Wednesday, November 30, 2016

By Robert Cunningham, Senior Columnist - 

Author’s Note: If you missed the first three installments you can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

A major component of the Angels failure in 2016 was the starting rotation and it is here that we start our examination of the 40-man roster because it will be the crux of their success or failure in 2017.

In order to comprehend the issue we first need to discuss who is available and who is not and the potential problem involving innings limits for some of those pitchers.

Below is a current list of starting pitchers that project to be available to start in 2017:

Garrett Richards
Matt Shoemaker
Tyler Skaggs
Alex Meyer
Ricky Nolasco
Jesse Chavez 
Daniel Wright

Also, the Angels have the following Minor League farm system pitchers that could potentially be called upon to start the season, fill in as depth or provide emergency backup if needed:

Nate Smith
Troy Scribner
Christopher O’Grady
Chris Jones
Blayne Weller
Manny Banuelos
Alex Blackford
Tyler Carpenter
Jose Molina
Jordan Kipper
Kyle Mcgowin
Vicente Campos

To be clear many of these names are at the bottom of the Major League depth chart, such as Carpenter and Molina for instance. They will only be called up if the team suffers significant multiple injuries at one time.

Eppler recognized the depth problem when he first came aboard and several players, including relievers, were tried out as starters or were given aggressive assignments in 2016. If even one of these converted guy’s pans out in the role it will be a plus for the team next year.

Finally the following pitchers could hypothetically be converted back to starters if Billy Eppler and Mike Scioscia believe that they can legitimately make the change and contribute in 2017:

Jose Alvarez
J.C. Ramirez
Deolis Guerra

Alvarez, Ramirez, and Guerra have previous experience starting games and Jeff Fletcher recently reported that Ramirez will be tried out as a starter in Spring Training.

In theory the three lists above comprise a reasonable depth chart for the Halos. There is enough upside in that group that it could break the Top 10 in total overall performance but there is also enough downside risk to make a repeat of 2016 a possibility.

Part of that potential large variability in performance will be whether or not the Angels pitching staff can soak up enough quality innings over the course of the season.

Garrett Richards pitched a mere 34.2 innings in 2016 whereas the year before he pitched 212.1 innings. Can he realistically pitch a full season especially when you consider his UCL injury? It seems likely that if the team is doing well they might have to give him some rest down the stretch to mitigate the possibility of reinjuring his UCL. It is a legitimate concern.

Tyler Skaggs, who missed all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John Surgery, only pitched a total of 89 innings in 2016. In practice most teams impose an innings limit, year to year, of no more than a 30%-50% over the previous year. Skaggs’ situation might be an exception because he took the full recovery time recommended for TJS patients so this may or may not be an issue.

Alex Meyer pitched 94.2 innings in 2015 and, because of his shoulder injury, 54.1 innings in 2016. The maximum he ever reached was 130.1 in 2014. Truthfully this brings into question whether or not he could pitch a full season if he were to make the team out of Spring Training.

This fact alone may push him into a bullpen role but the team’s medical staff and trainers know more than a layperson does. There is a possibility that he begins the season as a starter in the Majors or the Minors and then moves to a bullpen role to manage his total innings pitched.

When you look at the rest of the potential starters it seems clear that Shoemaker, Nolasco, Chavez, and Wright could shoulder significant innings. On the farm Smith, Scribner and Jones seem like the most likely trio to be called up in the unlikely event a starter goes down long term.

Billy Eppler very likely wants to keep Nate Smith, Alex Meyer, Vicente Campos, and Daniel Wright’s rookie eligibility intact to start 2017. Starting their MLB time clocks would be less than ideal but based on how the offseason goes and what happens in Spring Training he may have to make a tough decision to put the best 25-man team on the field.

Assuming they do keep their rookie eligibility intact and all four of them start the season in AA or AAA it appears, at first glance, that the 2017 starting rotation would look like this:

1 Garrett Richards
2 Tyler Skaggs
3 Matt Shoemaker
4 ?
5 Ricky Nolasco

The question mark is there because the Angels will likely want to run another left-handed pitcher as their #4 starter. This is primarily due to the idea of giving the opposing team a “different look” in the batter’s box, from start to start, which makes sense.

If Billy Eppler wants to save money, here, the team will, if they really want a lefty there, run out Nate Smith or Manny Banuelos, or, if they don’t want a lefty, Jesse Chavez or one of Vicente Campos, Alex Meyer or Daniel Wright. Chavez is the clear choice since he is signed on a Major League deal but Eppler and Scioscia need to settle on the optimal group and pattern to run out against opposing teams.

Alternatively, if they want a more experienced veteran pitcher, they could start Chavez in the bullpen and go out on the free agent or trade markets and acquire a left-handed starter of which there are some reasonable options in both free agency and potential trade including:

Drew Smyly
C.C. Sabathia
Jaime Garcia
Brett Anderson
Derek Holland
Jorge De La Rosa
Felix Doubront
Gio Gonzalez
Rich Hill
Scott Kazmir
Jon Niese
Patrick Corbin
C.J. Wilson
Ross Detwiler
Tommy Milone
Francisco Liriano
Wade Miley
Jason Vargas
Scott Diamond
Danny Duffy
Hector Santiago
Chris Sale
Jose Quintana
Hyun-Jin Ryu

Now of course some of these options are better than others.

For instance Sabathia will be making $25MM ($23MM in AAV) in 2017 so unless the Yankees are kicking in a lot of money he makes no sense for the Angels. Additionally it seems unlikely that the Halos would want to reunite with Kazmir, Santiago, and perhaps Wilson again.

The remainder contains a mix of high quality (Smyly, Gonzalez, Hill, Sale, Duffy and Quintana), mid-tier quality (Sabathia, Garcia, Wilson, Liriano, and Corbin) and low quality options (Holland, De La Rosa, Doubront, Niese, Milone, Detwiler, Miley, Vargas, and Diamond) that Eppler could potentially acquire via free agency or trade based on what the team needs.

Realistically the Angels only need a veteran on a one year deal. Eppler knows that Andrew Heaney will more than likely return in 2018 and it does not make a lot of sense to invest long term in a starter this offseason unless Billy plans to trade another rotation piece this year or next year which seems unlikely although not implausible.

Probably, if the Angels do go this route, they will target a left-handed starter like Jaime Garcia who only has one year remaining on his contract (an option the Cardinals exercised for 2017) and would not cost us one of our best prospects if the Angels take on most or all of his salary.

He fits the likely profile in that he runs a high groundball rate (59% GB% with a 48.1% Pull% vs. RHH’s and a 47% GB% with a 30.1% Oppo% vs. LHH’s), has one year of control left for the 2017 season, and has a fairly reasonable Average Annual Value on his contract of $12MM. 

Garcia is not the only option of course. If the Angels stick to the one year time horizon Liriano would also fit the GB% profile. Duffy also fits the time horizon but he is coming off an excellent 2016 campaign and will cost more. Wilson might take a one-year pillow contract to rebuild his value.

Tommy Milone could soak up innings and would only cost a small amount of cash. Miley has an AAV of $6.25MM (actual 2017 salary of $8.917MM) and a 2018 team option with a measly $500K buyout. Diamond and Anderson have their warts but fit the GB% profile well and both could likely be had on an inexpensive one year deal.

Another reason it seems more likely the Angels will grab a left-handed starter is that the supply of right-handed starters that fit the one year of control profile seem slim.

Names in free agency like Nova, Alvarez, and Fister, all seem primed to get multi-year deals although the Angels certainly have the available payroll to make one of those names happen. Beyond them you have aging veterans like Peavy, Simon, and Weaver who could all be had on short term contracts. Chacin and Lincecum would be available again too.

The trade market is a little better than free agency, in terms of quality, with names like John Lackey, Marco Estrada, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Yu Darvish, Mike Pelfrey, Lance Lynn, and Clay Buchholz potentially available among others. It is still not an awe-inspiring group to select from however.

If the Angels do pick up an established starter it will allow the team to use left-hander’s Manny Banuelos and Nate Smith and right-hander’s Jesse Chavez, Alex Meyer, and Daniel Wright as rotation depth.

This would establish a depth chart of ten starters to begin the season and this is not counting pitchers like Scribner, Jones, O’Grady, or Alvarez who could potentially spot start as needed during the year.

Signing or acquiring one more veteran starter is not a sure thing for the Angels but when you look at the current projected rotation, combined with potential concern regarding innings pitched limits, a rotation that can provide length, and the supply that is available, acquiring one veteran starter will go a long way towards building depth for the 2017 campaign.

There will be a similar problem next season as the Angels hopefully welcome back left-hander Andrew Heaney and right-hander Nick Tropeano from Tommy John Surgery. Both will likely face innings pitched limits which will require additional creativity by Billy Eppler to supplement the length of the rotation.

In the event that Nick Tropeano does have a delay in his recovery, Billy smartly grabbed Ricky Nolasco in the Santiago trade as Nolasco has a 2018 team option with a total innings pitched condition that might turn it into a player option. Ricky is rotation insurance if Tropeano has a setback and could even start while Nick begins the year in the bullpen. It would be just as smart for Eppler to find a left-handed starter with a 2018 option in case Heaney does not start the season as well, although Billy may go with Nate Smith in that scenario.

Finally we need to briefly discuss what happens if Garrett Richards experiences a setback in his recovery.

In that event it would not be at all surprising to see the Angels sign a veteran right-handed starter like Jered Weaver on an inexpensive deal to help soak up innings. If this unfortunate scenario does play out it will likely have a significant impact on the Angels ability to compete in 2017.

Author’s Choice – If the Angels decide they need one more starter, beginning the season with Banuelos or Smith is an internal option if the Angels allocate money and trade chips at 2B. If having a left-handed starter is not that important then Jesse Chavez or Daniel Wright makes a lot of sense.

The trade market seems to hold the best options and I would expect that Wade Miley would be the best fit for the 25-man roster in terms of price and contract length followed distantly by Jaime Garcia, Danny Duffy, and Francisco Liriano mainly due to AAV concerns. Garcia and Miley have both been mentioned as trade candidates in recent articles.

Finally if the asking price is too high in the trade market Eppler can probably pick up a reasonably priced lefty in free agency. In this case Brett Anderson or, to a lesser extent, Scott Diamond strike me as very affordable short term options with high groundball rates that fit our emerging team defensive profile.

In the next section we will discuss our bullpen options.
Love to hear what you think!

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