Tuesday, December 27, 2016

By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer - 

Author’s Note: If you missed the previous installments you can find Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, Part VI here, Part VII here, Part VIII here, and Part IX, here.

Continuing the positional roundtable discussion, let us talk about the Angels current catching situation.

When AngelsWin.com released the Primer Introduction it was my heavy suspicion that the Angels would sign or trade for a veteran catcher and trade one of Carlos Perez and Jett Bandy.

To be honest the Bandy trade caught the author off guard as he seemed to be a good choice to be the team’s backup catcher. Here Eppler decided to pull off a “two birds, one stone” approach again by acquiring right-handed hitting catcher Martin Maldonado and right-handed pitcher Drew Gagnon from the Brewers in exchange for Jett.

Despite the loss of Bandy, it is understandable why Billy went this route because it does provide a capable veteran replacement in the form of Maldonado who has two years of arbitration control left and is widely considered an above average pitch framer. Essentially we traded experience for youth.

On top of that Eppler may have picked up a sneaky-good pitcher in Gagnon, who ran a 52.2% GB% in 2016 as was pointed out to me by Angelswin.com member ‘Dochalo’ here, shortly after the trade. Drew may have developed or reincorporated a two-seam or sinking fastball into his pitch repertoire. Only time will reveal the reasoning behind the deal.

This trade has incrementally improved the team for 2017 but the guy that seemed the more likely of the two to be traded, Carlos Perez, is still here. Could he also be moved in trade?

The answer of course is maybe, which is not much of an answer but is a real possibility if Eppler continues to reimage the team to align with his vision of the 2017 Angels squad.

To get a better idea of what we have we need to understand our projected offensive output for our current catching tandem, looking at running MLB averages in recent history as seen below:

 photo 3year_zpsl5yt6xam.png

Maldonado tends to hit LHP better than he does RHP. Perez hits RHP better than he does LHP. Neither one of them is “hot fire” in regards to their platoon splits.

Both of them do bring excellent defensive skills to the table. As mentioned above Maldonado is a good pitch framer and ranked in the top 25% of catchers in that metric, per StatCorner, in 2016 and has a career 35% caught stealing rate. Perez has good mobility behind the plate and is good at throwing runners out with a career 38% caught stealing rate as well. Unfortunately Perez ranks in the bottom 25% of pitch framers for 2016.

If Eppler is emphasizing better pitch framing as part of his defensive makeover of the team there is a possibility that he could still trade Perez in favor of another catcher either in free agency or in trade to not only improve overall team framing but also offense against RHP.

When you examine the remaining free agent catchers on the market only one of them, A.J. Ellis, ranked positively in pitch framing and he is borderline in the metric. This really means that if the Angels want to upgrade again for a catcher who is a better pitch framer they will need to trade for a catcher that can do that for them.

Looking at that same StatCorner 2016 leaderboard a couple of names jump out as possibilities, Miguel Montero and Tony Wolters.

Montero, during the 2016 World Series, expressed displeasure at the lack of playing time he was given during that run. More importantly he is in the final season of his 6-year contract and the Cubs are probably willing to move him in trade with the emergence of Willson Contreras as their primary backstop. He also hits RHP well to the tune of a career wRC+ of 108 so Miguel improves defense and offense, checking off two important boxes for offseason upgrading.

When you consider the likelihood that the Cubs probably do not want to put Schwarber behind the plate very often, if at all, the makings of a trade could take shape here with a swap of bad contracts.

It would not be a complete surprise to see the Angels approach Chicago with a swap of Huston Street for Miguel Montero. They both underperformed in 2016 so in terms of basic surplus WAR value they are nearly equal (about negative $6MM-7MM each). Cases could certainly be made that Street and Montero are actually better than what we saw in 2016 so those WAR valuations could certainly shift based on which argument you buy.

A deal like this would certainly impact our bullpen but there would be a real improvement in pitch framing as Miguel has consistently graded out very well in the metric per StatCorner. Also the Angels could then go out and pick up a right-handed reliever in free agency of which there are quite a few to select from and replace the loss of Huston.

There is even a possibility the trade could expand. The Cubs will need a backup catcher behind Contreras so the Angels could conceivably send Perez in the deal. Chicago, even after the Soler trade, has a lot of outfield depth and the Angels could target someone like Happ (unlikely) or Zagunis (more likely) in a potential exchange.

The other name, Tony Wolters, plays for Colorado and the Rockies probably do not want to start the season with two inexperienced backstops behind the plate. Here, too, the Angels could possibly dangle Cron (particularly if Colorado does not sign a free agent hitter) or Perez as the basis for a trade.

Also, just like a possible Cubs deal, the Angels might be able to expand this trade by trying to acquire left-handed reliever Jake McGee, who is also in the last year of his contract. A Cron or Perez based trade for Wolters and McGee would make a lot of sense for the Halos.

Beyond those two names the remainder of the market is bare. Catchers, due to their part-time nature, are a pretty fluid currency and so the Angels may not be done making moves to improve their catching duo for the 2017 season especially when you look at what remains on the free agent market at the position.

To be clear the Angels can stand pat after the Bandy trade and they will have a backstop tandem that will provide good defense, catch and throw ability, and a measure of pitch framing ability (Maldonado). This combination will likely prove to be good enough to impact the Halos season in a positive way. Either way there is still room for improvement behind the dish.

Behind the current projected starting two the Angels also have the following catchers in AA and AAA as depth:
  • Jose Briceno
  • Tony Sanchez
  • Webster Rivas
  • Wade Wass
If a Major League starter goes down the Angels would likely call up Jose Briceno or Tony Sanchez to fill in temporarily (probably the latter).

It would also not be a surprise to see the Angels sign one or more additional catchers to Minor League contracts to shore up the depth chart before Spring Training arrives.

Author’s Choice – If Eppler’s obsession with pitch framing continues I could easily see a trade with the Cubs involving Street and Montero. Both of them have young guys breathing down their necks (Bedrosian and Contreras respectively), both underperformed in 2016 primarily due to injury and some bad luck, and both have fairly expensive 2017 salaries ($9MM and $14MM respectively).

This potential swap makes a lot of sense for both teams. The Angels would take on another $2.5MM in AAV (the difference between Street’s and Montero’s AAV’s for 2017) and could use the opportunity to either a ) send Perez in the trade or b ) send one or more prospects, to acquire one or more pieces back from the Cubs to fill long-term holes in our farm system. The Cubs add another relief option to their bullpen with closer experience and an option year if he performs well in addition to freeing up additional payroll to sign one or more of their young superstars to a long-term extension.

Personally if this went down I could see a Huston Street and Carlos Perez deal for Miguel Montero, OF Mark Zagunis, and LHR John Leathersich or something similar. It would give us one year of an excellent pitch framer who could platoon properly with Maldonado (Montero is a lefty who hits RHP better than Perez), it would give us a potential long-term solution in LF with Zagunis, and Leathersich could join the bullpen as a left-handed option to pair with Alvarez.

If the Angels prefer Wolters (and he is actually available) I could see the team sending Perez and another prospect or two for Wolters and McGee with the Rockies picking up some of Jake’s projected $5.9MM arbitration salary. The latter really underperformed primarily due to the high altitude environment which clearly impacted the movement of his pitches.

Finally you may be asking why we have not seen these moves yet. The Angels and the Cubs may be waiting for Spring Training to see Street and/or Montero in action to make sure things are acceptable performance-wise. The Rockies seem to be setting the stage for a trade of one of their outfielders so they can move Desmond off of first base and either sign a free agent bat or trade for a first baseman and they have been rumored to be considering a veteran upgrade at catcher themselves because both Wolters and Murphy are young and the Rockies rated very poorly at controlling the running game (which Perez would definitely improve for them).

Of course none of this could actually be in the works or happening which is fine too but it feels like the Angels have at least one more trick up their sleeve if pitch framing is critical in Eppler’s eyes (and that appears to be the case).
Love to hear what you think!

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