By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
As you can see from the chart above the Angels received a dreadful amount of offense from the hot corner, for the 2018 season, split primarily between five players (Fletcher, Cowart, Ward, Valbuena, and Cozart).
Most of that offensive production came from David Fletcher (1.4 WAR) who also played elite defense in a limited sample size. Near the end of the season, on August 14th, the Angels promoted young Taylor Ward, our top 3B prospect, to man the hot corner. Although he struggled with the bat (60 wRC+) his defense was solid in a small sample size, giving hope that he can eventually be a good solution at the position.
Earlier in the Primer Series we discussed the Angels production needs and goals. It is clear that team offense needs to improve, particularly against left-handed pitching, and defense needs to remain stable or even improve at the hot corner. Third base, across all 30 teams in Major League Baseball (MLB), has been a position associated with offensive firepower as can be seen in the figure below:
It is because of Ward’s initial inexperience and poor offensive performance that will almost certainly lead the Angels to do one of the following: 1) find a one or two year temporary solution to man the hot corner until Ward is truly ready, 2) sign or trade for a long-term answer and use Taylor at 1B, long-term, or as depth at the corners, 3) find a platoon partner that can hit right-handed pitching well to compliment Taylor, or 4) obtain a long-term solution and use Ward as a trade chip.
It is the authors feeling that the Angels do envision Ward being part of their long-term outlook, as he carried, in Minor League AAA, a 167 wRC+ and a .446 on-base percentage (OBP) for the 2018 season. Because of that potential, finding a one or two year stopgap until Ward is ready makes some degree of sense unless the team really feels he can win the job outright or can be productive with a platoon partner. This would be consistent with Billy Eppler’s statement about affording some of the younger players an opportunity to win playing time. Notably, if you bring in a short-term asset, you not only increase production in 2019 and possibly 2020, but also deepen your roster by having Taylor get repetitions down in AAA and whom can be called upon in the case of an injury. This is the path that likely makes the Angels 40-man roster more robust.
In the end the team needs a regular, full-time guy, who can match and improve upon the 1.8 WAR bar that was set from last season. Based on the information above we can begin a player search utilizing FanGraphs.com to identify potential trade and free agent targets that match one or more of those parameters.
Below is a list of the Top 30, third basemen, set at a minimum of 50 plate appearances (PA’s), from 2016-2018, using a 3B split, and sorted by WAR per Game (WAR/G). The author uses WAR/G to better understand how much WAR a player is providing on a per game basis since this sample is taken over a 3-year period and some players have less total playing time than others:
As you can see there are a lot of familiar names on this list including Ramirez, Rendon, Bryant, Arenado, and Machado. Certainly the latter is available in free agency, although he will come with a potentially record-breaking price tag. Donaldson has already signed a high-value, one-year deal with the Braves and Beltre has retired from baseball.
Defense has always been important to Eppler in his short tenure as Angels GM. He will probably want a player who is at least league average, or above, defensively and in order to figure out who the Angels might target, we will take the table above and parse it out by ranking the players according to FanGraphs ‘Def’ metric and dividing by the number of games they have played over the same 2016-2018 time period (Def/G). Only those with a value greater than ‘0’ are listed and they are sorted from high to low:
You may be pleasantly surprised to find our very own David Fletcher at the top of this defensive leader board. David has always carried a good defensive reputation in the Minors and despite the small 80 game sample size, the number is consistent with his glove history.
Overall the list did not change too dramatically. The guys you expected to drop off the list such as Matt Carpenter and Nicholas Castellanos did so, leaving a candidate list of 21 players.
We can further parse this list by down-selecting only players that exceeded the League average of 107 wRC+ (then rank them highest to lowest) while also determining which players may actually be available in free agency or trade:
This leaves the following players:
- Manny Machado
- Nolan Arenado
- Anthony Rendon
- Jedd Gyorko
- Kyle Seager
- Justin Turner
- Travis Shaw
- Kris Bryant
- Johan Camargo
- Brian Anderson
Some of these names are potentially undesirable to the Angels for many reasons but we will discuss each, in turn.
First of all, we need to start with the elephant in the room Manny Machado. He would clearly fit at 3B for the Halos and has excellent wRC+ numbers against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers in his career.
However the only way that the Angels will sign him is if 1) Arte Moreno authorizes a significant increase in team payroll and exceeds the CBT threshold, 2) the Angels give him a huge multi-year deal, and 3) Eppler structures the contract so that Manny gets a lot of money in his early years (front-loading) and can opt-out after 2019, 2020, or 2021 (or all three). This is, for the most part, a dream scenario of converging events and thus has a very, very low probability of happening, but is not impossible.
When you move on to the trade candidates list, the options become a bit more intriguing.
Normally Colorado would probably not consider trading a key superstar when they plan to compete in 2019. However, Arenado has performed so well over the last few seasons that he now projects to make $26M in his last year of arbitration control next season. For the payroll-conscious Rockies, Nolan may be a luxury they cannot afford. If the Rockies do start the season with him on the roster he could potentially be a Trade Deadline target if the Rockies fall out of contention and, of course, the Halos are in it and need to upgrade at 3B.
Arenado would check off all the boxes for the Angels, too. He plays great defense, has a powerful bat (3-year average of 129 wRC+), and absolutely destroys left-handed pitchers (3-year average of 174 wRC+). The Angels could even potentially try to extend him to a mega-contract as we discussed above, regarding Manny Machado, where we front-load the contract with opt-outs after 2020 and 2021 but that, just like Manny, would be very difficult to pull off (but not unprecedented in modern day contractual structures). If he is available Moreno might jump, whether now or later.
Beyond Nolan, Rendon is in his last year of team control. However, in his case, the Nationals are more than capable of extending him and will likely do so this off-season, particularly because Washington should be quite competitive in 2019 and beyond, particularly after they added Patrick Corbin.
The Braves have a potential surplus situation with switch-hitter Johan Camargo at 3B (and possibly prospect Austin Riley in the Minors) so he might be in play at the right price but it will pull significant assets from our farm system in trade, making this an unlikely scenario.
One name that seems like a good fit further down the list is Jedd Gyorko. The Cardinals are supposedly considering moving him in trade to free up playing time for other players and acquisitions, particularly after they traded for Paul Goldschmidt to play 1B. He plays above average defense in the corner, has the versatility to play other positions, and has some thump and on-base skills that would compliment the roster. He also tattoos left-handed pitchers (3-year running average of 129 wRC+). The Padres are paying $5M of his 2019 salary, which means he would only add $8M to actual team payroll and approximately $4.3M to Average Annual Value (AAV) in 2019 plus he has a $13M team option for 2020, which allows the Halos to ease Ward into the full-time role, if needed. Jedd would probably cost us at least one quality prospect (think one of Chris Rodriguez, Kevin Maitan, or perhaps Jose Soriano for example) plus another lower-level type, maybe more.
Seager plays consistently good defense and has maintained relatively good offensive output, although he slid well below the League average last season. If Dipoto is willing to work with the Angels a deal could come about but Kyle’s asking price is probably a bit too high and his contract length does not fit well in a Ward-retention scenario, so this seems an unlikely course of action.
Kris Bryant is certainly a name that makes your ears perk up but his asking price would be something akin to acquiring Corey Kluber, making this one pretty much a non-starter from the get-go. He has a game changing bat but unless the Cubs are willing to accept Major League talent in return, in addition to one or more prospects, this would damage the Angels future too much in all likelihood, so it is extremely remote in the author’s opinion.
Justin Turner and Travis Shaw are probably not available but are noted here as possibilities anyway. Both however would have a high acquisition price, likely requiring the Angels to send back Major League talent (more so for Shaw), such as a Heaney for Shaw swap, making them long shots at best unless either of those teams were to acquire another third baseman.
The Marlins may be willing to move Anderson since they still have Prado and are not going to compete anytime soon. Brian would have a similar cost to Camargo though and Eppler has shied away from moving major prospects so this is doubtful too.
Of course the Angels could roll the dice and throw Taylor Ward into the fire. Certainly they could employ recently acquired Tommy La Stella in a platoon role if Ward falters against RHP or option Taylor down to the Minors and have David Fletcher replace him. This decision could have repercussions to the Angels 2019 season, if Ward, Fletcher, or La Stella fail to provide consistent, above average production but could prove to be a gamble the Angels feel comfortable taking.
Break the Bank ($151M+)
- Manny Machado
- Eugenio Suarez
High Price to Pay ($101M-$150M)
- Brian Anderson
- Johan Camargo
Middle of the Road ($51M-$100M)
- Anthony Rendon
- Nolan Arenado
- Whit Merrifield
- Matt Carpenter
Bargain Basement ($1M-$50M)
- Jedd Gyorko
- Todd Frazier
- Jonathan Villar
So if Arte Moreno opens his wallet and allows Eppler to exceed the Luxury Tax threshold and the Rockies decide not to start the year off with Nolan’s ~$26M on the books (three really big “if’s”), I love the idea of bringing Arenado aboard for 2019, particularly if we can extend him. Real long shot here so it is not my primary pick simply because it is pretty improbable to start the season.
Moving back to the more realistic side of 2019 I think that Jedd Gyorko represents a pragmatic target. He hits left-handed pitching well and has been getting on-base at a solid clip over the last couple of seasons. Jedd could even lead-off against LHP and move to the back of the order against RHP or hit in a platoon with a left-handed hitter. His salary ($8M in 2019, $13M next year) fits well on our books and it allows Taylor Ward to act as a depth piece and ease into the hot corner position at his own pace.
So, if pressed, I am going with Gyorko. He may cost more prospect-wise than we like, in trade, but his salary and AAV will give Eppler more to spend in other areas such as starting pitching and behind the dish. Billy could just as easily roll with Ward and then try to acquire a 3B at the trade deadline if Taylor, David, and Tommy falter in the first half.
Like I said earlier, Eppler has more options. They may not all be good ones but as the farm system grows, Billy is afforded greater recourse.