The Angels had one of the highest payrolls in baseball in 2016 yet finished as one of the worst teams. We all know how this happened - hamstrung by years of bad contract deals including CJ Wilson, Josh Hamilton (who will be the second highest contract for the Angels in 2017), and Albert Pujols (still performing but cost us a draft pick and is making more money than Mike Trout in 2017). Signings cost us early round draft picks and Arte Moreno wasted LOTS of money on guys that weren’t even playing. There is one thing wealthy people hate the most, and that is wasting money. So, for the past two seasons we have seen transaction after transaction on the waiver wires, small trades, “small” contracts, etc.
Is this the new normal? Or perhaps last year we signed no big contracts because of the penalty tied to going over the luxury tax threshold and Arte didn’t want that additional tax (that’s on Arte not Eppler). Perhaps this year Eppler thought none of the free agents were worth they money (Hint: some of them were).
With the exception of Andrelton Simmons, almost every new player who joined the Angels over the past few years did so with short contracts or relatively low dollar contracts. Unless your name is Mike Trout, you aren’t getting a multi-year 9 figure contract to play in a Halo uniform any time soon.
Andrelton Simmons (trade), 5 years / $53 million
Simmons is the biggest trade or signing the Angels have done since Jerry Dipoto left the team. He was also the start of a Billy Eppler shift to a better defense that included the recent additions of Cameron Maybin and Danny Espinosa. It was a controversial move at the time since the Angels gave up top pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, along with fan favorite (and horrible base runner) Erick Aybar. While the futures of Newcomb and Ellis are still uncertain, the Angels won this trade and it was a great way for Eppler to show he meant business AND that he could spend some money. Even at that, 10 million average per year is not a huge contract to take on.
Yunel Escobar (trade), 1 year / $7 million
Eppler worked his magic by getting a new lead off hitter and third baseman for next to nothing. He sent Trevor Gott and Michael Brady to the Nationals in return. Escobar was a low risk, low cost, short term signing that has become a staple (so far) in the Eppler era. He also came with a low cost option of $7 million for 2017 which of course the Angels exercised - because who else is going to “play” third base?
Ricky Nolasco (trade), 1.5 years / $12 million
The Nolasco trade was just a swap since the Angels were also giving up Hector Santiago and his salary. Nolasco also has an $18 million option for 2018 that the Angels are certain not to exercise because, really?? Another short term, lower cost transaction that also netted Alex Meyer who is a hopeful rotation piece for 2017.
Jesse Chavez (free agent), 1 year / $5.75 million
Chavez was not the flashiest (or best) pitcher available but Eppler liked him and signed him to a cheap one year deal. Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano should be back some time in 2018, so it’s possible the Angels didn’t want to sign a pitcher for too many years and Chavez was just about the cheapest free agent pitcher on the market since most of them were going for 1 year $8-$12 million or multi-year at $7-$16 million. The later didn’t seem like a path the Angels were willing to take with the limited available options.
Cameron Maybin (trade), 1 year / $9 million
Once again, Eppler worked some magic and gave up fringe prospect Victor Alcantara for a solid (if he can stay healthy) left fielder. It’s been a few years since that hole was filled so it many ways it feels nice - even if Maybin can’t seem to stay healthy for a full season. Going after someone like Dexter Fowler and losing a second round pick didn’t seem to be the path for the Angels even though his $16 million salary doesn’t seem that crazy to me and you still pick in the 1st and 3rd rounds. Outside of Jon Jay and some 4th outfielder type players, Maybin was about the cheapest option the Angels could find to plug that hole.
Danny Espinosa (trade), 1 year / $5.3 million
If there is one thing Eppler is good at, it seems to be trading players from a barren farm system for players who will upgrade a given position. Eppler again traded for defense since that is Espinosa’s calling card, and he did it by giving up Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin who are two more fringe prospects from the system. This was a tough one because the options at second base were limited and the free agent market was almost zero (old man Chase Utley is still looking for a job though). We all would have loved to see a better hitting second base option, but Eppler probably got the best he could for what we had here.
What happens next?
The off-season is far from over and Billy Eppler is probably far from done. He will make more transactions but I expect them to mostly be smaller and more incremental. The path has been pretty clear that the Angels don’t seem willing to take on any more big contracts.
We have heard two different excuses the past two years. In 2015/2016 it was “payroll is too high” and in 2016/2017 it is “free agent class is too weak”. The TRUE test will be in 2017/2018 when we see one of the best free agent classes in a LONG time. Will the Angels spend money then? They are already 25 million or so under the threshhold for next season and will be 50 million under the thresshold when Hamilton’s contract comes off the books so they could have VERY deep pockets when that next free agent class hits.
You can’t build a championship team by trading for and signing the cheaper options, and at some point you are going to have to spend money, wait for your farm system to mature (it’s getting better), or hope lighting strikes with some of your more fringe player pickups. Many teams that would have found themselves in the same position last year with a weak farm system would have gone into rebuild mode but the Angels seems insistent on trying to be competitive year after year. And let’s face it, with Mike Trout patrolling center field, you don’t have to be above average at every position to compete since we’ve all seen how much Trout can help carry they team.
What do you think Eppler’s plan is? Is he saving money for 2018? Is Arte reining in spending? Does he just not see anyone worth the contract cost?