The end of the season is mercifully approaching for the Los Angeles Angels. The roster itself is actually a solid one, worthy of contention in any given year. There’s just no way any team could work around injuries to a Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Nick Tropeano, Tyler Skaggs led rotation and find success. A General Manager should always plan for injuries, and clearly, Billy Eppler did by not trading away his surplus of pitching last offseason. But no team could ever actually lan for this sort of contingency. So I’m willing to give Eppler a freebie on this year. Probably next year too, seeing as we aren’t expected to see Heaney or Tropeano at all in 2017.
But for the sake of breaking ground on what should be an interesting offseason for the Angels, let’s examine a likely path Eppler can take. First, we need to know, can he spend? Last offseason, Eppler was hired with handcuffs on, given the investments made in players like Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson. There’s also the luxury tax to consider, which by most reports, Arte Moreno won’t exceed and the Angels should have a little wiggle room underneath (not much). We have to realize that Arte’s budget isn’t predicated on a future luxury tax, but instead a year to year look at what the Angels can and can’t afford. With Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Geo Soto, Fernando Salas and Joe Smith coming off the books, the Angels find themselves with roughly 50 million less in payroll obligations than the year before. With arbitration cases pending for Richards, Calhoun and Shoemaker, as well as a 4 million dollar raise for Trout and another 2 million for Simmons, we could probably round this figure down to 40 million.
Now with that sort of money, Eppler can make some magic happen. He can’t go crazy, but he has freedom now. Eppler particularly prides himself on two things. 1. He’s a great communicator and 2. He is able to unearth talent and production in unexpected places. I believe Eppler on the first account. Anyone that can perform his job to the fullest extent sandwiched between a meddlesome owner and an all-too-powerful manager must be a great talker. On the second account, the results are mixed. Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry were clearly not his finest work. But Yunel Escobar, Gregorio Petit, Jefry Marte, Deolis Gurra, J.C. Ramirez and Jose Valdez were all pretty savvy moves.
And so, we can expect Eppler to continue to play the short game when it comes to the free agent market, rather than shoot for the moon as his predecessor did. The Angels currently figure to have a protected pick in the next draft, so the Angels could end up signing a major free agent without sacrificing their first round pick, though sacrificing their second is still something to consider, given that they’ve landed two very high upside prep prospects in Jahmai Jones and Brandon Marsh in the second round the last two years.
Our most glaring needs are at second base, left field, and both starting and relief pitching. Our most notable free agent in the field are….
Second Basemen Left Fielders Other OF that can shift to LF
Chris Coghlan (32) Yoenis Cespedes (31) Dexter Fowler (31)
Stephen Drew (34) Rajai Davis (35) Austin Jackson (30)
Steve Pearce (34) Ian Desmond (31) Jose Bautista (36)
Chase Utley (38) Matt Holliday (37) Carlos Beltran (39)
Neil Walker (31) Michael Saunders (30) Josh Reddick (30)
Among the second basemen available, there are a plethora of low cost options. Chris Coghlan has had success in second base and left field throughout his career, though not the immense sort. He’s been a solid option up to this year, when he floundered with the Athletics, but has rebounded of late with the Cubs. Stephen Drew has had his typical year, which means a solid production line, but in limited AB’s due to injury. Steve Pearce is a highly productive bat, but he just underwent forearm surgery and recovery is expected to linger into Spring Training. Chase Utley has continued his solid yet unspectacular production this late in his career. He has a strong affinity for Southern California. Finally, Neil Walker has the highest upside of all these options, yet his season was also recently ended due to injury, which should knock down his price tag.
Without the presence of a surefire in-house option to step into second base, this seems to be the best bet for the Angels to export in free agency. Their current options are Cliff Pennington, Gregorio Petit and Kaelb Cowart. All three should provide excellent defense, but not as much offense as one might prefer. In fact, among all these options, a utility role is probably a better fit. Eppler’s tendencies for under the radar signings certainly make sense for each of these second basemen.
While Eppler made an effort to acquire Walker last offseason, I believe his expected 15 million dollar price tag could be something that prohibits the Angels from making a serious offer. I think the player with the highest likelihood of being targeted by Eppler is Steve Pearce. He’s spent much of his career in the AL East, even had a stint with the Yankees while Eppler was the AGM, and he gives the Angels depth at second base, left field, and first base once he’s healthy. Pearce isn’t a great defender at second base but could subbed out in the later innings for Pennington.
As for left field, the Angels have likely been priced out of the race for Cespedes, Bautista, Desmond and Reddick. Some of the lower tier options such as Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson don’t provide enough of an advantage over Jefry Marte to consider signing. Beltran and Matt Holliday would unquestionably be solid additions, but both are reaching the end of their career and have made it clear they’re focused on signing with a contender, looking for one more shot at a title. This really just leaves Michael Saunders and Dexter Fowler. Both will likely require draft pick compensation (second round), and both figure to command a 15 million dollar commitment. The difference is, what are the Angels looking for?
Saunders is a LF specific player that really struggles defensively but does two things quite well. Hit for power, and get on base. 50% of Saunders’ homers this year have come against his AL East opponents, all of which came in hitter friendly parks. Saunders only managed to hit 4 homers in parks that weren’t favorable. This paints a specific picture about who Saunders is as a hitter. He is big, and he is strong, but he’s also perfectly suited for the AL East. A transition back to the AL West could prove detrimental. Fowler on the other hand is much more of a leadoff type. He should hit roughly half as many home runs as Saunders, but makes up for the difference in more doubles, triples, stolen bases and better defense.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say Fowler is flat out the better plater and the better fit for the Angels. But then comes to question, “Will he play LF?” Fowler has played CF his whole career, and by most measurements, is an adequate option out there. Would he be willing to move aside for Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun? Furthermore, are the Angels interested in moving Kole Calhoun down in the order to make room for Dexter Fowler up top? It seems they should, as Calhoun’s production has always been up when runners on base in front of him, whereas Fowler’s done better without ducks on the pond.
From where I’m standing, I can see Billy Eppler signing Pearce to a one year deal worth 8 million with incentives built in. For Fowler, we’re looking at a four year deal worth 60 million (15 million AAV).
As for the Angels pitching staff, I envision them signing a few minor league free agents, but Eppler will mostly stand pat in this department. He looks to be heading into 2017 with a rotation of Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, Nolasco and Meyer. In AAA, the depth looks to consist of Nate Smith, Manny Banuelos, Chris O’Grady, Kyle McGowin and Troy Scribner/Alex Blackford. Rotation upgrades via free agency simply aren’t present in this market.
In the bullpen, the Angels will be getting Huston Street and Cam Bedrosian back from surgery. both options figure to inherit the 8th and 9th innings. Both Deolis Guerra and J.C. Ramirez have pitched well enough to secure a role in next year’s pen. Mike Morin and Jose Valdez both carry promise, but have had their issues. The Angels will likely be very interested in bringing Andrew Bailey back next year with the way he’s pitched for them this year, and given his previous experience. The rest of the bullpen should be made up of one of Cody Ege or Jose Alvarez, and potentially one of the Angels higher upside bullpen prospects like Keynan Middleton, Victor Alcantara or Eduardo Parades. As a general lineup, I figure we’ll see Street, Bedrosian, Guerra, Ramirez, Bailey, Alvarez and Middleton.
As for a lineup….
3B Escobar, LF Fowler, CF Trout, DH Pujols, RF Calhoun, 1B Cron, SS Simmons, 2B Pearce, C Bandy
Bench: Perez (C), Pennington (UT), Marte (3B/LF), Ortega (OF).