By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
A good or bad bullpen can make or break a team’s season.
Over the last handful of years the Angels really have not had either, they have milled around a bit, near average, with our 2017 relief corps being the best group and our 2016 our worst group in recent memory.
Entering 2019, however, that may prove to be a different story.
Billy Eppler and the front office staff have cobbled together what, on paper, appears to be an exciting group of hard throwers that could have a real impact on our playoff chances next season. Nothing is guaranteed to anyone of course, as relief arms are notoriously volatile, but the group the Halos have assembled to-date has promise.
To better understand the author’s general optimism let us take a brief look at new Angels manager Brad Ausmus’ bullpen options heading into 2019:
Miguel Almonte (RHP)
We start this list with Almonte but the reality is that Miguel’s time on our 40-man roster might be short.
Miguel features a mid-90’s fastball and a low-80’s curveball. He will mix in an occasional change-up and slider and has an above average GB% rate and has been the victim of his own crime when it comes to his walk rate.
If Almonte survives the inevitable roster addition(s), this Spring Training will be a make or break one for him, as he is out of options, which means he needs to break camp or he will find himself designated for assignment in all likelihood.
Justin Anderson (RHP)
Anderson represents one of the points of optimism for our bullpen moving forward.
Justin features a mid-to-high-90’s fastball that can touch triple digits. He pairs that high heat with a mid-80’s slider and a rarely used low-80’s change-up.
The fastball is quite heavy with a lot of sink which results in a high GB% rate (50.8% in 2018). Although he put a lot of balls on the ground and created a lot of poor contact (.213 AVG last year), he suffered from a high 6.51 BB/9 (walk rate per 9 innings) rate.
If Anderson wants to be more than a nice mid-innings relief piece he will need to tame the walks and success should follow in its wake. He has three options remaining per RosterResource.com, so he is a candidate who can potentially start down in the Minors come Opening Day.
Cam Bedrosian (RHP)
The last two years have not been particularly kind to Cam.
Bedrosian has been experiencing a continuous two-year decline in velocity from his 2016 mid-90’s heat and ended 2018 sitting at about 93 mph, on average. This lower velocity, combined with zero remaining options, means that he must break camp with the Major League team or he could be traded or even designated for assignment.
Cam features a low-to-mid 90’s fastball and a low-to-mid 80’s slider as his primary two-pitch mix. Moving forward he may need to develop a third pitch to keep batter’s off-balance, so the development of a change-up could prove useful, particularly versus left-handed hitters.
The promise of Bedrosian’s stuff as a Minor League player materialized in 2016 and 2017 but the velocity loss represents a real concern regarding his effectiveness moving forward. Hopefully the Angels new coaching staff will work on Cam’s bio-mechanics and adjust his off-season training regimen in an attempt to regain some velocity he has lost or at least stop the bleeding that the last two years have exorcised on his arm.
Unless he has a poor performance during Spring Training he should be on the 25-man roster come Opening Day.
Austin Brice (RHP)
Poached from Cincinnati in early November, Brice is a hard-throwing right-handed reliever that features a four-pitch mix, including a mid-90’s sinking fastball, a mid-80’s slider, a low-80’s curveball, and an occasional mid-80’s change-up.
The sinker of course results in an above average, career groundball rate of 51.2%. If Austin can lower his walk rate a touch and create some additional poor contact, the Angels might have picked up a jewel that just needed a little polish.
Unfortunately Brice will not have a lot of time to prove this because he, too, is out of options and must either break camp with the team or he may find himself being designated for assignment prior to the start of the season.
Parker Bridwell (RHP)
“If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.”
If you were not watching, Parker Bridwell is back! The prodigal son has returned!
Pretty much everything about Parker’s peripherals says “meh”. However, both the Yankees and the Angels have clamored after him on the waiver wire which certainly makes one stop and say “Why?”
As a full-time reliever, Bridwell was better and perhaps that is where the Angels will consider placing him. His ability to make starts and absorb innings certainly has value but it is more of the back-end, up-and-down, type worth, nothing more.
Parker features a four-pitch mix, including a low-90’s four-seam fastball, a low-90’s two-seam type (FanGraphs lists both a two-seam and cutter) fastball, a low-80’s curveball and a mid-80’s change-up. It seems like the Angels and Yankees see more value in how he creates uncomfortable contact for hitters, popping them up, putting the ball on the ground, and generally limiting hard (and soft) contact.
Bridwell is out of options so he will also need to break camp with the big league club or he could find himself hitting the waiver wire once again.
Ty Buttrey (RHP)
One of two relievers (see Jerez below) acquired in the Ian Kinsler trade in late July, Buttrey represents a real bright spot for the back-end of the Angels bullpen heading into 2019.
Ty spotlights a quality three-pitch mix including a heavy mid-90’s fastball, a low-to-mid-80’s slider, and a mid-80’s change-up. His ability to get both left- and right-handed hitters out combined with a really high groundball rate and poor contact against the latter (RHHs) makes him dangerous and a very solid choice to pitch in high leverage situations for Brad Ausmus.
Buttrey has two options left but there is a high probability that he wins a bullpen spot outright in Spring Training, based on what he has already shown and the potential to continue improving moving forward. His ability to get right-handed hitters to turn over and put the ball on the ground should feed into a Simmons-Cozart defensive alignment up-the-middle of the infield.
Taylor Cole (RHP)
Originally a starter, the Blue Jays, in 2017, began to move him to the bullpen where his stuff could potentially play up in relief and once the Angels signed him to a Minor League contract in March, they continued down that path, which appears to be generating better results.
Taylor features a three-pitch mix, including a low-to-mid-90’s heavy fastball, a recently added mid-80’s slider, and a mid-80’s change-up. He mixes all of these pitches together well, that keeps a lot of hitters guessing as to what comes next and is, in part, what led to his success in 2018.
Cole has two options left so he is a candidate to start the year off in the high Minors to act as depth in case of a Major League injury. The Angels did have him spot start a couple of games last year so they may view him as that moving forward or perhaps as a multi-innings type reliever. It should be noted that, other than Buttrey, Taylor had some of the best numbers on the team, so if he can replicate that in Spring Training he could make an open and shut case to claim a 25-man roster spot.
Matt Esparza (RHP)
Probably a name you have not heard before, Matt was just nabbed from Indians High-A ball in the Rule V Draft. He has been described as a back-end starter by FanGraphs Eric Longenhagen and has reached as high as AA in 2017.
Certainly the Angels could be viewing him as a starter candidate but a move to the bullpen could accelerate his arrival in Anaheim. A relief role might allow his fastball, slider, and change-up to play up more and Eppler and company certainly targeted him for his high groundball rate (it has hovered just under 50% as a starter to-date) so he may be closer to the Majors than some realize.
Esparza features a three-pitch mix including a high-80’s to low-90’s fastball with sink, a low-to-mid-80’s slider, and an upper-70’s curveball.
It is unlikely that Matt will be available until later in 2019, if at all. He is listed here primarily because of the potential change from starter to reliever and the subsequent potential to impact the Major League roster as a late September call-up. He is prospective, unheralded depth that could be used in a multitude of roles (starter, multi-innings reliever, or straight one-inning bullpen help).
Luis Garcia (RHP)
In perhaps the most interesting challenge trade seen in recent memory (and to be frank challenge trades do not happen too often anyway!), the Angels sent LHP Jose Alvarez to the Phillies in exchange for the hard-throwing Garcia. It was an even salary exchange with identical years of control remaining (two each).
Luis, according to FanGraphs, spotlights a three-pitch mix that includes a biting mid-to-high-90’s four-seam fastball, a mid-to-high-80’s split-fingered fastball (Pitch F/X seemed to classify this as a two-seam fastball as they are similar), and a mid-80’s slider. He relies more on the latter two pitches in-game, however.
Eppler’s acquisition of Garcia simply seems to be a continuation of the organizations philosophy of high-octane heat and strikeout ability and the increasing, emerging philosophy of high groundball rates (Luis has a 57.2% GB%). Garcia has no options remaining so he must break camp with the Major League squad or face a possible trade or be designated for assignment.
Williams Jerez (LHP)
Currently the only pure left-handed reliever (if you count Peters as a starter) on the staff, Jerez is the second piece the Angels brought back in the Ian Kinsler trade.
Williams has really good velocity from the left-side and features a three-pitch mix that includes a heavy mid-90’s fastball (see the theme developing?), a mid-to-high-80’s slider, and a mid-to-high-80’s change-up. The former results in an above average groundball rate but he needs to work on lowering his walk and home run rates as they are both borderline high.
Jerez has one option left so he is a candidate to start the 2019 season down in the high Minors but as the only lefty reliever currently on the staff he may have an inside track for a bullpen spot come Opening Day.
Jake Jewell (RHP)
Jewell saw his 2018 debut cut short after a freak break of his right fibula as he was covering home plate on a wild pitch in a game against Boston in late June. Fortunately the timetable should have him comfortably back and ready to join Spring Training in an attempt to win a roster spot in the bullpen.
A personal favorite of the author’s, Jake originally began as a starter in the Angels farm system but it has long been suspected that a move to relief would capitalize best on his ability and that is what the Halos did starting in 2018 that culminated in three big league appearances leading up to the injury above.
Jake features a four-pitch mix, including a mid-to-high-90’s four-seam cut fastball, a mid-90’s sinker, a mid-80’s curveball, and a high-80’s to low-90’s change-up. Throughout his Minor League career, he has maintained a strong ability to force hitters to put the ball on the ground and an above average ability to miss bats.
Because of his so-so success as a starter, the two options he has remaining, the potential to be a good back-end reliever, and the shortened 2018 season, the Angels will probably start Jewell down in the high Minors to start 2019. However, it would not be at all surprising to see him back up in the Majors in short order assuming his health is in good order.
Keynan Middleton (RHP)
Although he is still in the recovery process from Tommy John Surgery (TJS), back in May of 2018, Middleton still projects to return to the Majors in the middle or late part of 2019.
Keynan combines fantastic makeup with even more fantastic hit and miss strikeout ability. Assuming he recovers to a semblance of his former self, he should become a force again pitching out of the back-end of the bullpen and represents another bright spot in next year’s relief corps.
Middleton spotlights a three-pitch mix, including a mid-to-high 90’s fastball, a mid-to-high-80’s slider, and the occasional mid-to-high-80’s change-up to keep hitters on their toes. What makes him so special is the combination of a high strikeout rate, the ability to contain walks, and the capacity to create poor contact.
Angels fans should expect Keynan to remain on the disabled list to start the season as TJS generally requires a full year or so in terms of recovery time (it varies from pitcher to pitcher). Additionally, he has two options remaining so the Angels will certainly make sure he spends a sufficient amount of time on a Minor League rehabilitation assignment before bringing him back into the Major League fold.
Akeel Morris (RHP)
Acquired from the Braves in April of 2018, Morris is a high strikeout guy with an average velocity arsenal.
The Angels designated him for assignment near the end of the season and he was outrighted to AAA. Akeel features a low-90’s to mid-90’s four-seam fastball, a quality upper-70’s change-up, and a low-80’s slider.
Akeel has a storied history of high K/9 rates and an ability to create really poor contact as he uses his four-seam fastball to set up his slider and change-up very effectively. His repertoire makes him home run prone but there is value here if he can figure out how to limit the free passes and keep the ball in the park more.
Morris is still pre-arbitration eligible and has three options remaining, assuming the Angels keep him in the fold which is not guaranteed by any means.
Felix Pena (RHP)
Listed here as a potential reliever, Felix spent most of his innings as a starter in 2018 and did an admirable job to the tune of 17 game starts with an overall 14.7 K%-BB% rate and a 4.18 earned run average.
Pena could certainly be in the running for a back-end starter job but it is more likely that he takes the long relief role as a multi-innings bullpen piece that can spot start as needed which appears to be the ideal role for him based on his 2018 results.
Interestingly, Felix added a two-seam fastball to his arsenal last year and the results speak for themselves as he now features a four-pitch mix that includes a low-to-mid-90’s four-seam and aforementioned two-seam fastball, a low-80’s slider, and a seldom used mid-80’s change-up.
Felix has one option remaining but based on his results last season he certainly seems to have an inside track to win a 25-man roster spot to begin 2019.
Dillon Peters (LHP)
Recently acquired from the Miami Marlins in exchange for RHP Tyler Stevens, Dillon Peters is a lefty starter who has not had much success in that role to-date.
One of the items that pops out regarding Dillon is his history of high groundball rates in the Minors. This was almost certainly a selling point for Eppler and the front office in addition to his history of relatively low walk rates on the farm too. Whether as a back-end starter or a high groundball reliever in the likes of Zach Britton or Scott Alexander, Peters is a question full of possible answers.
Dillon features a four-pitch mix, including a high-80’s to low-90’s four-seam and two-seam fastball, a mid-to-high-70’s curveball, and a low-to-mid-80’s change-up. These pitches, matched with his abbreviated 53.3% GB% to-date and his ability to create poor contact, make him a truly interesting pick-up for the Halos.
Peters has two options remaining so he is a candidate to start 2019 in the high Minors if he does not win a starter or relief role in Spring Training. However, look for him to make an impact soon, in the Majors, particularly if the Halos put him in the bullpen as either a multi-innings or high leverage reliever.
Daniel Procopio (RHP)
The Angels selected Daniel in the 10th round of the 2017 draft as a hard-thrower who can potentially miss bats.
Procopio has shot through the system after his rookie debut in 2017, graduating to High-A ball and then AA in 2018. According to an interview by former Angelswin.com writer Brent Maguire (who now writes for the Athletic), Daniel throws a mid-90’s four-seam fastball, a cutter, and a curveball, with the former and the latter his better pitches. Additionally, he has really been able to miss a lot of bats and create poor contact which likely contributed to his fast move through the system.
Daniel has amazing strikeout ability but he will need to temper how many free passes he hands out which has been a weakness to-date. He has also shown a propensity to get hitters out in front or swinging late, resulting in a lot of pull and opposite field hits with less balls going up the middle.
Look for Procopio to start the season in High-A or AA with a potential promotion mid-season if he maintains the results he has provided so far in his short professional career. He could be a candidate to get a September call-up and is a deep depth reserve for the Major League roster in 2019.
J.C. Ramirez (RHP)
Yet another victim to the dreaded TJS, J.C. went under the knife in April and is projected to return sometime in the Summer or late 2019.
When his arm was right, Ramirez spotlights a four-pitch repertoire that includes a mid-90’s four-seam and two-seam fastball, a mid-to-upper-80’s slider, and an upper-70’s curveball. Hopefully, he returns to action healthy and that is apparently what the Angels are gambling on because they have indicated a willingness to tender him a substantial contract (estimated $1.9M) despite his serious injury and subsequent surgery.
J.C. has three years of arbitration control left and will become a free agent after the 2021 season is complete. He has zero options remaining so, once he returns from the disabled list and has completed a Minor League rehabilitation assignment, the Angels will need to add him or designate him for assignment and risk losing him.
Although not a particularly hard thrower, Noe has shown a real propensity to strike out batters and create poor contact during his tenure in Anaheim.
The Angels have used Ramirez in a multi-innings capacity and he has been effective in forcing hitters on both sides of the plate to pull the ball (over 50% across the last three seasons). If he can solve some of his issues with left-handed hitters, which he began to do in 2018, Ramirez will be a true force to be reckoned with out of the Angels bullpen.
Noe features a four-pitch repertoire including a high-80’s to low-90’s two-seam fastball, a high-80’s to low-90’s sinker (Pitch F/X may be conflating these two pitches), a high-70’s curveball, and a low-to-mid-80’s change-up. He pitched 83 innings in 2018 so the Angels may see real value in having him as a multi-innings eater but those IP may have been a result of injuries to the pitching staff.
Ramirez is out of options so he will need to break camp with the Angels out of Spring Training or he may wind up being traded or designated for assignment.
Considered an above average prospect when taken in Round 4 of the 2014 Rule IV Draft, the shine wore off a bit and by the start of 2017, Jeremy found himself throwing in relief once it was determined that a starter’s role was not in the cards.
Jeremy features a three-pitch mix, including an above average four-seam fastball, a very solid slider, and an average change-up (velocities not available). In 2017 and 2018, Rhoades did well versus right-handed hitters but suffered mightily against left-handed ones.
Rhoades has performed reasonably well in the bullpen, showing some solid K%-BB% and HR/9 rates. He was most recently exposed to the Rule V Draft which indicates the Angels do not think he is worthy of protection and addition to the 40-man roster so although he might contribute in the Majors it will probably be with another team. At best he will most probably be an up-and-down reliever with the Angels.
A Jerry Dipoto trade that worked out, Tropeano came to the Angels with Carlos Perez in the lopsided Hank Conger trade. He missed the entire 2017 season due to TJS.
Nick is not a particularly hard thrower but he does feature a repertoire that includes a heavy low-90’s four-seam fastball, a low-to-mid-80’s split-fingered fastball, a high-70’s to low-80’s slider, and a quality low-80’s change-up.
Tropeano is listed here because he may not earn the #5 spot in the rotation, relegating him to the bullpen to start the season. However, it should be noted that Nick has two options remaining so it is quite possible he will begin the 2019 season down in the high Minors as rotation depth. Long-term, if he has a good season, Eppler may move him into a multi-innings role as well where his stuff might play up a touch more.
So to summarize –
Out of Options: Miguel Almonte, Cam Bedrosian, Austin Brice, Parker Bridwell, Luis Garcia, J.C. Ramirez, and Noe Ramirez.
Options Remaining: Justin Anderson (3), Ty Buttrey (2), Taylor Cole (2), Matt Esparza (3), Williams Jerez (1), Jake Jewell (2), Keynan Middleton (2), Akeel Morris (3), Felix Pena (1), Dillon Peters (2), Daniel Procopio (3), Jeremy Rhoades (3), and Nick Tropeano (2).
Once Spring Training comes around the Angels will almost certainly select the best performing group of relievers. However, they will also balance this with trying to save as many out of options pitchers as they can. Based on the current list above, this is the Angelswin.com projected Opening Day bullpen as of December 28th, 2018:
With Keynan Middleton and J.C. Ramirez starting the season on the disabled list, the table above is probably the starting eight as the team will likely carry an extra reliever to begin 2019. Jerez or Pena, who each have one option, could always be removed if they only go with seven or if the Angels acquire an additional 1-2 bullpen pieces prior to the start of the season.
Due to the starters not being able to go deep in their first handful of starts, keeping three long relievers on the 25-man roster will help alleviate that initial short length. Also once Pena has pitched he can be optioned down and another reliever like Anderson can be pulled up for a few games and then Felix can return.
The Angels could certainly look to sign another reliever in free agency but that has previously not been Eppler’s modus operandi. That being said the relief market is flush with a lot of quality relievers so Billy may be looking at this as an opportunity cost situation to acquire one or more durable pitchers to build depth. Now that the Angels have opted for an inexpensive solution behind the dish, Jonathan Lucroy, they may have more money to spend on the rotation or in relief.
If Billy explores the free agent market he is more likely to go after a targeted choice that combines performance and durability such as Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Kelvin Herrera, Adam Ottavino, Justin Wilson, or Shawn Kelley for instance.
The author would like to make one last point about relievers in general. In 2018, here are the League-wide pitch values (Pitch value/100):
You may notice that beyond the rare eephus, knuckle and screwball, it is the sliders, split-finger fastballs, and cut fastballs of the world that were among the most effective pitches in the League. It is not unsurprising that a large swath of our relievers throw various cut, split, and sinking fastballs with a slider as their secondary offerings.
It is quite clear that Eppler is building a high quality infield defense behind his heavy groundball staff as a primary form of run prevention. It fits with Eppler’s philosophy on a strong up-the-middle defense (in fact just good defense everywhere) and plays into the statistical reality of those pitches (the slider in particular).
As a final note, some of you may have missed FanGraphs David Laurila’s article and interview with former Angels pitching coach Scott Radinsky who spoke about some of the relievers listed above and is well worth a read!
Break the Bank ($51M+)
- Craig Kimbrel
High Price to Pay ($26M-$50M)
- Zach Britton
- Tanner Scott
- Justin Wilson
- David Robertson
- Jose LeClerc
- Raisel Igelsias
- Joe Jimenez
- Archie Bradley
- Cody Allen
- Drew Steckenrider
- Adam Ottavino
- Kelvin Herrera
Middle of the Road ($11M-$25M)
- Shawn Kelley
- Zack Duke
- Tony Sipp
- Tyler Clippard
- Darren O’Day
- Will Smith
- Juan Nicasio
- Fernando Rodney
- Richard Bleier
- Ken Giles
- Jake Diekman
- Sergio Romo
- Kirby Yates
- Brad Brach
Bargain Basement ($1M-$10M)
- Blake Parker
- Jim Johnson
- Adam Warren
- Daniel Hudson
- Joaquin Benoit
- Hector Santiago
- Boone Logan
Billy Eppler could certainly decide to stand pat with the group of options he has assembled to-date with the understanding that reinforcements are only a short call away down on the farm and later in the year when Middleton and Ramirez hopefully return.
Now that the Angels have selected to sign an inexpensive option at catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, it is possible they could splurge on a top-tier type, like Britton, who would add a hard throwing, groundball generating, left-handed, high leverage type to the relief corps. Eppler did state that they were looking to have 13-14 relievers available to start 2019 and by my, ready-to-hit-the-Majors, count above we are at about twelve, so 1-2 more could be in the cards.
Also, rumors of David Robertson have been increasing, as detailed in the link above, so that could be the durable type of reliever that Eppler would like to add to this staff, particularly because Robertson gets left-handed hitters out at a really good clip. For the last eight years he has performed very well and that consistency has appeal for a team that has had persistent injuries.
If Billy dips a chip in the sauce and does not want to invest heavily in a top-tier choice, he will likely go after a guy like Justin Wilson or Shawn Kelley. The former would likely command a 3-year deal at about $7M-$10M per season, while the latter will command a 1-2 year deal at about $4M-$7M per season.
In the next Section we will discuss Second Base.