Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Robert Cunningham, Senior Writer - 

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

For most of 2016, the best C.J. on the team continued to grow and develop on both sides of the ball, providing slightly improved offense and, surprisingly, defense.

To illustrate this, here is Cron’s offensive output for 2016 and over his career:

As you can see, C.J. has, over his three years in the Majors, performed admirably against same-side pitchers to the tune of a 119 wRC+. On the other hand he has continued to struggle versus left-handed pitching and his numbers in 2016 dipped below his career average resulting in a poor 79 wRC+.

On the defensive side FanGraphs Advanced Fielding statistics thinks Cron has improved over the last three years:

Or if you prefer, his Range Factor per Game is below:

Now let us be clear no one is going to mistake C.J. for a gold glove first baseman or even an above average one. However both sites show a bump in his overall range at the position bringing him close to League average defensively. This simply means he is capable of playing first base on a daily basis which raises him from a DH-only bat to a plausible regular everyday player on the field.

Cron is in his last year of pre-arbitration control in 2017. After that he will enter the arbitration process where he will likely receive significant raises year over year because that process favors power bats like C.J.’s and rewards them for it. Despite these future large raises he will likely be productive enough to make it worthwhile for the team to keep him on the roster through those three arbitration seasons.

So to summarize the Angels have an asset in Cron that is currently cheap and productive. They could easily play him at first base every day or even platoon him with someone like Jefry Marte, who could hit vs. LHP, to try and maximize offensive production. The Angels could simply stay put and leave first base alone, safe in the knowledge that the 26 year old will probably maintain his production and possibly even improve in 2017.

However there is also a potential opportunity for Billy Eppler to trade C.J. as the designated hitter market, in particular, appears to be very fluid in supply and demand this season.

The question that Eppler might face is whether he can upgrade or at least maintain production at first base and flip C.J. to another team in need of a 1B or DH bat?

It is a really legitimate question because essentially, at this point in time, Cron is a platoon bat at a non-critical defensive position with some good power who may or may not have reached his peak and, when you analyze individual American League team DH and 1B needs, there is a surprisingly strong potential demand for many teams this offseason.

Boston is losing David Ortiz. Cleveland is losing Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana is only controlled through 2017 making him a possible trade chip which could create another hole. The Blue Jays are losing all three of Encarnacion, Bautista, and Saunders to free agency (although they have acquired Morales and Pearce).

Baltimore is losing both Trumbo and Alvarez to free agency as well. Ditto for the Yankees with Beltran and Rodriguez gone. The Royals lost Morales. Chicago has been running Avisail Garcia out to no avail. Texas is losing Moreland (who signed with the Red Sox but is a platoon bat) and the recently rented Beltran (who signed with the Astros recently).

Additionally teams like the Rockies, Nationals, and Royals may need a first baseman. The latter in particular is rumored to be selling off parts and Hosmer is projected to make approximately $13.3MM in arbitration so if the Royals decide to trade him they might have a need not only at DH but 1B too.

That is 8 of the 15 American League teams and at least 1 National League team that will probably have a pretty strong need for a DH or 1B bat in the coming offseason. Now certainly some will dip into the free agent market and go after names like Encarnacion and Bautista for instance but there is definitely a market for a league-average DH/1B like C.J. Cron and you have to believe that Billy is at least listening to interested teams.

So if, hypothetically, the Angels trade Cron how would they replace his production?

It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see Cron traded and Billy acquire a left-handed 1B type on a 2 year contract with an option such as Brandon Moss, Adam Lind, or Pedro Alvarez to bridge the gap to 1B prospect Matt Thaiss. This hitter would specifically be brought in to be a platoon bat only against right-handed pitching with Marte picking up the at-bats versus left-handed pitchers.

The Angels could probably afford to wait the market out and pick up one of these hitters on a fairly inexpensive contract to try and replicate Cron’s wRC+ of 126 versus RHP last year. Mitch Moreland just signed for $5.5MM and Moss, Lind, and Alvarez are equivalent offensive producers so that is the approximate asking price for any of these remaining free agents.

All three of them have warts but they all have career wRC+ against right-handed pitchers hovering, give or take, around the 120 range. Moss has outfield experience, Lind has the best career numbers versus RHP’s, and Alvarez has a bit of youth to go along with his horrid defense. Out of this group Moss and Lind seem the most likely candidates with Alvarez a distant third.

Other interesting alternatives could include non-traditional options such as Michael Saunders for instance. Someone like Alex Avila, who has a lifetime career wRC+ of 114 versus right-handed pitchers, could provide similar offensive production, in a platoon capacity, to Cron.

This may seem counterintuitive on some level but if you can flip Cron to help fill another area of need such as 2B you can go out and buy a replacement for C.J. in the $4MM-$7MM range on the free agent market. This may or may not be a better use of the team’s resources but with all of the various permutations and choices it could be one path that Eppler decides to travel.

Beyond this unlikely thought the Angels could of course have Albert Pujols or even Jefry Marte play first base. The former has lost a lot of range at the position and may not start the year while the latter can play good defense but may operate best in a platoon role whether it is with Cron or someone else.

No matter how this plays out Billy Eppler should do what is best for the team. To date Cron has produced but that production can be replicated via free agency or trade so if an opportunity to trade C.J. can bring in a 2B, high leverage reliever or even a 3B the Angels should move him given the right opportunity. Otherwise leave him be and see if he improves which will only build his value further.

Author’s Choice – The demand for DH and 1B sluggers this offseason will create a robust market that Eppler may be able to exploit to the Angels advantage as C.J. could upgrade about half the teams in the A.L. at DH and about half the teams in baseball at 1B.

Teams like the Royals, Indians, Twins, Rockies, and Blue Jays strike me as organizations that could possibly use a less expensive power bat with years of control whereas the Yankees and Red Sox can afford to pursue the Encarnacion’s and Bautista’s of the world.

To be clear again the Angels do not have to trade C.J. They should only do it if he brings back one or more players or prospects that can help fill current or long term needs for the team, i.e. 2B, 3B, LF, SP, or RP and the Angels can effectively replace his total production via free agency or trade.

Finally with Pujols recently announcing surgery for his planar fasciitis problem it may not be in the Angels best interest to move Cron at this time. Eppler will have to tread carefully around this situation to ensure the Angels start off on the best foot for the new season. No matter which direction the Angels go Jefry Marte is almost certainly going to be part of the equation at 1B as he provides pop and good defense at the corner.
Love to hear what you think!

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