By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Columnist -
A Road Forward
In other threads at AngelsWin.com many have been bemoaning the fact that Eppler isn't making a big—or even medium—splash during the Winter Meetings. I would offer a perspective that may explain what Eppler is doing, and how it might be in team's best interests.
This perspective is based upon the following idea: the Angels will try to be competitive over the next 2-3 years, but not at the expense of trading away the future 3+ years from now. Is is based on the recognition that the team, right now, projects to win maybe 82-85 games. Fangraphs has it at 85, but I think that's on the optimistic side and thus want to give a range. But an 82-85 team can catch fire and, with a bit of luck and a career year or two, could win 90 games and cruise into the playoffs. So Eppler recognizes that the team right now is not as bad as their 2016 record, but actually a bit better.
Eppler also realizes that it would be very expensive to put the team over the top to be a powerhouse in 2017. In fact, it isn't possible—not from the available free agents, and not without trading their limited farm resources. Sure, they could have tried to out-bid the Yankees and whomever signs Jepsen and get their top-flight closer; they could take a risk on Rich Hill; they could put together a package for a good second baseman. But all of that would have cost 40-60 million a year, and led to the loss of even more prospects, and still merely turned them from a projected 82-85 win team to a projected 87-90 win team, with an even grimmer future.
The (Shrinking) Trout Window
And of course there's Mike Trout. I have repeatedly advocated for the strategy that rather than focus on trying to win within the ever-shrinking Trout window (now just four years, 2017-20), the Angels should focus on working towards a healthy and vibrant team and organization so that, by the time Trout's contract is ending, he won't want to leave (that is assuming they can't extend him before the end of 2020, which would be greatly preferable). Or to put it another way, extend the Trout window rather than panic and try to win now, no matter the cost for the future.
So let's say that Eppler is in basic agreement with this approach: Make small to medium moves to increase the chances of the team winning in the near future, but focus on strengthening for the long-term. How to do this?
Well, he's already doing it, to some degree. Eppler is obviously combing the waiver wire and looking for players with good upside who haven't been able to actualize themselves in their organization. This, I have no doubt, will continue and—hopefully, eventually—bear fruit.
Filling Needs for 2017
In terms of 2017, we can ask: What do the Angels actually need? And what can they do that won't bankrupt the future and/or be terribly risky in terms of utilizing resources (money, prospects)? If we dial back to the beginning of the offseason, the needs are as follows:
A second baseman
Strengthening the rotation
Strengthening the bullpen
These are actual needs: left field and second base have been massive holes the last couple years, and the entire pitching staff has struggled, largely due to injury (Richards, Heaney, Tropeano, Street, Shoemaker, etc). Beyond those four areas, some secondary moves could help but aren't absolutely necessary: possible improvement at catcher and depth on the bench.
The first on this list is already taken care of with the acquisition of Cameron Maybin. Maybin is exactly the type of player Eppler seems to like: He was a top prospect (ranked in Baseball America's top ten three years in a row, 2007-09) who has struggled to actualize his potential. The best-case scenario is that Maybin comes close to reproducing his production last year and provides the Angels with solid defense and a .370 OBP as the leadoff man. But even if Maybin simply settles back into his career norms and is an adequate, if mediocre performer in left field—which would still be an improvement over the last couple years.
Second base is a bit trickier. Neil Walker was the only plus free agent and he accepted his qualifying offer, perhaps largely because of questions surrounding his health. Beyond Walker are a bunch of platoon types, of which Stephen Drew seems the most likely candidate. There have also been rumblings that the Angels are working on a deal with the Padres to bring over Yangervis Solarte, which would be a nice pick-up, but again this only makes sense if it doesn't cost them more than someone like a Nate Smith and a fringe prospect.
As far as the pitching staff goes, the Angels are faced with the same problem in both the rotation and bullpen of having a lot of mediocre options, but few stand-outs. For instance, the rotation has a few strong pieces with Richards, Shoemaker and Skaggs as locks, and Nolasco as the workhorse 4th starter, and then the 5th spot is up for grabs among a large group of pitchers who could also fill in if one of the other starters goes down: Chavez, Smith, Meyer, Banuelos, Campos, and others.
In other words, the Angels don't really need anymore starters, unless they can pick up someone who will be significantly better than that group. The only pitchers on the free agent market that clearly fit that criteria are Rich Hill and perhaps Ivan Nova. Hill has questions due to age, but produced ace-caliber production in two-thirds of a year. But it is unlikely that Eppler will want to shell out the three-year $45-50 million contract that Hill will likely get. As for Nova, to me he looks like a slightly better Nolasco: in other words, a solid #4 starter. Do the Angels need another #4-5 starter? Probably not. The point being, unless they can get a #2-3 type, it seems unlikely that they'll sign another starter unless it is another Meyer/Banuelos type.
Finally, the bullpen, which has only one real plus reliever in Bedrosian, unless Huston Street can recapture his 2015 form and Andrew Bailey does well. After those three, the rest of the bullpen is essentially replaceable. Clearly the Angels aren't getting one of the three premier closers: Chapman, Jensen, or Melancon. Holland is still an option, and he would be a nice bounce-back candidate, but it seems likely the Royals will re-sign him, after trading away Wade Davis. I could also see them going after a Neftali Feliz. But chances are they'll sign one or two plus relievers to strengthen the bullpen.
Don't expect big moves going forward. Eppler will likely continue to make small and clever moves that cost the Angels very little, but could bear fruit down the line. The still need a second baseman, which will range from a one-year platoon type like Drew to a trade for someone like Solarte. They don't really need any more starters, but could very well sign another reliever or two.
The 2017-18 free agent class has more options, even more so in the 2018-19 class. It is wise for Eppler to save up his chips for a big push then which, with continued farm development, should hopefully see the Angels on an upward trajectory over the next few years. They've had the worst farm system in baseball for at least two years now, although there are glimmers with hope. They went 74-88 in 2016, their worst record since the 90s, so we can hope it is a bit of a rock-bottom moment. Perhaps they win 82-85 games in 2017, with meaningful games played into September, and the farm continues to improve. A year from now we could have an 85-win team with an improving farm system. A few years from now we could return to being a perennial 90+ win team with a solid, or even good, farm system. We can hope, at least.