So, Arte has crushed our holiday cheer. Hopes of finding Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon under our tree are gone and we are stuck with the reality that Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry are likely roaming left field in Anaheim next year. Some of you proclaim you are done lining billionaire Arte's pockets with your hard-earned dollars. The last straw. No more "buttercups". I commend you for your resolve and self-respect.
Personally, I lack those qualities. This is my first love, that girl that keeps breaking my heart but gets me right back at her feet at the bat of an eye. When this obsession of mine began in the late 80's, big name free agents weren't even a consideration, thanks to Jackie Autry taking the reigns and pointing to the bottom line. Then there was the '95 team, building me up by storming out of nowhere to rule the league all year, before ultimately letting me down. I remember the signing of Mo Vaughan and thinking things would finally be different, only to see that hope literally come crashing down less than one game into that supposed new era.
Of course, the 2002 team helped ease those pains. Every let down since then has hurt less, taking consolation in knowing what fans of the Mariners and Rangers have yet to experience - your team finally sitting on top of the world. I try to reach for that perspective today, as Arte plays buttercup yet again by refusing to paper over the Hamilton debacle with one of the many slam-dunk choices on the current free agent market. But we don't need to rely on past glory to feel some optimism going into 2016. While we didn't get a shiny new toy this year, we can search for silver linings.
Let's examine the current roster as it sits today. To keep it as simple as possible, I will list the 25 players most likely to see playing time during the season. Let's assume they field the 13 position player/12 pitcher model. I will also list their approximate salary for 2016 (rounded to annual average value for luxury tax considerations) as well as their approximate WAR for next year. Keep in mind I am not projecting WAR, as I wouldn't know where to begin. This is simply what I would consider a reasonable expectation based on each player's recent history. Feel free to quibble with my guesstimates:
The final payroll in 2015 was $141 million and will probably be right around $163 million when calculated for luxury tax purposes. Even if my estimates are off, Arte will finish well below that threshold this year, meaning his budget may not be effected by the luxury tax at all. As currently constructed, the 2016 payroll is already right at that level, assuming the final roster spot is taken by one of the many depth acquisitions (Choi, Ortega, etc.). If $165M (AAV) is Arte's comfort level, then the current roster looks to be roughly an 82 win team, based on my crude WAR estimates (using the 48-win baseline for a replacement level team). You wouldn't have to squint too hard to see one or two of the above players exceed my moderate estimations and push that baseline a little higher.
If the commonly accepted notion that Arte simply wants to stay below the threshold is accurate, however, Eppler still has many opportunities to improve the current team without crossing that line. Denard Span and Gerardo Parra won't command long commitments and both will earn well south of $20M annually. I have yet to read anything confirming that Nava, who also plays some first base, has been signed to start in left field. Perhaps Eppler acted decisively and secured Nava once he knew plans for a high-end solution were nixed, simply as a back-up in case a more desirable option to fill left field falls through. If a more reliable corner outfielder is obtained, Nava becomes a decent bench piece, acting as insurance in case a player like Span is brought in but fails to remain healthy, if Pujols takes longer than expected to heal or if Cron simply can't cut it in an everyday role.
Admittedly, that the Nava signing takes place just before Arte lets it slip that he won't pursue one of the big three might be a bad sign. For what it's worth, Nava averaged 3 WAR in his two seasons of regular playing time before falling off a cliff in an injury-riddled 2015. He's been mostly decent defensively, bouncing between left, right and first. A switch hitter who is better from the left side, he's managed a well-above average 9.9% walk rate through his career, maintaining that discipline even through his lost 2015 campaign.
Isolated from the reality that we won't be fishing in the deep end of the free agent pool, this move makes perfect sense for the Angels current roster. This has been a trend thus far for Eppler, making shrewd, incremental improvements with every transaction: Simmons > Aybar; Pennington > Featherston; Escobar >/= Freese; Soto > Iannetta; Nava/Gentry/Ortega/Choi > Murphy/Joyce/Victorino/DeJesus/Robertson/Cowgill/Navarro. As long as Eppler has the authority to spend some money, there are potential moves out there to put this team over the top without making a long-term, high-dollar commitment or sacrificing the next Sean Newcomb.