A touchy subject for the last two years running, the Angels rotation appears to be heading towards a semblance of health as the team slides into the 2017-2018 off-season, but whether it stays that way is a different matter, so Billy Eppler will need to evaluate his options from a medical, seasonal, and a potential playoff point-of-view before Opening Day 2018 to determine if it is an area where the team stands pat or is in need of an upgrade.
Before we go any further we need to examine which pitchers are currently at the AA level or higher, how many innings pitched (IP) they had in 2017, approximately how many IP they project to have in 2018, are they currently on the 40-man roster, and how many options they have left (the last is courtesy of RosterResource.com as of 11/04/17):
Typically a Major League team wants to be at least ten starters deep to begin any season, so the first thing that immediately jumps off the page is that the Angels already have significant rotation depth heading into 2018. If you count the prospects and subtract both the two injured players, Meyer and Ramirez, the Angels have sixteen potential starters which is excellent in terms of the number of warm bodies.
However it is the quality, health, and length of those warm bodies that Eppler is probably more concerned with and, based on the last two years of significant rotation injuries, it is an area of risk that Billy will once again have to aggressively manage in 2018.
So we all know that every team in the Majors wants and needs an “Ace” starting pitcher. This is the guy that runs out there every 5 days and gives you a really good chance to win the game on any given start. He is the guy you hand the ball to in Game 1 of the Division, League, and World Series Championships. He is the guy with the “filthy” stuff and the “bulldog” mentality. The “Ace” is the guy that gets it done and rights the ship if the team has hit a rough patch.
Out of that group above the only player who has shown any consistency as an Ace is Garrett Richards. Unfortunately he has spent most of 2016 and 2017 on the disabled list, first with a serious knee injury and then an even more serious, partially torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). Richards spent the last handful of weeks of the regular season rehabilitating his arm and throwing a minimal number of innings for the team (and looked good doing it).
However the concern here, heading into the off-season, is not only his health but the fact that he will almost certainly be on an innings-pitched limit for the 2018 season. Simply put there are questions about his effectiveness (he needs to prove he is healthy) and how many innings he can throw for the Angels next season (including the playoffs if they make it). These are legitimate questions and concerns, particularly if we hit the post-season.
Behind Richards, the young, but oft-injured Alex Meyer has shown glimpses of high-quality strikeout ability that hints at Ace-like potential but is often marred by control issues in the form of high walk rates. Unfortunately near the end of 2017 he had shoulder surgery that will likely keep him out all of next year.
If he recovers well and stays healthy Alex could also prove to be a #1 starter himself but there is a lot of built-in risk here for Billy Eppler to reliably count on him as a starter heading into the 2019 season. The lost development time probably means that the bullpen is his likely landing spot if and when he does return.
Taking a step down from the “Ace” moniker to the next rung of the ladder you have some other familiar names like Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, and Matt Shoemaker. Each of these men has the potential to flash moments where they dominate their competition and others where their mechanics fail them. These three more consistently show front or mid-rotation ability over an entire season.
After this trio you have back-end starter types like Bridwell, Ramirez, Scribner, and Tropeano. On the prospect side you have names like Smith, Barria, Jewell, Morales, and Carpenter as potential reserve starters entering 2018. Barria and Jewell have more upside, perhaps mid-rotation level capability, than the rest.
Basically, for 2018, the Angels have one “Ace”, a trio of mid-rotation types, several back-end starter types, and some prospects that can act as both mid and back-end rotation depth.
So are the Angels in desperate need of another starter or can they run with what they have?
Here is the rub regarding our rotation set-up in 2018.
Eppler will want his best pitchers to be available and ready for the post-season if the Angels are in contention. Based on the chart above our top five pitchers are Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, and one of J.C. Ramirez or Parker Bridwell, as the roster currently stands. Under normal circumstances that is a reasonably good rotation.
The problem of course involves the number of innings that all five will be capable of throwing including any and all playoff appearances. A healthy, stretched-out starter can start 30 games and provide 175+ innings over a full MLB season and upwards of 200 or more if you add in playoff appearances.
Richards has pitched a total of 27.2 innings in 2017. Last year he pitched 34.2 innings. Realistically asking him to pitch more than 120 innings or so, in 2018, could be problematic and possibly dangerous from a medical point-of-view. The likely scenario is that the Angels use Garrett sparingly, perhaps even out of the bullpen, for some portion of 2018.
Heaney is also in the same boat. He pitched just 6 innings in 2016 and a whopping 49.1 in the last half of 2017 after he recovered from Tommy John Surgery (TJS). Shoemaker and Skaggs have thrown a total of 80.2 and 98.2 innings, respectively, in 2017. Even those two could be on a moderate leash next season.
This of course assumes that these four are healthy and effective after suffering through their various ailments. It would be foolish for Billy Eppler to count on all of them bouncing back to full form. There is a lot of risk built-in to this quartet of starters for the 2018 season in terms of work load, durability, and effectiveness on the mound.
So if four of your best starters have to be managed carefully what can Eppler do to mitigate this problem?
One idea would be to use Richards and Heaney out of the bullpen for the first part of 2018 and then, when the time is right, slide them back into the rotation for the stretch run. This would put a cap on their inning totals and hopefully keep them fresh for when the team will need them the most.
Alternatively the Angels could try running out a 6-man rotation where each starter would pitch every 6th or 7th day instead of the normal 5-day separation between starts. This too would put a cap on their total innings but would not be as strict as a half bullpen/half rotation stint would be.
A third option would be to run out a trio of “bullpen” rotations where you have one or more starters pair up with one or two relievers to pitch a full game. For instance one day you could have Richards, Skaggs, and Pena split innings pitched (say 4/4/1, 5/2/2, or even 3/3/3), then the second day have Heaney, Shoemaker, and Tropeano do the same, and then the third day have Bridwell, Wood, and Paredes close out the series. That would leave Scioscia with 3-4 relievers (Bedrosian, Parker, Middleton, et al) to use in high leverage situations or if one of those “bullpen” starters gets in trouble.
Realistically it would not be surprising to see Eppler and Scioscia choose a standard 5-man staff and open the 2018 season with a starting rotation of Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, and Parker Bridwell. Alternatively Troy Scribner or possibly Nick Tropeano could be swapped out for one or more of those names. Also one or more of those starters could begin the year in the bullpen or possibly even the Minor Leagues (unlikely) in this scenario.
Obviously having Garrett and Andrew in relief is not ideal, or perhaps even practical, but logically it is difficult to envision them as starters for the entire year based on our discussion above. Matt’s and Tyler’s recent injury histories only add to the overall concern. This whole situation screams for more stability at the top of the rotation for next season and the only way to do that is by making a trade for, or signing, a front- or middle-of-the-rotation starter.
The Angels certainly have enough free payroll to do this as we discussed in the Financial section of this Primer series.
This simply means that top free agent starters like Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta could be atop Billy’s wish list or maybe someone like Alex Cobb or Jaime Garcia might be more attractive to Eppler. If Shohei Otani is posted this off-season from Japan the Angels will almost assuredly pursue him to the best of their ability as he could potentially start and play left field or 1B (he is rumored to want a team that will play him as a two-way player).
If free agency is not to Eppler’s liking he could pursue a trade instead. The Angels have enough prospect and player capital to pull off one big deal. However when you scan the top starters around the league the only name that might be readily available is the Rays Chris Archer whom was reportedly on the market recently.
Certainly a top starter like Archer, if he is actually available in the off-season, would cost a lot for the Angels to acquire. Eppler would likely wind up paying some combination of MLB talent and top prospects when dealing with Tampa in this particular case.
The conversation would probably start with one of our more controllable MLB pitchers such as Skaggs, Shoemaker, or Heaney and include one of our top outfield prospects, like Jones, Adell, or Marsh, along with someone like C.J. Cron and perhaps 1-2 additional, mid-to-lower level prospects. Alternatively it could be something like a package of Cam Bedrosian, C.J. Cron, Jordon Adell, Chris Rodriguez, and Taylor Ward for instance.
It will cost this much because Archer’s contract is so unbelievably inexpensive ($4.25M AAV from 2018-2019 plus a $9M 2020 option and an $11M 2021 option). That would add an incredible advantage in regard to team payroll (AAV).
Chris may be the most attractive name in current circulation but he is certainly not the only name the Angels could check in on.
The Indians, after this season, may be ready to part with one of their top starters like Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar or possibly Bauer. Perhaps the Detroit Tigers would be willing to move Michael Fulmer or Daniel Norris as well. A rumor has circulated that the Blue Jays may deal Marcus Stroman too.
A low payroll team like the Diamondbacks or Rockies might be willing to swing a deal for Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray or Zack Godley or, in the case of Colorado, one of German Marquez, Jeff Hoffman, or Tyler Anderson. Other names like Jose Urena, Kevin Gausman, Joe Biagini, and Matt Harvey could potentially be in play as well.
The bottom line is that there are options for Billy to explore and pursue. Resources and money cannot buy happiness but they can potentially acquire a 95 mph fastball.
Assuming our starting five come back and pitch the actual number of innings based on the projections above it is not unreasonable to believe that Richards, Skaggs, Shoemaker, Heaney, and Bridwell could improve the team by 4-5 wins. Combined with the addition of Upton for a full season and the Angels probably move from an 80 win team to 86-88 wins. Add in a competent 2B and 3B and you probably improve by another 2-4 wins on top of that, cresting 90 wins.
Really this will come down to Eppler’s confidence in his ability to find pitching talent (which he has done well so far to-date) versus going with a more known entity with a strong track record in the Majors.
Either way the team needs to add one more front- or middle-of-the-rotation starter for 2018 if they go with a traditional 5-man starting staff, otherwise, particularly if Eppler does not want to spend resources on the rotation, they need to find a strong, hybrid reliever/starter, multi-innings type to add to the mix.
Below is the author’s best estimate of the most likely targets categorized by total price (payroll and/or prospect cost) in four bins: “High Price to Pay”, “Middle of the Road”, “Bargain Basement”, “Default Solution(s)”, and the last which is the “Author’s Choice”.
High Price to Pay –
- Chris Archer
- Michael Fulmer
- Robbie Ray
- Corey Kluber
- Carlos Carrasco
- Zack Godley
- Tyler Anderson
- Jeff Hoffman
Middle of the Road –
- German Marquez
- Danny Salazar
- Marcus Stroman
- Trevor Bauer
- Daniel Norris
- Jose Urena
- Joe Biagini
- Mike Minor
- Brad Hand
Bargain Basement –
- Gio Gonzalez
- J.A. Happ
- Patrick Corbin
- Matt Harvey
Default Solution(s) –
- Parker Bridwell
- Troy Scribner
- J.C. Ramirez (if healthy)
- Nick Tropeano (unlikely due to IP limit)
- Nate Smith
- Jaime Barria
- Jake Jewell
Author’s Choice –
If Eppler sticks with acquiring cost-controlled talent and wants to put a majority of his trade resources into someone, Chris Archer makes a lot of sense not only for the top of our rotation but for team cash flow as well. The Rays have to cut payroll this off-season and trading Archer is one possibility for them to do so.
Adding another front-line starter like Archer would do wonders for our rotation in 2018, giving us a 1-2 punch of Chris and Garrett at the top, particularly if we make it to the playoffs. The extra bonus is the minuscule amount of AAV that Chris’ contract adds, giving Eppler additional payroll to use in free agency or trade now and moving forward.
Alternatively the Angels could target someone with less years of control like Marcus Stroman. He would not help payroll quite as much but he has three years of arbitration control left and could still slot in as an Ace-like starter at the top of the rotation as well.
If Eppler wants to convert another reliever type into a starter or a multi-inning reliever, Jose Urena, Brad Hand, or free agent Mike Minor strike me as targets Billy would have some level of interest in. Urena throws in the mid-90’s while Hand and Minor have some excellent peripherals. All three pitched quite a few innings this year in their respective roles.
In the end Archer is probably out of reach or not available so I’m placing my money on Jose Urena. He has enough innings logged to enter our rotation and his high heat combined with a nice ground ball rate against RHP’s will fit in nicely with our defensive alignment.
In the next section we will cover the Angels potential bullpen options.