, in part, why the Angels failed to make the postseason in 2016. If you do not have capable reserves, when a player gets injured, you cannot maintain and sustain continued success on the field.

The Angels did take steps over this last year to acquire and build depth particularly in the bullpen. A lot of these waiver claims will not pan out but if one or two of them stick they could become valuable role players moving forward.

Billy Eppler has a goal and plan for this team. Building team depth is just one aspect. He has crafted a strategy and is attempting to execute on it but that takes time to come to fruition and can take years to accomplish in full.

This strategy appears to be based on the long revered adage of pitching and defense.

If you look at the eight teams that made the playoffs this year nearly all of them had strong starting rotations (and bullpens) backed up by an above average defensive unit.

Acquiring Andrelton Simmons was not an accident. It was a premeditated trade towards the strategic goal of building a ground ball oriented pitching staff because the way you maximize defensive assets is by making sure you get the ball hit to them as much as possible.

This is why Eppler targeted Alex Meyer in the Hector Santiago trade. He not only brought in a back-end starter in Nolasco, he acquired Meyer who has a long Minor League history as a ground ball artist who has a heavy fastball with downward plane and a wipeout slider that not only misses bats but creates poor contact. Whether he starts is a different matter but the principle is the same in the rotation and in the bullpen.

It is also why Eppler took fliers on Lincecum and Chacin, in 2016, because they have average or above career ground ball rates against right-handed hitters (both 46%). Garrett Richards also has a high career ground ball rate (nearly 50% overall). Skaggs is at a career 46% GB% versus right-handed hitters. Even Nolasco over the last two seasons has run an approximate 46% GB% versus right-handed hitters.

This strategy is a departure from Dipoto who attempted to build a fly ball heavy staff to utilize the excellent outfield defense led by Trout and the large confines of Angels stadium. In principle it wasn’t a bad idea because fly ball pitchers were in greater supply at that time but the execution fell short at times (i.e. the Blanton era).

Realistically Eppler’s approach seems more fundamentally sound as ground balls lead to more singles and doubles but balls in the air lead to more home runs. Ground ball heavy pitching staff’s help to limit big innings but they do give up incrementally more runs if an opposing team can string together hits.

In actual practice it is the pitchers that can balance both that tend to do the best. Notably ground ball pitchers do tend to have higher HR/FB% primarily because they don’t induce many infield pop ups so when a ground ball pitcher does miss they tend to miss big.

Billy’s addition of an elite defensive player like Simmons actually makes this ground ball strategy a lot more valuable. It would not be surprising to see Eppler add a good defensive second baseman this season and then a good defensive third baseman now or next season to continue building upon his pitching and defense-oriented vision for the team.

In terms of starting pitching Billy is limited in 2017 by injuries to Heaney and Tropeano but there is also hope that Richards will be healthy and effective, Shoemaker will continue his excellence from last year, and Skaggs will rise up to his former prospect pedigree.

Adding one more veteran starter makes a lot of sense to add length and depth to the starting staff. After next year, the 2018 rotation should be, in theory, quite strong and deep with the return of Andrew and Nick along with the continued development of our Minor League farm system so if Billy does add another starter for 2017, beyond the Chavez deal, it should be on a short one year deal barring a trade of one of our current starters.

The bullpen is another area of concern as Huston Street struggled in the second half of 2016. However the bright spot was young Cam Bedrosian who looks primed to be the team’s go-to high leverage reliever in the very near future.

There are other names like Guerra, Alvarez, Morin, Ege, Mahle, Parker, Ramirez, Tolliver, Paredes, Middleton, Valdez, and Yates that could take a step forward which would go a long way towards shutting down opposing lineups. Also, recently, the Angels signed Andrew Bailey after seeing him in action near the end of the season. He will provide a veteran presence and has potential upside for the team.

Ultimately it may be best for Eppler to acquire another quality reliever in free agency or trade because there appears to be too much potential variability in performance with the current crop of pitchers. A more established veteran, just like with the rotation, could help provide greater stability in the mid and late innings.

Offensively Billy needs to make sure that the team maintains or improves on its 9th ranked wRC+ of 100 in 2016. It seems possible that Eppler can do that because the entire first half of his lineup can return in 2017. The recent addition of Maybin only enhances that effort providing another leadoff type of hitter with some speed on the bases.

It really boils down to mitigating the loss of Soto’s bat and finding a competent league average offensive, and above average defensive, answer at 2B, so this does not appear to be a monumental task in principle but market availability will dictate how difficult it will be to execute.

This offseason, based on the moves executed so far, will likely be one where Eppler uses some ingenuity to bring in one or two long term solutions combined with a variety of medium to high risk, short term, upside signings or trades that will temporarily fill holes, make the team competitive, and provide greater depth.

Notably by bringing in short term contracts Eppler can, if the team is out of contention next year, trade some or all of them at the deadline for players or prospects with long term control and value.

It seems unlikely that the Angels will splurge on a big name acquisition unless management can really monitor the budget and/or find the right deal or trade partner. This makes the middle-of-the-road and minimalist approaches discussed above the far more likely routes the team will take to preserve their draft picks and minimize the damage any trades have on what is left of their farm system.

Using the “two birds, one stone” approach as he did in the Santiago for Nolasco/Meyer trade is one way to accumulate serviceable players for the 2017 team while simultaneously building for the future. He will need to continue thinking “outside the box” to improve the team. 

In the meantime he is left with the budget and players that are available to him as he tries to build his image to surround the Millville Meteor with a core group of players that can pitch, field, and hit their way to victory.

By simply having Mike Trout the Angels have the foundation to win the Division in any season but there are 39 additional 40-man roster spots that need to compliment and support his Hall of Fame ability if the Angels want to go all the way.

In the next few sections we will examine the core of the team, each position, and any likely internal, trade, and free agent opportunities that we have or the market might present.

Love to hear what you think!
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