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Angelswin.com 2018 Primer Series: Corner Infield

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#HugWatch2018

By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer

Edited by Chance Hevia (Inside Pitch) and Jason Sinner (Dochalo)

As the season crept to a merciful end, Billy Eppler and his team officially kicked into high gear for the off-season where they will have to make a decision regarding the future of 3B, with the exit of Yunel Escobar, and 1B, where it was a tale of two halves for both C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena.

Both positions are not high priorities to fill when compared to finding a competent 2B, LF (which has already been accomplished by signing Upton), or front-of-the-rotation starter/multi-innings reliever.

However, Eppler may find that free agency or trade might provide him with a more affordable upgrade at either corner infield spot (probably more so at 1B) when compared to those other three primary needs so there could be potential action this off-season at one, or both, of the corners.

In the end Billy does not have to do anything as he could simply enter 2018 with C.J. Cron at 1B, Luis Valbuena at 3B, and Jefry Marte sharing time with the two of them, primarily against left-handed pitchers.

If the Angels really believe that Cron’s and Valbuena’s second half performances were more indicative of their true ability it may be best for Eppler to keep it simple and focus on improving other positions which have been black holes of production over the last three seasons.

The bottom line is that the Angels can potentially stand pat at either or both positions or shuffle the deck a bit and get creative to obtain more consistent production.

First Base

What a difference a half-year makes.

If you had not noticed C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena (and Jefry Marte!) were pretty awful to start 2017. Their 1st half numbers were dreadful and, to be perfectly frank, disheartening:

2017 Angels 1B Results (1st Half Production)

Each of them, separately, produced about -0.5 WAR, struggling heavily on offense.

Fast forward a few months to the end of the 2nd half and Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde:

2017 Angels 1B Results (2nd Half Production)

Someone must have hit the ‘Easy’ button because the duo of Cron and Valbuena more than tripled their total home run output and more than doubled their RBI totals from the 1st half. Between the two they had a total of 38 HR’s and 113 RBI’s for the year shared between Valbuena’s 48 Games Started (GS) at 3B, 40 GS at 1B, and 2 GS at DH and Cron’s 85 GS at 1B.

Basically when you add them together you have just over a full season’s worth of games with the offensive output you would expect from a bat-first corner infielder.

So what does this mean for 2018?

The reality is that Cron and Valbuena are not as bad as they were in the 1st half but may not be as hot as they were in the 2nd half.

Both of them showed strong ISO numbers in the latter time frame (.275 and .338 respectively) and that is generally a characteristic (extra-base power) that does not vary too much year to year. Cron had a higher average while Valbuena walked more. The latter was also troubled by a very low BABIP which was due in-part to his poor handling of defensive shifts and the focus on hitting for power.

C.J. had a deceptively above average year against left-handed pitchers but virtually all of that wRC+ number sprang from home runs so I am quite hesitant to state that he has solved that historically bad part of his game. Luis could also improve against lefties but it will probably be best to platoon him again based on what happened this season.

Basically both hitters still have warts. They can produce, primarily through home run power, but neither of them has shown consistency at the plate. C.J. is limited to 1B/DH duty only, whereas Valbuena is a 3B, LF, and 1B candidate. Cron’s defense is not bad and in fact may be underrated. Having Luis bounce between the two positions probably messed a little with his defensive rhythm at both spots because he is not as bad as the 2017 numbers indicate.

So, ultimately, you have two guys that can hit RHP pretty well. One, C.J., has better overall splits while the other, Luis, is a bit more versatile on the defensive side.

There is a very real possibility that Billy Eppler will prioritize filling 2B and finding a starter for the rotation in the coming off-season while standing pat with Cron at 1B, Valbuena at 3B, and Marte spelling them against LHP when he can. This would allow Billy to punt any long-term decisions to the following off-season and would save resources to allocate to other needs now and possibly next year.

All that being said, however, there are other routes the Angels can take including trading one or both of them in an attempt to upgrade either corner spot. Collectively 1B produced approximately 0.6 WAR while our hot corner group nearly tripled that number at 1.6 WAR, total. This really points to 1B as the more probable area to improve.

One option that might realistically be on the table is a trade for Brandon Belt from the San Francisco Giants. There have been reports and rumors that Belt and superstar Buster Posey have clashed on the field and possibly in the clubhouse. The Giants, who felt they should have been serious contenders in 2017, may want to shake up the clubhouse dynamic by moving Brandon in trade as they retool for a run next season. Skipper Bruce Bochy was even quoted saying they would “welcome a new look” at first base in 2018.

In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline it was reported, via MLBTradeRumors.com, and Jon Morosi, that the Angels may be a good fit for Belt and that makes sense as the Halos could certainly use another left-handed bat in their lineup.

Brandon is not a premier power-hitter, averaging about 18 home runs over the last three seasons, but he is a good run producer and has an excellent batting-eye. He strikes me as a good choice to hit near the top of the lineup, perhaps in the 2-spot, as he has sported a .380 On-Base Percentage (OBP) paired with a 132 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) from 2015 to the present.

Belt has four more years of contractual control at a very reasonable $14.56M per year in AAV with approximately $68.8M ($17.2M per year) left to pay him on his contract. Near the end of the season he did have a concussion-related injury that put him on the 60-day disabled list so the Angels will have to perform their due diligence in regard to his medicals, if they go down this path, because this is his fourth concussion in eight years.

As Jake Mastroianni wrote, any trade for Brandon will likely involve a Major League replacement, a top tier prospect, and one mid-tier prospect based on the relatively strong value he brings in combination with his reasonable money owed. However, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins called the contract “burdensome” so there may be an opportunity for Eppler to extract some value from what appears to be a deteriorating situation for Belt up North.

The truth of Brandon’s value probably lies somewhere in-between those two perspectives, so perhaps a trade of C.J. Cron, Michael Hermosillo, and another mid-tier prospect gets it done or maybe an alternative grouping like Michael Hermosillo, Brennon Lund, Matt Thaiss, and Connor Lillis-White would do the trick.

Beyond Belt the Angels will probably inquire on Freddie Freeman but he seems unavailable despite the fact that the Braves farm system has a lot of top prospects sitting down in the low Minors that are not ready to support the Major League roster. It would take a lot to pry Freeman away but his bat would have a significant impact to our offense if Billy did pull off a miracle.

Other 1B names in free agency include Eric Hosmer, Adam Lind, Carlos Santana, Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, Mark Reynolds, Yonder Alonso, and Mitch Moreland. An even sneakier, value pick-up could be someone like C Alex Avila who played a competent 1B last season and hit the cover off the ball against RHP. One other option would be Japanese superstar Shohei Otani whom we discussed in Eppler’s Strategy section but every team in baseball will be inquiring on him. If he can play in the outfield, it seems reasonable he could play 1B.

Other than Belt and Freeman mentioned above, the trade market does offer other names like Matt Carpenter, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Abreu, Joe Mauer, Chase Headley, Tommy Joseph, and Matt Adams that might pique Eppler’s interest if the price is right.

Billy will have to feel the market out as it appears this year’s 1B market will be depressed just like it was last season. There was a glut of supply on the market that, in hindsight, suppressed prices, creating potential bargains.

If Eppler thinks he can trade Cron and move some of the deck chairs around to acquire a bargain in free agency or trade it would not be surprising in the least especially when you consider the pitiful production the team’s first basemen put up in 2017.

High Price to Pay –

  • Freddie Freeman
  • Miguel Cabrera
  • Brandon Belt
  • Eric Hosmer

Middle of the Road –

  • Matt Carpenter
  • Jose Abreu
  • Carlos Santana
  • Tommy Joseph
  • Adrian Gonzalez
  • Joe Mauer
  • Chase Headley

Bargain Basement –

  • Logan Morrison
  • Yonder Alonso
  • Lucas Duda
  • Mark Reynolds
  • Adam Lind
  • Matt Adams
  • Brad Miller

Default Solution(s) –

  • Luis Valbuena
  • C.J. Cron
  • Jefry Marte
  • Albert Pujols

Author’s Choice

For reasons we will discuss later in the Final Thoughts article it is my opinion that the Angels will upgrade at 1B by acquiring a hitter than can not only swat RHP well but pairs that ability with a high OBP.

In particular Matt Carpenter strikes me as the right combination of contract length (controllable for 3 years), price (low AAV for the next two years), hitting ability, and on-base skills.

It is possible the Cardinals keep him but he has a fairly high salary for 2018 and beyond that St. Louis would likely want to shed if the rumors are true that they are pursuing a big middle of the order bat. Carpenter would be great hitting lead-off or out of the 2-hole for the Halos.

An alternate, good, backup solution would be Brandon Belt. He too has a strong history of high on-base ability but would cost the Angels a bit more in money and trade chips, making him a strong second choice.

Freddie Freeman and Kyle Schwarber would be my dream choices but both of them will be costly in terms of resources, particularly Freeman.

Third Base

2017 Angels 3B Results

Between Yunel Escobar, Luis Valbuena, and Kaleb Cowart, Angels third basemen collectively produced 1.6 WAR in 2017, ranking them 24th overall for the season. As you can see there is certainly room for improvement.

Rather than rehash the above which applies to Valbuena here in the third base discussion let us play a little game of player blind-comparison.

Remember there is no right or wrong answer here (well maybe a couple of wrong answers) just a pure match-up of the numbers produced by 20 players over the last three seasons that represent the most likely trade and free agent acquisitions the Angels could potentially make mixed with our internal solutions.

Note that there are some sample size issues in terms of PA’s for some of the players on this chart. The answer key is near the end of this article:

3B Blind Comparison Chart (No Names)

The first thing you might notice is that there are a couple of players whose numbers jump off of the page and get your attention.

Players 1, 11, 17, and 19 certainly have stronger overall numbers than the rest of the group. On the flip side Players 3, 12, and 13 leave a lot to be desired and perhaps avoided at all costs.

Beyond those players, though, it is a somewhat even playing field with little variance across the board. Reasonable cases could be made to acquire one of these middle-ground options if the price is right and the Angels would probably walk away sufficiently satisfied with their purchase if they did.

If defense matters most to Eppler then Players 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, and 20 would be more preferable choices.

Billy has made it clear he wants every position around the diamond to be defensively strong so it is hard to imagine him dumping defense, completely, for offense out of the hot corner. Based on that assumption Players 1 and 16 are probably non-starters for Eppler.

Below is the answer key:

3B Blind Comparison Chart (Names)

As was presented in the Angelswin.com forum a couple of weeks ago, AW.com member Dochalo pointed out a blind comparison between Mike Moustakas and Luis Valbuena showing quite similar hitting and production profiles over their careers.

Of course Moose is younger and could still break out further but the point Dochalo was trying to make and the question Eppler has to ask himself is this: Is it worth dolling out a 5-year, $85M contract to Moustakas or would the team be better served by having Luis play the hot corner this year for the $8M we have already spent?

In a season where payroll needs to be intelligently applied to maximize value, spending an additional $17M in AAV per season to upgrade by approximately one win does not strike me as efficient. You could just as easily have Valbuena play 3B and sign a quality reliever like Jake McGee or Addison Reed, for less money, and achieve the same total win effect.

High Price to Pay –

  • Nick Senzel
  • Eugenio Suarez
  • Evan Longoria
  • Mike Moustakas

Middle of the Road –

  • Jedd Gyorko
  • Manny Machado
  • Josh Donaldson
  • Maikel Franco
  • Michael Chavis
  • Jake Lamb
  • Josh Harrison
  • Todd Frazier
  • Greg Garcia

Bargain Basement –

  • Logan Forsythe
  • Eduardo Nunez
  • Chase Headley
  • Derek Dietrich
  • Martin Prado
  • Asdrubal Cabrera
  • Brad Miller

Default Solution(s) –

  • Luis Valbuena
  • Kaleb Cowart
  • Nolan Fontana
  • Sherman Johnson

Author’s Choice –

Before I started the Primer Series back in late June if I had been asked which positions the Angels needed to address this off-season I almost assuredly would have mentioned 3B in that conversation.

However, the beauty of doing a deep dive into the teams finances, production results, and options to upgrade, gives you a better appreciation of what Billy Eppler should or shouldn’t do to make the team better.

Although 3B does need to be addressed at some point, the glaring holes of – 0.1 and 0.6 WAR at 2B and 1B, respectively, are far more jarring and in need of attention.

Steamer and Depth Charts agree that Valbuena should produce approximately 1.5 WAR give or take next season, basically matching the output the Angels received this season. It is certainly nothing to write home about but it isn’t nothing either.

It seems likely, barring a good deal for a player like Eugenio Suarez or Jake Lamb for instance, that Luis Valbuena will be our starting 3B on Opening Day 2018, based on current and future needs combined with our more pressing resource allocations at 1B, 2B, and in the rotation/bullpen.

In the next section we will discuss the Outfield.

 

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