To me, the most incredible part of Billy Eppler’s tenure as the Angels GM is the lack of controllable, sustainable, or healthy players he inherited. This is self-evident throughout the team, painfully so on the pitching side. While the starting rotation was battered to the brim, relievers were not an exception to this.
In attempts to play through rib-cage and knee injury, Huston Street, anchor of bullpens past and outspoken protector of the save, posted the highest earned run average (6.45), lowest strikeout rate (5.64/9), and highest walk rate (4.84/9) of his career. A season later, Street succumbed to a host of various ailments sidelining him for all but four innings. In what can only be described as a self-defeating prophecy, the outspoken reliever told reporters “I'm good at baseball, when I'm healthy”. He averaged 28.6 saves over his career before 2016, but only nine combined the past two years.
Joe Smith, always effervescent setup man during the Angels’ 98-win 2014 and wild-card push the following year, found himself struggling to begin the year. He fortuitously found himself interim closer during Street’s injury but could not capitalize, converting just five of nine save opportunities.
And then he got injured. About a month after returning, he was traded.
Angels relievers from 2014-15 (min. 20 IP)
|# by fWAR||Name||W||L||SV||G||IP||K/9||BB/9||HR/9||ERA||FIP||xFIP||fWAR|
|# by fWAR||Name||W||L||SV||G||IP||K/9||BB/9||HR/9||ERA||FIP||xFIP||fWAR|
In fact, of the top five relievers on the team from 2014-15 by Fangraphs’ wins above replacement, none are with the Angels today. Kevin Jepsen was traded prior to 2015, while performance of the other four (Smith, Salas, Morin, and Street) dropped off markedly in subsequent seasons, culminating in two deadline trades, a waiver claim, and several 60-day DL stints, respectively.
Projections are great for planning, but their usefulness goes hand in hand with accurate results. Sure, you could put Mike Trout down for 70 home runs in a season but when he ends up hitting half that, your team is down by the 35 home runs you expected. Now it’s too late to add hitting as 1) you’ve already allocated that money elsewhere, or 2) your desired hitters have already been signed/traded for.
If this situation applies, this may be you at this very moment.
I’m getting off topic here. The point is that in 2016, projections for the Angels bullpen turned out to be useless (the relief unit ended up finishing 27th that year). It’s this uncertainty that led the Angels GM to embark on a paperwork-filled spree that puts even the most overworked accountants to shame, placing claims on every talented yet unproven reliever placed on waivers in a furious attempt to build a more controllable, sustainable bullpen.
Free agent signings are more expensive and less controllable than finding undervalued relievers. For those reasons, signings can be effective but are best used to supplement the roster. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand this, even if the Angels hired one.
Eppler will claim a thousand relievers between now and Opening Day just as has been done in the past calendar year. Half of these guys may not even be on the 40-man roster in two months. One of these guys may end up helping someone else, the product of a talent surplus. One of these guys may develop into the most important relievers over the upcoming half-decade, closing out Game 7 of the 2021 World Series en route to the second ring in franchise history. Let’s conjure up future Blake Parkers in our minds. Let’s dream at the possibilities, because a certain General Manager is already several steps ahead of you.
October 28, 2016: Abel de los Santos
de los Santos was designated for assignment three weeks after being acquired but stayed in the organization as all thirty teams passed on claiming him. According to a 2016 scouting report, the reliever throws a low-90s fastball and mixes in an average curveball. He pitched almost exclusively in double-A Mobile despite having little to prove there, so perhaps the organization believes he has some fine-tuning to do before climbing the ladder. Though he hit the DL several times, he put his command issues behind him (3.19 BB/9), missed bats (10.06 K/9), and pitched well (2.95 ERA, 3.00 FIP). By midseason, the Angels could have a middle reliever on their hands.
August 18, 2017: Noe Ramirez
Ramirez’s slow, slower, slowest approach was evident in his September call-up. The junkballer’s changeup, likely his best pitch, gets opposing hitters out in front and flailing. His upper-80s fastball isn’t exactly daunting, but he works the edges of the strike zone well and entices hitters to chase. He is controllable for five more seasons.
August 25, 2017: Blake Wood
In the span of 35 days, Wood entered 17 games. With an ability to rear back and fire an upper-90s fastball to pair with a filthy slider and good splitter, there’s no question Wood has the raw ‘stuff’ to remain a big leaguer. Command concerns were subdued when he only issued four walks as an Angel. A high earned run average? Perhaps, but seven of the nine earned runs he gave up came in back-to-back outings and a HR/FB rate of 25% is bound to regress to the mean (the MLB average is around half that, as is Wood for his career).
Wood’s real reason for success may be deeper than just command: it’s a different pitch mix entirely. The power reliever traded in his sinkers for four-seam fastballs, along with increasing slider usage (up 5%) and splitter usage (up 6%). Don’t be surprised if Wood’s projected $2.8 million in arbitration is too rich for the Angels’ tastes, who need to maximize every dollar of their budget for next year. Also don’t be surprised if Wood ends up being very good—whether that’s with the Angels or another team—thanks to his new pitch mix.
September 4, 2017: Dayan Diaz
Per John Sickels of Minor League Ball, Diaz’s four-seam fastball sits around 93-94 as well as a slider and changeup both in the 84-87 mph range. Diaz is accustomed to throwing multiple innings out of the bullpen, so it is not a coincidence to see the Angels place a claim on him. On the other hand, it is surprising that Diaz was available in the first place.
In the past two years, Diaz has had good command and missed bats at a league average rate. Combine this with an approach to mix in more offspeed and keep hitters off balance and Diaz could very well be the next versatile yet controllable piece out of the Angels bullpen.
October 9, 2017: Felix Peña
That is, if Peña doesn’t take that role for himself first. In the past two years, Peña has pitched more than one inning on 57 occasions. Over this time, he has also missed bats at an above-average rate with good command that hasn’t translated yet to the majors in a small sample size (3.26 BB/9 in the minors, 4.4 BB/9 in the majors). His slider is his best pitch with a mid-90s fastball; though his repertoire isn’t unique, the package projects to be bigger than the sum of its parts. If he can keep doing what he is doing, he could be a useful piece to the relief corps for years to come.
This grab bag mix of multi-inning, high-octane, junkballing relievers acquired is only the tip of the waiver-claim iceberg.
Most Angels offseason chatter will indubitably revolve around the holes the team has to fill, such as left field, second base, or starting pitching. It provides present excitement and future hope, an ephemeral golden gateway to playoff aspirations.
That doesn’t mean the nitty gritty transactions should be ignored. With potential big-name acquisitions around the corner, this offseason will be an interesting one, but the most impactful moves last offseason were the ones which few paid attention to—waiver claims and non-roster invitees.
The same mistake should not be made this time around.