By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Columnist -
Author’s Note: If you missed the first four installments you can find Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.
In a season where the starting rotation was decimated, the Angels bullpen did not fare much better, ranking 26th in K%-BB% among all Major League teams.
Part of this issue was the fact that Angels relievers were dead last out of all 30 teams with a 7.23 K/9 rate. Basically the bullpen lacks some hard throwers and the group as a whole simply had a hard time putting hitters away.
The reality is that this, for the most part, is what the fans will continue to see to start the 2017 season as Billy Eppler slowly and surely builds a pitch-to-contact rotation and, to a lesser degree, bullpen. In 2016 Angels relievers were 2nd in O-Contact% (Out of zone contact) at 65.8% and 3rd in Z-Contact% (In the zone contact) at 86.5%.
When you combine those numbers with a 27th ranked SwStr% (Swinging Strike percentage) and an elevated home run rate of 1.14 HR/9 (Home runs per 9 innings, ranked 10th worst in the Majors) you can see why their actual results were poor overall in 2016. The K/9 rate should improve over time but the Angels will probably never lead the League in strikeouts in part because of this pitch-to-contact approach.
Billy will continue to overhaul the roster to improve the numbers. Finding a good defensive second baseman (and third baseman) and continuing to find the right mix of starters and relievers that can put the ball on the ground, particularly to the left side of the infield where Simmons is at, is assuredly a priority.
Speaking of the right mix Cam Bedrosian certainly dominated the competition this season. Most of you would be quick to say he is our future closer (and that is not an incorrect statement) but the author would like to refer to Cam as our future high leverage reliever.
The reason that term is used is because the game of baseball is slowly evolving before our eyes. Throughout the year and in the playoffs the Indians have utilized their best reliever, Andrew Miller, more in the 8th inning than they have the 9th. They have even used him in the 7th inning as well.
High leverage situations, where the opposition is close to scoring runs against your team, are slowly becoming the new normal for when you bring in your best relief pitcher(s). This of course makes perfect sense to bring in your best reliever when your opponent has a high probability of scoring.
As much as Angels fans complain about Mike Scioscia’s bullpen utilization it does not seem above his ability to use high leverage reliever types like Cam in the right situation. The main problem is that the Angels have lacked good options for that role over the last couple of years.
Billy Eppler will try to give Mike more choices in 2017. Bedrosian will certainly be a part of that total solution but the team will need more relievers to step up and fulfill their promise and so, over the last year, Eppler has been adding choices.
Deolis Guerra, a 27 year old Rule V pick from the Pirates in the 2015-2016 offseason, has shown a pleasantly surprising ability to limit free passes (1.18 BB/9 in 2016) and create poor contact (.246 Batting Average Against).
Guerra primarily lives on his 90 mph fastball and 80 mph changeup which makes him effective against both left and right-handed hitters. His one weakness to date has been the long ball against right-handed hitters so if he can mix in an effective curveball he could become one of those “go-to” guys for Scioscia.
Deolis has two more years of pre-arbitration control and then the standard three arbitration years thereafter through 2021. He should be a nice addition to the 2017 bullpen as a middle reliever.
In late June, the Angels claimed 28 year old, hard throwing right-hander J.C. Ramirez off of waivers from the Reds.
Ramirez offers a mid-90’s fastball and a really nice mid to upper 80’s slider while occasionally tossing in a two-seam fastball. Ramirez would benefit from further improvement and use of his two-seam fastball or the addition of a changeup for instance.
In addition to the heat J.C. gets the ball on the ground a lot with a nearly 50% career GB% which is one definitive reason Eppler had interest in the first place. Ramirez has a live arm for sure but he will have to earn a spot during Spring Training. Also, just like Guerra, J.C. needs to reign in the home runs given up to right-handed hitters.
Ramirez has two more years of pre-arbitration and three years of arbitration for a total of five years of team control.
In early September the Angels made another waiver claim on 28 year old left-hander Ashur Tolliver. Unlike the DFA’d Ege who was a pure LOOGY type, Tolliver has shown a propensity and ability to get both left-handers and right-handers out in his Minor League career.
Ashur offers a low to mid-90’s fastball combined with a very good changeup but his breaking ball is hit or miss at times. Just like some of the others above Tolliver will have to earn a spot in the bullpen but his chances are slightly enhanced due to his moderate platoon splits. Ashur is also quick to the plate and quite athletic so those are also pluses to his skillset.
Tolliver would benefit most by simply staying healthy as he has had labrum surgery in the past. If he can improve and establish his breaking ball he will become a serious threat in middle relief so Angels fans should keep an eye on his progress. Ashur still has his rookie status intact so once his service clock starts the Angels will control him for six years.
Author’s Note – After this write up Valdez was Designated for Assignment and sent to AAA where he will likely start in 2017.
Back in early June the Angels also acquired 26 year old, hard throwing right-hander Jose Valdez for cash considerations from the Detroit Tigers.
Valdez is similar in profile to J.C. Ramirez in that he throws a mid-90’s four-seam fastball combined with a really nice mid to upper 80’s slider. Jose can dial up the fastball even higher but he is plagued by control issues and is hurt often by the free pass.
Unlike Ramirez though Valdez puts the ball in the air more and he too suffers from elevated home run rates versus right-handed hitters. What Jose does do a bit better than J.C. is limit hard contact resulting in a low .227 Batting Average Against compared to J.C.’s .262 BAA.
Valdez needs to develop a third offering and reduce the number of walks he creates. He exceeded his rookie limits in 2016 but still has three years of pre-arbitration and three years of arbitration for a total of six years of team control.
Yates, who was claimed along with Parker in early October, is a 29 year old right-handed reliever with a little more Major League experience than the rest of the group above.
Kirby primarily utilizes a four-seam fastball and slider but he also throws a knuckle-curve and a changeup on occasion. Yates fastball lives in the low-to-mid 90’s and he has a strong history of strikeout ability that, when combined with his journeyman experience, gives him a small edge in the upcoming Spring Training battle for roster spots.
Because of his previous experience Yates only has one more year of pre-arbitration control. Of course he has an additional three years of arbitration control after that for a total of four years of team control.
Ultimately Eppler will put the best 25-man team out on the field to start 2017 so Kirby, like everyone else, will have to earn a roster spot in a Mike Scioscia led bullpen.
Abel De Los Santos
Author’s Note – After this write up De Los Santos was Designated for Assignment and sent to AAA where he will almost certainly start the year.
The last of Eppler’s waiver claims before the World Series ended, right-hander De Los Santos is another high ceiling, upside acquisition.
Abel is a flyball pitcher and features a four-seam fastball and curveball as his primary pitches complimented by a slider and changeup.
De Los Santos has a live arm and that is where the upside lies. He can dial it up to the mid-90’s and it has been noted that he has some deception to his delivery. The good news is that he can deliver strikeouts as he has consistently averaged about a 10.0 K/9 in the Minors as a reliever.
Like a lot of young relievers Abel has control issues, gives up a lot of free passes, and is homer prone. If he can iron out the walks a bit and keep the ball in the park more he will be an effective middle reliever.
De Los Santos retained his rookie eligibility through 2016 so he seems destined to start the 2017 season in the Minors unless he really wows Scioscia and Eppler in Spring Training. Once his service clock starts he will be under team control for six seasons.
Meyer, who was the second piece sent to the Halos in the Hector Santiago for Ricky Nolasco trade, was acquired shortly before the trade deadline near the end of July.
The Angels have stated that Meyer will get a look in the rotation during Spring Training but it is hard to shake the nagging feeling that Eppler really believes in Alex’s potential to be a nice back-end bullpen piece.
Certainly the best outcome would be success in the rotation but the first thing you have to consider is that he only threw about 50 innings in 2016 and he likely will not break more than 100 IP or so in 2017.
This of course means that he may start the year in the Minors as a starter in order to get acclimated to the role and stretch his arm out or, alternatively, they could reverse in anticipation of Alex starting later in the season. If he pans out in the rotation then look for him to make no more than about 10 starts and then move him to a relief role or up to the Major League bullpen (or vice-versa).
As a starter Meyer has a nice mid-90’s fastball that he pairs with a mid-80’s curveball and an emerging high-80’s, low-90’s changeup. If he moves to the bullpen expect a corresponding 1-2 mph uptick in his velocity.
Unless he just explodes onto the scene in the rotation he seems destined for relief and certainly the Angels, after 2017, could use another high octane piece to compliment Bedrosian.
In the very near future you could see an Angels relief staff led by Bedrosian, Meyer, and Middleton, a trio of hard throwing fireballers which would not make most fans sad at all.
Alex is still a rookie so he is controlled through the 2022 season. He will almost certainly start in the Minors to stall his service clock but look for a mid-year call up at the latest unless the Angels fall out of the race really early.
On the eve of this part of the Primer being published, the Angels made a nifty trade sending RHP Jared Ruxer to the Royals for RHP Brooks Pounders.
Brooks features a low-to-mid 90’s fastball, low-to-mid 80’s slider, a mid-80’s changeup, and, when he starts games, a low 80’s curveball.
Pounders missed most of 2014 recovering from Tommy John Surgery and has looked really good in the Minors the last two years. He is primarily a starter but was also utilized as a reliever in AAA and the Majors last season probably as a tool to manage his innings pitched totals as part of a TJS recovery regimen.
As Jeff Fletcher reported, Billy Eppler plans to bring him into camp as a starter to compete in Spring Training. However it is quite unlikely that Brooks will start the season in the Majors as he still has his rookie status intact and the Angels probably do not want to start his service time clock.
Look for Brooks to show up in the middle of the year, particularly if the Angels fall out of the pennant race. Pounders will probably end up filling a role similar to Jesse Chavez where he will split time starting and relieving in 2017.
Brooks, based on his four-pitch repertoire and above average control, does not seem to have a really high ceiling, perhaps a #3 or #4 starter at best, but he also does not have a really low floor, likely turning into a solid back-end starter. If the Angels decide to keep him in the bullpen long term he could become a good back-end reliever but this might be a waste of his talents.
Pounders was listed here because he will very likely pitch some innings in relief this season in combination with his rotation starts. Due to his rookie status Pounders will be under team control for six seasons based on when his service clock begins.
Beyond the waiver claim pickups the Angels made some free agent signings and do have a few options to carry over from 2016.
Some of these relievers, like Huston Street, Cam Bedrosian, and Andrew Bailey, will definitely start 2017 in the Major League bullpen or, in the case of Chavez, the rotation assuming the Angels do not acquire another veteran starter. There is also an outside possibility that Huston Street gets traded but the chances of that seem low.
Others like Jose Alvarez, Mike Morin, Austin Adams, Keynan Middleton, Eduardo Paredes, and Greg Mahle will still have to fight for their spots as not much is ever guaranteed to a reliever in the Major Leagues unless it is in their contract.
Huston Street had a disappointing 2016 season driven by a career low 5.64 K/9 rate and a career high 4.84 BB/9 rate. Additionally Huston has always been more of a flyball pitcher and the long ball hit him particularly hard as he ran a 2.01 HR/9 rate which is significantly higher than his career rate of 0.93.
The little bit of good news is that Street had some really bad luck in 2016 as he ran a .351 BABIP which is .087 points higher than his career rate of .264. In particular Huston had more trouble against right-handed hitters with a .378 BABIP versus a career .262 mark.
When you combine this bad luck with balls in play with the fact that Street ran a 46.3% GB% rate versus right-handed hitters with 50% Pull% and 23.8% Cent% rates as well as an absurdly high HR/FB ratio of 38.5% it becomes clear that Huston’s numbers should regress to the mean (improve) in 2017 with Andrelton Simmons playing behind him.
Also these performance issues could have easily been related to an oblique injury Street was dealing with in the middle of the season and then a right knee inflammation issue that ended up requiring surgery to repair.
Huston will undoubtedly be given every opportunity to start the year as the Angels closer. If he had not performed so poorly last year it seems likely he would have been moved at the trade deadline but, like everything else that went wrong with the Angels 2016 season, it was not meant to be.
Street is under team control in the last guaranteed year of his contract in 2017 for $9MM ($8.5MM AAV). Huston has a team option year for $10MM in 2018 with a meager $1MM buyout. Eppler might trade him preseason but it would be better to let him rebuild his value by starting the year as the closer.
The reason that Street could have been moved in trade last year is that young Cam Bedrosian appears ready to take over as the Angels high leverage reliever.
Cam had a truly exquisite year in 2016 to the tune of an 11.38 K/9 and 3.12 BB/9 rate. He suppressed the long ball with an excellent 0.22 HR/9 rate and kept the ball on the ground with a 49.5% GB%.
Bedrosian primarily features a mid-to-high 90’s four-seam fastball with a low-to-mid 80’s wipeout slider. He has toyed with some other offerings but these two have served him well.
After this season it would not be a total surprise to see the Angels offer Bedrosian a contract extension to buy out his arbitration years and perhaps one or more of his free agent seasons.
The primary reason, beyond Bedrosian’s actual and projected performance, is that if Cam continues to pitch full seasons moving forward (i.e. on the 25-man roster) he will likely become a Super Two player (identical to Calhoun and Shoemaker) which will send him through arbitration four times not three which will significantly increase his earnings.
Cam is under team control through 2021 and currently has one year of pre-arbitration control and four years of arbitration control. If Bedrosian were demoted to the Minors, for instance, he would stop accumulating service time, perhaps enough for him to miss the Super Two cutoff next season but it does not seem like a smart idea for the team to do this if they really want to compete.
When you perform a Google search and type in the keywords “Jose Alvarez”, “Angelswin.com”, and “negative remarks” you get 729 distinct returns (just kidding).
Jose has somehow received the Fernando Salas negative branding where people perceive him to be less than what he actually is. Looking at the numbers however disproves this image and does not reflect his advanced peripherals that point to a breakout 2016 season.
Alvarez, a former starter, is a left-handed reliever and features a low-90’s four-seam and two-seam fastball, a good mid-80’s slider, a high quality high-70’s changeup, and an occasional high-70’s curveball.
In previous seasons Jose was very effective against left-handed hitters but Scioscia kept running him out against right-handed hitters to the chagrin of the fans. This is probably a contributor to the reputation Alvarez has developed through 2016.
However, Jose has been utilizing his two-seam fastball and changeup a bit more over the last two seasons and this year he really began to see the results of that labor.
In 2016, against right-handed hitters, Alvarez ran a nifty 15.6% K-BB% with 9.42 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9 rates. When you combine those numbers with a 51.1% GB% and a 39% Pull% and 41.1% Cent% and Simmons on defense behind you, it becomes clear that these numbers are sustainable.
Oh and did I mention he was also sitting on a .398 BABIP versus right-handers this year? If that number regresses to his career .323 BABIP watch out because Jose will become a real two-way threat on the mound.
It appears that Jose Alvarez, barring injury or a really poor showing in Spring Training, will start the year as the Halos primary left-handed reliever and deservedly so. Someone like Ashur Tolliver could possibly challenge him for the spot but it will be Alvarez’s to lose.
Jose has one more year of pre-arbitration and three years of arbitration control for a total of four years of team control.
Another likely staple in the 2017 bullpen, 25 year old, right-hander Mike Morin had a decent peripherals, bad results year in 2016.
First of all Morin did very well against right-handed hitters this year to the tune of excellent 8.10 K/9 and 0.98 BB/9 rates, good for a 20.6% K-BB% and a 1.01 WHIP. He was really able to limit hard (31.1% Soft%) and solid (20% IFFB%) contact against them.
Unfortunately Mike did not fare as well against left-handed hitters. Here his primary problem was that he issued too many walks (5.21 BB/9 rate) and he had a lousy 55.2% LOB% which simply means more of those walks turned into runs.
Interestingly League average LOB% for relievers is 74% and Morin, so far in his career, has a 62.5% average over three seasons. To date Mike has not performed well in higher leverage situations but this might simply be sample size smoke.
Mike features a low-90’s four-seam fastball, a good low-80’s slider, and a nice low-70’s changeup. The former and the latter actually create one of the largest fastball-changeup velocity differentials in all of baseball.
Additionally, as Alden Gonzalez reported in 2014, Morin actually has two different changeups he can use by switching grips. This makes his struggles against left-handed hitters even more baffling because the changeup is a traditional weapon to get opposite-side hitters out and it just has not worked for him in the Majors so far.
Mike is in his last year of pre-arbitration control with three years of arbitration to follow for a total of four years of team control. Just like the recently released Cory Rasmus, Morin will need to continue to prove he belongs here or he could find himself traded or released in the near future.
Adams, a 25 year old right-handed reliever, has toiled in the Minors and was recently added to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 Draft.
Austin has a live arm and features a four-seam fastball with a plus, wipeout slider to boot. His kryptonite appears to be command issues as he has never had a BB/9 rate below 4.30 in any full season in the Minors to date. That aside, he does create a lot of poor contact as he has consistently ran sub-.200 batting averages against over the last three seasons.
Look for Adams to start the season in the Minors to help preserve his Rookie eligibility and not start his service clock too soon. However his arm could be a difference maker in the bullpen so do not be surprised if he arrives sooner rather than later. He is under the standard six years of team control once he exceeds his rookie status.
Speaking of fireballers what a nice surprise Middleton was during the 2016 season!
Originally drafted as a starter, Keynan struggled in his first three seasons never posting an actual ERA less than 5.30! Yikes!
However a decision was made prior to the 2016 season to convert him to a reliever and lo and behold Keynan started spitting hot fire touching as high as 102 mph in a recent late season game in Salt Lake.
The Angels, prior to the Rule 5 Draft, added Middleton to the 40-man roster to protect their emerging prospect. Just like Meyer it is quite likely that Middleton will start the year down in the Minors but the cream will rise to the top eventually so do not be surprised if you see him sooner rather than later as well.
Across three levels (A+, AA, and AAA) in 2016, Keynan held right-handed hitters to a .197/.279/.354/.633 slash line and left-handed hitters to a .194/.276/.398/.674 slash line showing no discernible platoon split.
There is a lot to be excited about for the future of the Angels relief staff with the trio of Cam, Alex, and Keynan holding down late innings. It could be the West Coast version of the Yankees 2016 ‘No-Run DMC’ bullpen trio of Chapman, Betances, and Miller except Angels fans would tell opposing hitters to watch out for the MAC-K Truck or something equally absurd but entertaining.
Keynan is still a rookie so once he starts his service clock he will be under team control for the standard six seasons.
Also added to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 Draft, Paredes features a mid-90’s four-seam fastball, a low-90’s two-seam fastball, and what Scout.com’s Taylor Blake Ward describes as a slurvy high-80’s, low-90’s curveball.
Just like Joe Smith, Eduardo is a sidearm thrower and can create a lot of deception particularly to right-handed hitters whom he has dominated at nearly every level. In the Minors to date Paredes hasn’t fared well against left-handed hitters but if he can further develop that curveball or integrate a changeup into his arsenal he could be a really solid back-end reliever.
Eduardo’s ability to adjust arm angle combined with the different look he provides to batters makes him a likely keeper for the Angels long term but, just like any reliever, nothing is promised if you are not performing.
Paredes still has rookie eligibility giving the Halos the standard six years of control once his MLB time clock starts. Unless he absolutely wows in Spring Training look for him to start 2017 in the Minors as bullpen depth.
If a player could receive a “bye” on any year of their choosing left-hander Greg Mahle would probably select 2016 to throw in the trash.
Mahle had a tough time in his brief stint in the Majors giving up a lot of free passes and getting torched by the long ball. Part of his problem was BABIP related but there were a couple of additional issues that point to room for improvement for him.
One big reason is the fact that he is running absurdly high HR/FB ratios. Against left-handers he ran 28.6% and versus right-handers he ran 20%. Both of those numbers seem ripe for regression to the mean (improvement) especially when you consider that the League average reliever HR/FB ratio is 12%.
Also Mahle is a groundball pitcher and in a very limited sample size in the Majors he ran a nearly 52% GB% against right-handed hitters with a 48.2% Pull% and a 33.3% Cent%. This of course puts the ball in play a lot in the general vicinity of Andrelton Simmons and you have to think that his BABIP will improve based on that limited analysis.
Greg features a high-80’s four-seam fastball, an above average mid-80’s two-seam fastball, a low-80’s slider, and a low 80’s changeup. He throws from a variety of arm slots including a submarine delivery. His youth, ability, and “different look to the hitters” could help him grab a roster spot out of Spring Training with a really strong showing in camp.
Mahle’s rookie status is still intact so he is under team control for a full six seasons. This likely means that if he does not wow Scioscia and Eppler in March he is destined to start the season in the Minors to control his MLB service time and could be called up later in the year.
So based on the players available, including considerations of Major League service time, repertoire maturity, and experience, this is, barring injury or trades, the projected bullpen to start 2017:
Closer Huston Street (R)
Set Up Cam Bedrosian (R)
Set Up Jose Alvarez (L)
Middle Mike Morin (R)
Middle Deolis Guerra (R)
Middle Andrew Bailey (R)
Middle Ashur Tolliver (L)
Long Jesse Chavez (R)
This projected bullpen assumes, of course, that the Angels do not go out and acquire one or more relievers via free agency or trade. In principle it is a group of relievers with the potential to be good but Billy Eppler may not want to enter 2017 without adding one more experienced veteran reliever to provide more stability and consistency.
Top relievers like Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon will not only be in high demand but will also command a very high price. As much as the Angels could use an elite reliever, like one of the above, the team may simply be priced out of the top tier market in both free agency and trade (Wade Davis for example).
Below the top tier, particularly in the right-handed relief market, there are some interesting names that the Angels might be able to pick up at a more reasonable price including Brad Ziegler, Addison Reed, Nate Jones, Juan Nicasio, Sergio Romo, Luke Hochevar, Anthony Swarzak, Luke Gregerson, Santiago Casilla, Jhoulys Chacin, Mychal Givens, Chris Smith, and Drew Storen among others.
The left-handed market is not as deep and that is probably why Eppler claimed Ashur Tolliver from waivers in 2016 to compete against Jose Alvarez, Chris O’Grady, and Greg Mahle in Spring Training in anticipation of the short supply. Some names the Angels might have interest in include Sean Doolittle, Boone Logan, Matthew Strahm, Javier Lopez, Mike Dunn, and J.P. Howell among others.
If the Angels do grow a set of balls and go big in the free agent relief market we could potentially see fireworks on one of Chapman or Jansen. Acquiring Aroldis would pair him with Bedrosian as a power one-two punch in the back-end of the bullpen. The same would be true of Jansen, minus the 2nd round draft pick loss and, perhaps, a little less money.
If Eppler is not willing or is unable to invest heavily in a top tier closer type in free agency he may be able to find one with one year of control left on the trade market that would not break the prospect bank.
Wade Davis will have so much interest the Angels may not even be invited to the party. However someone like Addison Reed who will make a projected $13MM in arbitration might be obtainable because the Mets could simply turn around and use that money saved towards acquiring Chapman or Jansen themselves.
Perhaps Billy can acquire a depressed asset with upside like Trevor Rosenthal (unlikely but it is an example) or Jake McGee for instance. Even an injury return candidate like Greg Holland or Carter Capps might be within the fringe realm of doable in Eppler’s world but the bullpen, especially after the Bailey signing, increasingly appears to be an area of investment where the Angels are done spending money.
Realistically Eppler will have to step back into the “desert of the real” in order to search for the “One” if he decides to reinforce the bullpen. If the Angels are able to fill their other needs and still have money left over there is a possibility they could trade Street or another reliever to grab a preferred free agent or trade target to supplement the relief staff.
Ultimately adding another reliever seems more like a tertiary goal and luxury that team payroll will probably not be able to accommodate in 2017.
Author’s Choice – The Angels may have made their most significant bullpen addition after signing Andrew Bailey. Further expenditures for relief pitchers seem unlikely unless Eppler manages to trade Street and reallocate his salary to a younger arm.
Alvarez and Tolliver seem likely to be our left-handed options in 2017 from my point of view so if the Angels do decide to add one more arm it seems like they will bargain hunt in the right-handed side of the market where there are a substantial number of options in both free agency and trade.
The likeliest targets would be Brad Ziegler, Anthony Swarzak, Luke Hochevar, Drew Storen, or maybe a reunion with our old friend Jhoulys Chacin.
In the next section we will discuss our first base situation.