2018 Primer Series: Eppler’s Strategy Part II

Eppler Strategy Part II Featured Image

October Baseball

By Robert Cunningham, Senior Writer

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

Author’s Note: If you missed the first three installments of the 2018 Primer Series you can go back and read the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd posts.

So how do the Angels fill one or more positional needs now, to improve the team for 2018, while handing out extensions to key players this off-season, or possibly next off-season, as well as keeping Mike Trout?

The answer is, in-part, by acquiring, via trade, cost-controlled and arbitration-controlled players that will have a low impact to AAV and team payroll. Eppler knows that if he wants to keep specific, core players, we have now, reining in total payroll and the AAV of player contracts is critical. This will almost certainly be a primary focus heading into the off-season.

If that is the case (and it logically makes sense) then Eppler is probably looking at high-quality players, on the trade market, that meet the cost, arbitration, and pre-arbitration controlled criteria. Remembering that we assumed Upton stays in Anaheim (and, as it turns out, he did!), here are some of the names the Angels might be looking at for our positions of high need (2B and SP) and positions of concern (3B, 1B, C, and RP):

Trade Candidate List

This is, by no means, a comprehensive and complete list, particularly because it does not consider most near-MLB ready prospects and many arbitration-eligible candidates, but it does highlight some of the more likely names that could be acquired this off-season. Whether they are within budget is another matter but this represents a broad array of salary ranges.

One thing that jumps off the page is the potential number of keystone players and starters available. Those two positions have a greater supply which, in turn, could lead to slightly lower acquisition prices, particularly from teams that want or need to shed payroll.

The starter market will certainly be more expensive than the 2B one without a doubt. For instance, if Eppler wants to go after a true ace like Chris Archer with four years of contractual control it will cost the team a lot in prospect and player capital including at least one, possibly two MLB players, and a package of 4-5 quality prospects.

Archer would fetch that much because his yearly salary for 2018 and 2019 is insanely low. Once he hits his two option years his price goes up but it is still a very affordable $9M in 2020 and $11M in 2021. The very minimal impact of Chris’ salary to team payroll would be huge for the Angels and would allow Eppler to extend key players, including Trout, with little worry.

Of course Archer may be completely out of the Angels reach, or not even available, so Eppler could, instead, target an arbitration-controlled starter like Marcus Stroman for example. He would still cost quite a bit in prospect and/or player capital but would probably leave us with enough trade resources to get a better quality 2B, like Cesar Hernandez, for instance.

Then, alternatively, Eppler could spend the additional payroll saved on a 3B free agent like Mike Moustakas. Or, instead, the team could play Luis Valbuena at the hot corner in 2018 and then go after a free agent, like Josh Donaldson, or a trade target, like Nolan Arenado, in the 2018-2019 market.

Beyond that Billy could forego a legitimate starter and acquire one or more multi-inning relievers to utilize in a hybrid starter/reliever “rotation” where someone like Richards starts a game on a limited pitch count and is eventually replaced by one or more relievers that can pitch multiple innings (say 2-3 innings each).

It certainly is not unprecedented as the Angels used relievers like Yusmeiro Petit and Bud Norris in this very capacity in 2017. Jose Urena of the Marlins, Brad Hand of the Padres, or newly-crowned free agent Mike Minor would be good choices here.

Of course the Angels could simply go after the only two-way threat in free agency as it seems possible that Japanese superstar Shohei Otani will be posted in the off-season. He has been called Japan’s “Babe Ruth”, throwing high-90’s heat, even touching triple digits, with the lumber to match.

If the Angels somehow managed to acquire him they could potentially put him at 1B or in an OF utility role and fill a rotation spot all at the same time. It’s a long shot, however, because the Angels have spent roughly $3M-$4M of their $4.75M International Bonus pool.

The new rules allow the Angels to acquire an additional 75% of their pool base (no more than $3.5625M) but unless they trade for more pool money, to hit their maximum cap of $4.3125M-$5.3125M, between now and the time Otani signs it’s probably a no-go. Otani would be another example of a low-impact to team payroll, at least in the very near-term.

All of these examples are indicative of the multitude of permutations discussed at the beginning of Eppler’s Strategy Part I. In battle they call this the “Fog of War” and it applies to MLB free agent and trade negotiations just as much as it does in combat.

Despite the many roads Eppler can take, the logic of using the trade market to acquire an arbitration or cost-controlled 2B solution seems to have a higher probability of happening, as an outside observer looking in. The market supply for the position is ripe, with a lot of low-hanging fruit that will not break the bank.

This is good for the Angels because Billy has stated he wants to acquire players with robust on-base skills and, as he stated last year, a left-handed or switch-hitting bat, of which the trade market can definitely provide.

Dee Gordon, Cesar Hernandez, Greg Garcia, Brad Miller, and Jason Kipnis are just some of those names Eppler could inquire about in the coming days if he has not done so already. Free agency also offers two good options in left-handed Neil Walker and right-handed Zack Cozart (a natural SS).

Also, logically, it seems unlikely Billy will want to allocate $30M per year to sign a top-flight starter in free agency like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. Even someone like Alex Cobb will command $15M-$20M per season so Eppler will need to decide if losing significant prospect capital or a huge chunk of payroll (or doing nothing) is the route to take for a potential addition to the rotation.

Now that the Angels have a 5-year guaranteed fresh coat of paint on Justin Upton’s contract they may feel more inclined to trade one of their top outfield prospects (Jahmai Jones, Jordon Adell, and Brandon Marsh) particularly if they feel comfortable that Mike Trout will sign an extension by Opening Day 2019.

The implication is that if two of our outfield spots are locked up long-term, one, or even two, of that trio of prospects could become the foundation of a trade for one or more impact players to add to the Halos roster over the next three years (or more). Additionally other significant prospects like Chris Rodriguez, Jose Soriano, Jose Suarez, Taylor Ward, Nate Smith, and Matt Thaiss could also be on the block in the right trade scenario.

Also if Eppler can rein in payroll, by acquiring low-cost, controllable MLB talent through trade(s), it could allow the Angels to pursue extension contracts with certain key players this off-season (and next).

As we mentioned above, Garrett Richards strikes me as a really good candidate even if it is just a two or three year deal buying out his last arbitration season and one or two years of free agency.

In the small sample of starts at the end of 2017, his peripherals looked really good and the team can probably negotiate a clause in his contract regarding his previous UCL injury, similar to what the Red Sox did with John Lackey.

Other than the slight UCL tear, his arm has little wear and tear, in terms of IP, and his upside is high so a short-term (3 years, $30M-$35M) or long-term (6 years, $90M) deal could be appealing to both sides (and also to the third side, Mike Trout, his good friend).

Beyond Richards, one other player seems like a prime extension candidate this off-season: Martin Maldonado.

“Machete” has been widely praised by Mike Scioscia and the coaching staff. His leadership, ability to call games, good relationship with the teams starters, and ability to control the running game are all big pluses for the team. Earlier this season Mark Gubicza said, live on-the-air, that Scioscia thinks of Martin as an extra coach on the field which is not insignificant praise. He is also a 2017 Gold Glove candidate in addition to his Fielding Bible award.

A Maldonado extension would probably buy out his last year of arbitration control plus an additional 3-4 years at an AAV of about $6M-8M per season (something like 5 years, $30M-40M).

There are other possible extension candidates including, obviously, Mike Trout (probably will not happen until next off-season), Andrelton Simmons (also possibly in the 2018-2019 off-season), pretty much all of the starting rotation (Skaggs, Shoemaker, and Heaney), and perhaps someone like Cam Bedrosian.

The Angels could even consider simply buying out one or more player’s remaining arbitration years of control to help achieve some incremental cost-savings in the near-term. This tactic could potentially be worthwhile for other players, too, like Blake Parker, C.J. Cron, or J.C. Ramirez for example.

So if our assumption about extending Trout turns out to be true and the health of the team improves, the Angels will be well positioned to use their monetary and prospect resources now, next year, or both to build a contending, sustainable team over the next several seasons.

Now certainly Billy will not be able to keep every player that is currently on the roster through 2020 and beyond but he should be able to trade away expiring or increasingly expensive contracts for players and/or prospect talent to replace any farm system assets he has to use this off-season or next to improve the team in this current, 3-year window of contention. This replenishment process will help build for the future beyond 2020 as well.

As examples C.J. Cron, J.C. Ramirez, and Matt Shoemaker are set to make increasingly greater sums of money through the arbitration process over the next three years if they are not extended or do not have one or more of their arbitration and free agent seasons bought out by the team.

One or more of them might not see the 2019 or 2020 seasons in a Halos uniform, particularly since we have prospects like Barria, Jewell, Smith, and Thaiss who can potentially replace them on the roster.

This ebb and flow of higher-paid players in and out of the system should start to occur more frequently, creating a more sustainable influx of talented young players to add to those key prospects moving through our farm system.

By the end of 2020 the Angels should begin to see more homegrown talent than they have had in recent years, which will allow the team to compete well into the next decade, barring a rash of trade deadline deals or bad health and luck.

Eppler appears to have a workable strategy and set of resources in place to succeed with Mike Trout’s current contract including the ability to extend him for the rest of his career.

All he has to do is simply show Mike the potential of this Angels team, so this 2017-2018 off-season should be an eventful one, in that regard, once Billy has finally put his fingerprints and mark on this 2018 squad.

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