Sunday, December 11, 2016

By Robert Cunningham, Senior Writer - 

Author’s Note: Right at time of publication the Angels acquired Danny Espinosa from the Nationals. This does not invalidate this article in any way and there is still a possibility that the Angels will acquire a left-handed hitting 2B and use Espinosa in a super utility role where he substitutes in at 2B, 3B, and LF and even comes off the bench to pinch hit or substitute in defensively in the late innings of a game. Espinosa primarily hits well against LHP but not RHP. If the Angels do make him the everyday 2B the Halos will have the finest up the middle defense in all of baseball between Simmons, Espinosa, Trout, and Perez and Bandy.

Second base is a major area of concern for Billy Eppler in 2017 and beyond so this offseason could prove to be the one where the Angels acquire a long term player to fill the spot.

Giavotella tried to fill the role over the last two years but he was inconsistent at times on offense and his defense never got up to the level that the team really needed.

Johnny was designated for assignment in late August and was out righted to Salt Lake but subsequently elected free agency, as was his right per the current CBA, and will likely not return to the team.

This leaves the Angels in a pickle trying to chase down the right keystone player that can be a long term answer for Eppler, Scioscia, and the team.

Any player that Billy acquires will almost certainly need to be really good on defense with a bat that can at least be close to average or better at the Major League level. It may be a near-ready prospect or an established player that can be signed out of free agency or obtained in trade.

As we discussed in the strategy section Eppler is trying to build a good defensive unit, particularly in the infield, to compliment the heavier ground ball pitching staff that he is continuing to develop.

Looking at the free agent market you basically have two players available, who were above average defensive second basemen in 2016, in Chase Utley and Stephen Drew.

Utley has a strong history of quality defense but will be 38 years old to start 2017 making him a bit of a wild card and certainly not a long term solution. Drew is also known for his good defense and had a quality year with the bat. Based on recent history they seem like strict platoon options versus RHP but both can pick it at second base.

Of course the Angels do not have a robust farm system to deal from but it is not completely bare and if the Angels find the right trade partner they might be able to take on salary in lieu of serious prospect currency.

When you examine the trade market a lot more options come to light. Below is a list of potentially available 2B targets that the Angels might have interest in:

Ian Kinsler
Darwin Barney
Kolten Wong
Greg Garcia
Jedd Gyorko
Brian Dozier
Wilmer Difo
Taylor Featherston
Mauricio Dubon
Jace Peterson
Brandon Phillips
Eugenio Suarez
Jose Peraza
Cesar Hernandez
Derek Dietrich
Jose Ramirez
Breyvic Valera
Gavin Cecchini
T.J. Rivera
Alen Hanson
Max Moroff
D.J. LeMahieu
Jonathan Villar
Zack Cozart
Danny Espinosa

Certainly some of these would be quite costly, perhaps even exorbitantly so. For instance, Kinsler and Dozier are both coming off strong seasons and are potentially out of the Angels ability to acquire given our current resources unless the Halos take on a bad contract like Victor Martinez or Joe Mauer for instance.

The Angels could also consider moving a shortstop over to play at the keystone. A free agent like Daniel Descalso, Alexei Ramirez, or Erick Aybar could probably play above average defense at second base but all three have question marks and no real long term viability. If the Angels went to the trade market perhaps they could take a shot at Jonathan Villar, Eugenio Suarez, or Zack Cozart and slide them over to second base.

Internally the Angels have two prospects that include Sherman Johnson and Sean Coyle but both have their warts.

Johnson probably needs at least another year of development in AAA and he needs to be able to hit LHP before he can be considered a full-time regular. He is a pretty athletic and smart player so at the minimum he seems destined for a bench or platoon role but hopefully more.

Coyle is a reclamation project. He has tremendous power with average defensive skills but he strikes out a lot and really needs to prove that he can manage Major League pitching.

If the Angels decide that the price of acquiring a full-time regular is too costly they could resort to a platoon at the keystone.

The Halos already have Kaleb Cowart and Nolan Fontana who can play good defense and hit against RHP so finding a platoon partner could lead the Angels to acquire someone like Phillips or Garcia, in trade, or Aybar or Ramirez, via free agency, to share time with them. 

In that scenario it would not be surprising to see Eppler pick up additional platoon candidates via trade or Minor League free agency to have additional options in Spring Training and to act as in-season depth.

So unless the Angels are considering a platoon the Angels best bet to find a long term solution probably lies in the trade market, particularly for a younger, perhaps less established, MLB player.

St. Louis for instance has some interesting names in Wong, Garcia, Gyorko, and Valera that might fit the bill and wouldn’t overly break our farm system.

Billy could take on the entirety of Kolten’s contract and send one or more mid-level prospects back that do not include our best young talent. Garcia would need a platoon partner to hit against left-handed pitchers but he has great defensive ability. Gyorko, who has a similar contract to Wong, has power and, despite being a third baseman primarily, plays above average defense at the keystone. Valera has no power but has an excellent history of contact skills, speed, and defensive prowess that could make him a good fit for the 2-hole in the lineup. The Cardinals have an excess of infielders and likely want to free up payroll space for a Carlos Martinez extension.

Beyond those four, Cozart, Villar, Suarez, Cecchini, Hanson, and Dietrich all seem like good targets that would not be outside of our ability to acquire with our limited resources. All of them would provide at least average defense and some like Villar and Dietrich have some strong on-base ability and offensive upside, respectively.

Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register recently suggested that the Angels might consider acquiring switch-hitting Cesar Hernandez of the Phillies to fill their second base need. He would likely provide excellent defense and above average on-base and contact ability with the bat.

The only real question is whether or not he is available as the Phillies are just as likely to keep or extend Cesar as they are to trade him. They recently acquired Howie Kendrick which could signal Cesar’s availability but the Angels may not have the trade ammunition to satisfy Klentak’s needs.

The Rockies have D.J. LeMahieu under team control for 2017 and 2018. He would be a huge boost defensively with excellent on-base and contact skills but the price would likely include C.J. Cron in any trade discussion. LeMahieu may not even be available as the Rockies have indicated they want to compete in 2017 (rightfully so probably).

No matter whom Billy goes after that player will almost certainly have an above average defensive reputation. Up the middle defense is the cornerstone of most championship teams and the only position we are deficient at is the keystone so you have to imagine filling the keystone is first or second on Eppler’s priority list.

Ultimately the second base problem is probably the most difficult one that the Angels will have this winter. Unless Billy is willing to move Major League talent such as C.J. Cron or Carlos Perez, for instance, it may be problematic to find a true long term solution at second base this offseason if we are not willing to deal our best talent from our meager farm system.

Author’s Choice – In accordance with the theory and evidence that Eppler is building a groundball-oriented pitching staff and improving team defense, particularly in the infield, it is my opinion that Billy will, due to a lack of strong options in free agency, scour the trade market, first, looking for a defense-first, long term controllable second baseman.

Based on the list above Eppler’s most likely targets will include Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier, Cesar Hernandez, Kolten Wong, Jonathan Villar, Zack Cozart, Gavin Cecchini, Eugenio Suarez, Jose Ramirez, and D.J. LeMahieu. The latter two are probably not available.

If the asking price is too high for any of those players Billy could take a lesser approach going after Jace Peterson (as suggested by writer Scotty Allen) or T.J. Rivera for instance.

In the end I’m putting my money on one of Hernandez, Villar, Garcia, Rivera, or Wong to man the keystone in 2017 and beyond. Cesar’s defense is the grand prize to be won here but if the cost is too high any of the rest make a lot of sense.

If the Angels have trouble trading for a long term piece it is possible they could settle trading for a short term option like Zack Cozart and revisit the free agent and trade markets next offseason.

Finally if the trade market does not pan out in terms of availability or price my belief is that Billy will sign one of either Utley or Drew on a short inexpensive deal with an option year attached to bridge the gap to Johnson, Fletcher, or Moyer.

If you missed the first six installments you can find Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, and Part VI here.
Love to hear what you think!

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