In December of last year, newly-minted Angels GM Billy Eppler made his third move of the off-season that had specific infield implications for the 2016 team. The first was trading Erick Aybar and two top prospects for Andrelton Simmons, which was a shot fired across the bow of many Halos fans pirate ships, heralding the new era of the Angels front office. The second, picking up veteran utility guy Cliff Pennington, was a more low-key bolstering of the infield unit, but it signaled a sea change in the team's defensive outlook.
They had the shortstop of the future, and a guy that could fill in the holes nicely or take over Johnny Giavotella's spot, if need be; now they needed only to address the hot corner, and the lingering David Freese question. We got the answer we were all looking for on December 10th, in the form of trading relief pitcher Trevor Gott(and 28 year old AA guy Michael Brady) for the Nationals' 3B Yunel Escobar...we just didn't know it at the time.
It was a curious move, because many still saw David Freese being in the Angels' big picture, but that was then and this is now. David Freese plays for the Pirates, and Escobar has the third base gig all to himself. It may only be a few weeks into the season, but we're already seeing the impetus behind Eppler's decision: Escobar was brought here to be our leadoff hitter savior, and his burgeoning 3B skills are just icing on the cake.
2015 was a bad year for the Angels in the leadoff spot, to put it kindly. Mike Scioscia tinkered with the lineup on the regular, putting guys who historically didn't amount to much in that role(Erick Aybar, Johnny Giavotella) while eschewing the obvious solutions(Mike Trout or Kole Calhoun). The team would toil in the bottom of the OBP rankings all season long, making it hard for supreme baseball overlord Mike Trout to drive in any runs when there weren't any guys getting on base before him to begin with. Billy Eppler saw this problem, and with a phone call to Washington, took care of business.
Escobar has been entrenched in the leadoff spot since Spring Training, and he isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Coming off of a great year with the Nationals in 2015,he's picked up right where he left off, currently hitting .315 and leading the team in runs scored(7), like a good leadoff guy should. It really shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, though, because it's a place where he's done considerably well in his career. On the day the trade broke, our very own Turk's Teeth pointed out that Eppler may have been thinking about that asset from the get go:
Yunel Escobar (career) at leadoff: .290/.356/.412
Yunel Escobar (2015) at leadoff: .315/.382/.522
Well played, Billy. This plan is already working like gangbusters, with Escobar basically hitting his career averages, which is all that's needed to consider the move a win. On top of a tasty average and scoring runs, he's got the best BB% of any regularly-starting Angels player not named Mike Trout(11.5%)...so he's basically hitting all the leadoff hitter pleasure buttons right out of the gate.
Going further, he compares quite nicely to other lead-off guys in MLB right now. If we take a look at guys hitting in the #1 spot in 2016(with a minimum of 40 PAs), Escobar currently has the 8th best OPS(.875) and 5th highest wRC+(162). What about David Freese, you ask? Well, Freese isn't having that bad of a year, to his credit, but Escobar is still outshining him in every category.
Defense is still the one caveat to Escobar's contributions, with some suspect play at times and a few errors on plays as simple as throwing the ball to the bag for the out and subsequently air-mailing it. He's no Simmons at 3B, let's be honest, but he's also a guy that gets praise on his glove skills from Joe Maddon while the Cubs were in town, so he's no slouch, either. He's still getting used to the position(2015 was his first year of playing third full time), and while we may have jumped the gun thinking he was going to be played at second, we now know that third is pretty much his job to lose. Still, he's got enough chops and athletic talent that he can make plays like this one here.
It's early, so take this with an April-sized grain of salt, but so far this move has turned out to be an all out victory for Eppler. He traded away a reliever and a warm minor league body and in return got the Angels an OK third baseman and a solid leadoff hitter for not only this season, but next year, as well. Curing their ailments at both of those deficiencies had to have been a high priority going into the off-season, and the Angels killed those two birds with one big, thick-necked stone.
Well played, Billy. Well played.