By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
Edited by Chance Hevia (Inside Pitch) and Jason Sinner (Dochalo)
Every team has injuries throughout the year and maintaining the ability to swap them, hopefully on a temporary basis only, with a player or prospect that can provide production above replacement level (i.e. greater than 0 WAR) is quite valuable.
Over the last two years, Billy Eppler made it a point to improve catcher defense and build depth on the 40-man roster. Although he has had some success, this is still, just like the rest of the roster, a work in-progress heading into the 2018 season.
The good news is that Eppler now has more payroll to work with and this should allow him to build sufficient, competent depth at every position.
Interestingly the Angels have some quality reserve players, in the Minor Leagues, that can play all around the diamond. To be clear a lot of these guys are strictly utility types but they bring some upside that could provide the team with higher-caliber, temporary relief of our regular position players in 2018.
Half of the teams that qualified for the playoffs, including both Wild Cards in each League, were ranked in the Top 10 catcher corps in baseball according to FanGraphs ‘Defense’ statistic. Every one of those teams except the 2017 World Champion Astros, who finished dead last, were in the Top 20.
In spite of Houston’s success, it is no coincidence that pitching and defense wins championships and the Angels GM knew this, prior to entering 2017, which is why he took action to improve the team behind the dish by trading for Martin Maldonado from the Brewers.
Perhaps one of Eppler’s most important acquisitions to-date, Maldonado was fantastic defensively for the Angels, this past season, posting a career high FanGraphs ‘DEF’ score of 12.5, throwing out 38.6% of base stealers, while calling great games day-to-day over a career record 138 games started. In pitch framing he ranked 5th overall for 2017, per StatCorner.com.
Maldonado is simply one aspect of Eppler’s larger vision of up-the-middle run prevention but the visceral, significant impact of “Machete’s” work on the field was not only seen but felt on a daily basis. The pitchers have reportedly raved about his ability to work with them in and out of the game.
Martin’s great ability as a backstop will be the likely motivator for the Angels to offer him an extension contract this off-season, particularly when you consider how much they relied on him in 2017.
The Angels would probably find a lot of value in buying out Machete’s last year of arbitration and tacking on another 3-4 years of contractual control. Perhaps something like a 4-5 year, $24M-40M (AAV of $6M-8M) deal would satisfy both sides, giving the Angels long-term stability behind the dish and allowing Martin and his family to achieve lifetime financial security.
If an extension does occur it would not be surprising to see the Angels go out and sign a free agent left-handed hitting catcher with pitch-framing skills like Miguel Montero or even just a pure hitter like Alex Avila on a short-term deal.
Alternatively the Halos could trade for a short-term guy like Tyler Flowers, who led all of baseball in pitch framing this season, or perhaps Stephen Vogt (if the Brewers do not non-tender him due to his projected 2018 arbitration salary), who is not nearly as good as Flowers defensively but could provide reasonable offensive value. In contrast the Angels could look for a long-term piece to compliment Maldonado like one of Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart, Rob Brantly, Francisco Mejia, or Chance Sisco, for example.
The important qualities for a backup catcher behind Maldonado would reside more on the game calling, pitch framing, and hitting aspects, primarily because Martin would likely be utilized for a majority of the games in 2018 and the backup would have more value if they can hit or get on-base against right-handed pitching (which Martin is poor at) while providing a modicum of pitch-sequence calling and framing, and pinch-hitter opportunities in the later innings of games.
If the Angels decide not to extend Martin, then he will likely spend his final season of team control partnered with either Juan Graterol (as he did in 2017) or Carlos Perez, one of which the Angels can continue to groom for the starting role in 2019 and beyond if that is Eppler’s goal.
Also the lack of a Maldonado extension would, obviously, mean the Angels want to go in an entirely different direction with their tandem behind the plate after 2018. The only two catchers that would be likely upgrades over Maldonado, that might actually be available this off-season or next, are Jonathan Lucroy and Yasmani Grandal so, if the Angels do not extend Martin, these two are the likely targets now or next year.
Here are the resource expenditure tiers if Eppler decides to trade Maldonado, reduce his total games next season, or acquire an external backup catcher:
High Price to Pay –
- Francisco Mejia
- Austin Barnes
- J.T. Realmuto
- Jonathan Lucroy
- Chance Sisco
Middle of the Road –
- Sandy Leon
- Yasmani Grandal
- Tyler Flowers
- Blake Swihart
- Rob Brantly
Bargain Basement –
- Rene Rivera
- Alex Avila
- Stephen Vogt
- Miguel Montero
Default Solution(s) –
- Carlos Perez
- Juan Graterol
- Jose Briceno
- Wade Wass
Author’s Choice –
Martin Maldonado was a revelation behind the plate in almost as similar a manner that Andrelton Simmons dominates at shortstop. His ability to frame pitches, call a fantastic game (particularly in pitch sequencing), and cut down runners really provides deep value to the entire Angels team. The mere fact that Scioscia thinks Maldonado is the biggest reason for the success of the Angels pitching staff speaks volumes about his ability.
On the backup side it appears likely the Angels will run out one of Graterol or Perez, probably the latter. If Eppler decided to splurge, acquiring one year of Flowers would give us perhaps the best framing duo in all of MLB (but Tyler would cost us at least a quality mid-tier prospect).
Finally, if the Angels were to pick up a veteran backup hitter who can handle RHP, one of Miguel Montero or Stephen Vogt makes a lot of sense (which would result in Perez, who is out of options, being traded) but resources will have to be allocated carefully this off-season and this is more of a position of want, not need.
In the section above we discussed the possibilities for backup catcher, which is really just a bench position, and in doing so we established the likelihood that Billy Eppler will probably go with an internal solution, such as Carlos Perez, Juan Graterol, or perhaps Jose Briceno, for that spot.
Beyond the reserve catcher position Eppler will have to fill the infield and outfield utility spots for 2018.
Last year Billy utilized Ben Revere primarily for the latter while the former was filled, mostly, by veteran Cliff Pennington and Jefry Marte. Both Revere and Pennington saw their contracts expire at the end of this season creating two utility voids.
Fortunately there are some internal options, however nearly all of them have little to no experience at the MLB level.
On that infield utility side you have names like Jefry Marte (1B and 3B), Kaleb Cowart (2B, 3B, 1B, and in a pinch SS), Nolan Fontana (all infield positions), Sherman Johnson (same as Cowart plus LF), and David Fletcher (2B and SS) as possible choices.
In the outfield, the Angels are only sporting one real option, Michael Hermosillo, now that Eric Young Jr. and Shane Robinson have elected free agency. Hermosillo is quite young (22 currently) and has no MLB experience but has a lot of upside and could prove valuable later in the season.
This lack of experienced choices will probably lead Billy Eppler to consider bringing in one or two veteran stop-gap players on a short-term deal, particularly in the outfield, out of free agency.
Ben Revere, who is preparing to walk out the door himself, could probably be re-signed on a 1-year deal. Additionally the market has names like Jarrod Dyson, Rajai Davis, Jon Jay, Colby Rasmus, and our old fan favorite and friend Peter Bourjos who could potentially fill the 4th outfielder role.
Dyson is probably going to get more regular playing time than the other four so he may be off the table but it is worth inquiring about because his outfield defense is fantastic and he would be a solid bench bat and pinch runner.
The other four have varying degrees of talent and skill sets but any of them would be able to provide reasonable production in a backup role.
On the infield side you find some of the usual suspects such as Stephen Drew, Eduardo Nunez, Alexei Amarista, Josh Rutledge, and Adam Rosales and some new names like J.J. Hardy, Jose Reyes, Trevor Plouffe, and Dusty Coleman. It seems, based on Eppler’s desire to add more primary left-handed infielders, that the Angels would best be served bringing in a right-handed utility bat.
Out of this group, Adam Rosales, Josh Rutledge, J.J. Hardy, and Jose Reyes strike me as reasonable possibilities for Eppler to acquire on a one-year deal.
Finally the Halos could look to the trade market to pick up a reserve outfielder or infielder more to Eppler’s fancy.
Perhaps someone like Brandon Guyer, Mark Zagunis, or Juan Lagares might be preferred over one of our internal solutions. The latter, in particular, brings excellent outfield defense while the other two could provide some serious on-base skills.
On the infield side perhaps someone like Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller (prefer him as an everyday guy), or Dean Anna might have appeal to the Angels front office.
Here are the resource expenditure tiers for the reserve infield and outfield utility roles. Please note that this is just a sample of players/prospects that may or may not be available in free agency and/or trade:
High Price to Pay –
- Tony Kemp
Middle of the Road –
- Mallex Smith
- Jarrod Dyson
- Juan Lagares
- Mark Zagunis
- Ben Zobrist
Bargain Basement –
- Lonnie Chisenhall
- Brandon Guyer
- J.T. Riddle
- Alexei Amarista
- Jose Iglesias
- J.J. Hardy
- Jon Jay
- Adam Rosales
- Pedro Florimon
- Colby Rasmus
- Josh Rutledge
- Erick Aybar
- Stephen Drew
- Ruben Tejada
- Craig Gentry
- Nick Franklin
- Arismendy Alcantara
- Peter Bourjos
- Rajai Davis
- Aaron Hill
- Ryan Raburn
- Eric Young Jr.
- Shane Robinson
Default Solution(s) –
- Kaleb Cowart
- Nolan Fontana
- Sherman Johnson
- Michael Hermosillo
- Jefry Marte
Author’s Choice –
First of all it seems likely, barring a trade, that Kaleb Cowart will be our 2018 Opening Day utility middle infielder and Jefry Marte our utility corner infielder.
On the chance Cowart is traded this off-season (decent chance in my opinion) then Nolan Fontana appears to be the next in line of succession based on his defensive capabilities and on-base skills. Sherman Johnson, unfortunately, also appears to be trade bait, if not a likely Rule V pick-up by another team in early December.
If Billy decides that he does not want to start Hermosillo’s clock and looks to free agency, someone like the experienced veteran Rajai Davis strikes me as reasonable free agent choice as a 4th outfielder on an inexpensive, say $4M-5M, deal. As a possibly less desirable alternative, Eppler could dip into the Minor League free agency pool to find one or more defensively capable players and have them all compete for the 4th outfielder role as well.
No matter whom they go after, obtaining a veteran or a dirt cheap, diamond-in-the-rough, Minor League player will allow the Angels to bring up Hermosillo in the Summer/Fall to prepare him for the 4th outfielder role in 2019 (if he, too, is not traded).
In the next section I will share some of my Final Thoughts to wrap up the Primer Series.