By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
Edited by Angelswin.com Members Chance Hevia (Inside Pitch) and Jason Sinner (Dochalo)
Author’s Note: The author does not have full access to complete team financial data so the numbers contained in this series represent either actual, published contractual details or best estimates. Great effort was made to provide factual evidence and details using reliable sources such as BaseballProspectus.com, Baseball-Reference.com, MLBTraderumors.com, BaseballSavant.com, MLB.com, FanGraphs.com, RosterResource.com, Brooksbaseball.net, StatCorner.com, LATimes.com, OCRegister.com (specifically Jeff Fletcher), and Spotrac.com among others.
Despite Billy Eppler’s best efforts to put a contending team on the field in 2017, the Angels unfortunately fell short of their goal to enter the post-season. It is always a disappointment when you do not make it to the playoffs so he and owner Arte Moreno will now take steps to improve the team and prepare for next year and beyond.
Again, as we have done over the last three years, the conversation for the 2018 season needs to start by discussing and understanding the Angels goals, restrictions, and short and long term needs.
First of all the primary goal each and every year is to put the highest-caliber team on the field of play to secure and bring home a World Series Championship. This key objective is the “parent” of every other goal, restriction, and need that Billy Eppler must address in preparation for Opening Day 2018.
One all-encompassing, critical item, that is both a goal, restriction, and need is superstar Mike Trout.
The goal is to win while you still have him on your roster which of course means competing heavily over the next three seasons, from 2018-2020.
It is also a serious restriction because it drives a large portion of front office decision-making into a well-defined window. This window demands that front office actions and decisions be made on a shorter time frame than, say, a traditional 5-year outlook that many clubs utilize. This is not to say that Eppler and the front office do not have a long-term outlook, it is just acknowledging the fact that their perspective is weighted very heavily toward the next three seasons.
Finally it is a need in the sense that it will be the driving factor for Eppler to acquire competent players to surround Trout, the nucleus of the team, over that period of time.
Beyond the goals of winning a World Series Championship and building the team around Mike Trout, the Angels must manage team payroll, follow the rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), build and manage the front office and coaching staff, continue to construct a top-tier Minor League farm system, and fill several positional needs around the diamond.
One factor in Billy Eppler’s favor this season is the significant increase in Average Annual Value (AAV) that opens up with the merciful expiration of Josh Hamilton’s contract and the departure of multiple free agents alleviating a tight restriction the team faced in recent years.
Currently that free payroll projects to be approximately $31M, in AAV, and could be even higher if Justin Upton elects to opt-out of his contract and the Angels do not pick up one or two key option decisions regarding Ricky Nolasco and Huston Street. The subtraction of all three would leave Eppler with just over $75M to work with this off-season while staying under the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT, more commonly known as the Luxury Tax) threshold.
Last year owner Arte Moreno made some comments that the Halos would be willing to exceed the CBT threshold and that he did not view it as a “hard cap on his spending”. In the year prior Moreno felt the same and was quoted saying, “If it’s the right player, in the right situation, we’ll do whatever is needed.”, in regard to the Luxury Tax not being a deterrent.
So will this be the year, now that the Hamilton nightmare is behind him, that he becomes emboldened and empowers his General Manager (GM) to possibly exceed that artificial ceiling? Or will the team stay under that soft barrier one more year to possibly strike in the very strong 2018-2019 free agent class?
Whether you like or dislike Moreno as an owner, it is difficult to characterize him as one who does not want to win or spend. Despite the obvious blunders of Gary Matthews Jr., Vernon Wells, and Josh Hamilton, over the years, he has consistently supported large payrolls from the moment he bought the Angels which is better than most teams in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Per the new CBA, the CBT threshold for 2018 is $197M in AAV. In the following season it will be $206M, a significant increase of $9M. This, combined with the available options in trade and free agency prior to 2018, could impact Moreno’s decision to open his pocketbook or his choice to exceed the Luxury Tax.
To be perfectly frank, if there was ever a time to do it in the history of the Angels franchise, the next three years would be the ideal time to do so. Rarely does a franchise have such an exceptional talent like Mike Trout. Never have the Angels had such a unique opportunity to build a true World Series-bound contender with such a special, Hall of Fame-bound, player in-tow.
Moreno assuredly recognizes the potential, special nature of the squad heading into 2018 and may be willing to allow Eppler to spend more freely and get creative in the types and lengths of any contracts he may hand out. Early opt-outs for large mega-signings, significant performance bonuses, or short-term, high salary deals could be contractual instruments that Billy utilizes to bring in top-tier talent if Moreno puts his blessing on it.
No matter what decision is made regarding how much payroll the Halos will add, prior to the start of 2018, one thing feels quite certain: the Angels will be a greatly improved team on Opening Day. Billy Eppler, despite his burgeoning supply of prospects, will have marketable assets and a tremendous amount of payroll space, as noted above, to apply in trade(s) and free agency.
Eppler will use these resources to fill most, if not all, of our open positions with either long-term controllable players and prospects or short-term rental players, not unlike what he did in 2017, to either satisfy our long-term needs for 2018 and beyond or bridge the gap to the free agent class in the following 2018-2019 off-season where there may be better, long-term players to purchase on the market.
For the purposes of this series, though, we will assume that Arte Moreno does not allow his GM to exceed the Luxury Tax next year. This means we will operate under the presumption that team payroll, in terms of AAV, will not go over the 2018 CBT threshold of $197M. The result is that the Angels will likely spend no more than $185M, give or take, to start the season.
The reason for that is the team needs to maintain payroll margin in order to make potential trades in-season or before the July 31st deadline to reinforce or upgrade their roster. Keeping a few million in reserve maintains roster flexibility and is a common business practice that Billy Eppler may, or may not, follow based on acquisition opportunities, team performance, and/or firm instructions and concurrence from Moreno regarding payroll expenditures and/or permission to exceed the CBT threshold.
Beyond payroll, another very important goal is the continuing growth and development of the Angels Minor League farm system.
The Angels had an average draft in 2015, an above average one in 2016, followed by a top-heavy draft in 2017. Names like Chris Rodriguez, Jordon Adell, Jahmai Jones, Brandon Marsh, Griffin Canning, Cole Duensing, Nonie Williams, Jose Rojas, and Matt Thaiss are just some of the names Halos fans should keep an eye on in the coming years. Some of them will form the core of the next great Angels team in 2020 and beyond (maybe sooner!).
Also, for the first time in quite a while, the Angels have aggressively and competitively re-entered the international market as well. They signed both 19th ranked Trent Deveaux and 37th ranked D’Shawn Knowles from the Bahamas as well as other prospects from Panama, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic once the July 2nd signing period began.
Looking out into the future, names that fans should keep an eye on here include Deveaux and Knowles, from above, and other young prospects like Leonardo Rivas, Jose Suarez, and Jose Soriano who were taken in previous international drafts. These young prospects have a long way to go but one or more of them will hopefully fill a future need on the Major League roster or act as strong prospect currency in a trade.
Part of this more recent success has to do not only with better overall draft picks (the Angels had a protected 10th round pick this year that they used on Adell) but the strong efforts of Billy Eppler, newly appointed Scouting Director Matt Swanson, and the tireless work of the Angels cross-checkers and scouts around the country. It really feels like the organization has turned a corner for the better here, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Yet another goal Billy Eppler must address are the multiple positional holes to fill including 2B, 3B, LF (if Upton opts-out of his contract), C (backup), and possibly 1B. The team also needs to improve offensive production against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. Billy will also need to ensure the Angels find a quality lead-off hitter as well as another big bat, if not two, to bolster the lineup.
Also, the rotation is unsettled so adding a front line starter would do wonders for our chances next season. Even the bullpen could use another back-end type reliever but it does not necessarily have to be a high-end closer as Cam Bedrosian, Blake Parker, and Keynan Middleton all have the potential to handle high leverage situations.
As he tried to do in 2017, Billy will need to build sufficient depth behind the 25-man roster, particularly in position player and rotation depth. Some of that payroll is almost certainly earmarked for a veteran utility outfielder and it would not be surprising to see Eppler expertly work the waiver wire, again, to supplement the 2018 team.
Without a doubt there are many challenges here for Billy and the front office to handle. Eppler will have to use his talented scouting system to identify the targets they need and want to acquire and either spend the cash and/or the farm system assets needed to obtain them. If 2017 was any indication of his tactical and strategic ability to develop the team, Angels fans should rest well in their beds at night moving forward.
Also, just prior to the publication of this opening article, the Angels hired former Major League player Eric Hinske to be their new hitting coach. Hinske had a 12-year career in the Major Leagues including three consecutive trips to the World Series (2007-2009) which should be an added bonus to an improved Angels squad in 2018 and beyond.
Finally, Arte Moreno and Billy Eppler will have to address the elephant in the room: Mike Scioscia’s contract expires at the end of 2018 and there has been nothing but radio silence from the top, on down, regarding an extension.
To be perfectly frank and honest, as much as Mike Scioscia has frustrated Angels fans with leaving a starter in too long or bringing in a reliever the fans hate, he is a competent manager that runs a consistently tight ship, and is perhaps one of the most intelligent skippers in all of baseball.
This could go either way, likely coming down to whether Scioscia wants to retire or take on a different challenge. Baseball is in his blood and he has been an integral part of this organization for 15 years.
The reality is that he will likely stay, at least a little bit longer than just next season, and truthfully the team could do a lot worse. It would not be surprising to see Scioscia get an extension for another handful of years to bridge to a potential date and time where he may really want to retire. The smart thing to do here, barring a sea change in the managerial free agent pool, is to retain him a while longer.
Starting in 2018 things will begin to really improve in Anaheim. The team will be truly competitive. The farm system, despite the likely, potential, coming trades, will grow. The future success of the franchise is being set no matter whether the Angels retain Mike Trout or he departs during or after the 2020 season.
The incremental steps laid by Billy Eppler yesterday, today, and tomorrow should put this organization back on the path to regular, yearly contention over the next several years.
In the next Section we will discuss the teams finances heading into the off-season.