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If I were Billy Eppler..., Part III

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Adding stability and depth to the Angels’ All Star core.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the third installment of our arm-chair GM series! As a reminder, here are the basic guidelines: For the luxury tax payroll, we are using the number calculated by Cot’s contracts, which is about $142.3 million for next season.

The luxury tax threshold, which owner Arte Moreno has indicated as the spending limit in years past, is $197 million for 2018, leaving us with almost $55 million to play with. We then knocked that number down to $45 million to ensure that there is enough payroll flexibility to make mid-season acquisitions possible.

As for our proposed offseason moves, we are using MLB Trade Rumors’ free-agent predictions and FanGraphs’ crowdsourced contract estimates as baselines for any free-agent signings.

For trades, we vow to keep them as realistic as possible. A popular tactic among baseball fans on the internet is simply offering a bunch of players you don’t like in exchange for some you do. That’s not how trades actually work, so that’s off limits.

And lastly, if we are acquiring an arbitration-eligible player, we are using MLB TR’s arbitration projections to calculate the player’s effect on the payroll, as the final arbitration numbers are not yet in.

As anyone who has been active on Halos Heaven the last few weeks knows, the Angels’ biggest needs have become glaringly obvious:

  • Three quality infielders who are worthy of sharing the diamond with Gold Glove-winning, DRS leading, should-have-been-an-All-Star shortstop extraordinaire Andrelton Simmons;
  • MLB-quality depth around the margins.

With a free agent pool littered with potential landmines, the team’s richest investment should be the most stable option possible. I am talking, of course, about:

Carlos Santana, 1B - 4 years and $68 million ($17M AAV)

I will spare you the corny Black Magic and Evil Ways references, as his body of work has reached the point that it should speak for itself. Anyone who has lurked the comment threads recently knows I am particularly excited about the idea of the Angels luring my namesake to play first base for a few seasons. And I probably don’t have to convince many of you why, but humor me, anyway:

  • Career 123 wRC+, which has never fallen below 100 since he has been in the league. It has creeped under 110 only one time in his career.
  • He has elite-level plate discipline, generally around top-10 in the league, combined with a well-above average strikeout rate. His career slugging percentage is .455, so the power plays at first base. He is also a switch-hitter with no concerning platoon split, adding much-needed balance to the middle of the line-up. This is “professional hitter” defined.
  • According to UZR, he has been one of the five best defensive first basemen in baseball the last three years.

If he were Eric Hosmer’s age, he would likely top him for highest-paid free agent first baseman this offseason. Even at age-32, the MLB Trade Rumors estimate feels a little light to me, so I elected to lock him up to a deal more in line with Dave Cameron’s estimate at Fangraphs.

There are a plethora of options to fill second base, all of which would be a marked improvement over what the Angels have received there since trading away Howie Kendrick. Jessica’s acquisition of Cesar Hernandez would be the coup de gras to end our years of second base misery, as he brings defense, on-base skills and youth to the table. Unfortunately, with the Phillies looking to add controllable pitching to bolster their rich collection of position players, I just do not see a match to make this perfect fit come true.

Chad recommends Dee Gordon, which is nearly as good a match to solidify second base for a few seasons. Even when he does not hit .300, his defense and base-running prowess are enough to make him an average big league regular. My concern is that Scioscia would automatically insert him at the top of the order, even if he is not keeping his OBP high enough above water to justify it.

The real issue with acquiring Gordon is not his $10 million AAV, which is perfectly reasonable. It is the cost in player talent, even if that does not include one of our top prospects. Chris Rodriguez and Jamie Barria, whom Chad wants to send to Miami, are hardly sure things, but why not keep our pitching depth as rich as possible if we can upgrade second base just as easily on the open market?

Neil Walker, 3 years, $30 million

Cincinnati Reds V Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

There is a decent sized gap in how FG and MLBTR view Walker’s value, as Dave Cameron ranks him 11th on his list, while Dierkes has him down at 28th. There are obvious injury concerns with Walker, so the third year might even be an overshoot, depending on other team’s level of interest.

Injury concerns aside, Walker just hits and hits and hits. If we get 130 games of his solid bat and average defense, this deal is a bargain and represents a huge swing in production over the past few seasons.

With $28 million tied up into first and second base, we need to go bargain hunting to find a platoon partner for Luis Valbuena at third base. Todd Frazier is in vogue as the sensible alternative to Mike Moustakas, but he is likely reaching the point of being so underrated he is now overrated.

On the surface, he has the glove, patience and power that you would want from any corner player. Step back a moment and take note that his OPS+ has decreased in each of his last four seasons, even as his walk rate has trended up over that time. He also has a tendency to hit pop-ups, keeping that average way down.

He is a complimentary player who could fall below that average threshold in a hurry if his power diminishes any further (.428 SLG last season). Despite that, estimates have him netting 3 years and anywhere from $33-42 million. While it is still possible that he makes good on a deal like that, it is too rich for the budget we set here, considering we have yet to address the pitching staff.

Enter the Miami Marlins and their latest fire sale. Martin Prado has long been a favorite target around here for filling the Angels’ third base void. His stock has dropped considerably, as he is coming off a lost season that ended after 37 games thanks to knee surgery. Assuming he is healthy, he is a decent bounce-back candidate, especially in a part-time role.

His contract is problematic, which is where this trade has the potential to get interesting. Owed $28 million over the next two years, his deal carries an AAV of $13.3M. Any deal deal for Prado would require Miami to retain some salary. My proposal:

To the Angels:

Martin Prado, 3B $7M AAV (Miami pays $6.3M per season)

To the Marlins:

David Fletcher, 2B

Michael Hermosillo, OF

Chicago Cubs v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Rich? Yes, maybe. We are essentially selling out two somewhat interesting prospects for $13 million. I am sure Miami would be happy to just hand Prado over if the Angels absorbed his salary, but it seems like a fair compromise for them: shed half of a seemingly unmovable contract while getting two competent - if unspectacular - prospects for their barren system.

Neither of these players project to be more than bench pieces, so if Prado passes a physical, the risk is minimal even if he does not bounce back from his career-worst season. Playing on a bum knee last season, he still provided positive value with the glove, as he has his entire career. While he is in his mid-thirties, his offensive profile is in making contact and hitting the ball to all-fields, so he does not rely on power or speed as part of his game. He is essentially Yunel Escobar with good defense. A platoon of Prado and Valbuena could conceivably combine for 3 WAR.

With the starting nine covered, we can look towards injecting some life into the pitching staff. As a whole, it will likely be populated by guys already on the roster, along with whatever shiny nuggets Eppler manages to mine from the hills of fringe relievers and forgotten prospects. There is room for two significant upgrades, however:

Mike Minor, LHRP - 3 years, $21 million

Tyler Chatwood, RHSP - 3 years, $24 million

Minor broke out in a big way after his move to the pen. He struck out more than a batter-per-inning while maintaining very good walk and home run rates. He completely dominated left-handed batters while holding righties to a .223 BA. He has also shown he is capable of pitching multiple innings on occasion, making him a bit of a poor man’s Andrew Miller.

Multi-year deals for relievers are always risky. While they could potentially shave a few million and grab a more known-quantity like Boone Logan, I like Minor’s ability to control the strike zone and pitch without the platoon advantage.

Chatwood, of course, started his career in Anaheim before establishing himself after a trade to Colorado. Many have cited Chatwood as a hidden gem in this free agent class, thinking his big fastball and overwhelming ground-ball tendencies could blossom outside Coors Field. A full year removed from Tommy John surgery, last season saw an increase in both velocity and strikeout rate for the right-hander. Heading into his age-28 season, he could be prime for a breakout.

The walk rate is concerning, which is likely what keeps his earning potential relatively low. Even if you want to believe he has simply been cautious due to his home park, he has never been a guy that has demonstrated good control and his walk rate on the road was identical to his rate at home last season. Even if that problem persists, his decent strikeout rates and fantastic grounder-inducing abilities make him a very decent innings-eater.

Miami Marlins v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I split the difference between Cameron and Dierkes on both of these pitcher contracts. If you want to nit-pick, go ahead and add a year to Minor’s deal to match the MLBTR estimate, as I think Cameron over-shoots on his 3 year, $27 million guess. The gulf between their valuations of Chatwood is even greater, with Cameron believing he will earn $3 million more per season that Dierkes, so $8 million a year for Chatwood should be enough to entice him back to the west coast (born and raised in Redlands).

On the bench, I count three spots that need filling with essentially nothing left in our budget. In a utility role, I am comfortable allowing Kaleb Cowart and Nolan Fontana battle it out in spring training, as both are capable at all three infield spots and neither would be called upon for any heavy lifting, save for an injury.

With Carlos Perez having fallen out of favor and Juan Graterol so inept, the Angels gave a career back-up more innings behind the plate than any other receiver in baseball, it would seem prudent to find a reliable catcher to pair with defensive stalwart Martin Maldonado.

In keeping with the synergy of a Tyler Chatwood reunion, Chris Iannetta is a free agent once again. Strangely, he was not ranked in either of our referenced free agent lists, not even in the “honorable mentions.” Interesting, considering both Welington Castillo and Alex Avila make the cut on their lists despite very similar profiles.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Iannetta is 34 and will not receive many offers to be a team’s primary catcher, despite a very strong season in Arizona last year. His framing runs have been all over the map the last three years, but as a part-time player I have faith he can stay fresh enough to keep his defense in line. As a guy who still knows how to get on base at a decent clip (walk rate above 11% each the last two years) and put an occasional mistake pitch over the fence, there is an opportunity to grab an undervalued asset.

Chris Iannetta, C - 1 year, $2 million

Giving Iannetta that much money to be a back-up means we need to clear some salary elsewhere on the roster. At the same time, trading away Hermosillo means we now have no outfielders on our roster outside our starting three. With C.J. Cron primed to make roughly $3 million through arbitration with nowhere to play him, trading him for a back-up outfielder making the league minimum could kill two birds with one stone.

As always, there are a plethora of mediocre first basemen on the open market, so finding a taker for Cron will not be easy. There are only a few teams in the market for a first baseman, though most are contenders and would not likely see Cron as any kind of option. The one exception could be the Kansas City Royals, who are bound to lose free agent Eric Hosmer and have shown in the past they are fine with low OBP power bats.

Cron could represent a nice low-cost option to bridge the gap at first until top prospect Nick Pratto is ready for showtime. Looking over their roster, one name caught my eye as a potential fit:

To the Angels:

Billy Burns, OF (pre-arb)

To the Royals:

C.J. Cron, 1B (arb1, est. $2-3 million)

Billy Burns is a 27 year-old fringe major leaguer with 242 games under his belt. He is a speedy switch-hitter capable of playing all three outfield positions. In 2015, he finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting, batting .294/.334/.392 for Oakland. He has stolen 212 bases in the minors with a 86% success rate, along with strong on-base skills (.382 OBP, 11% walk rate).

It is possible that Kansas City views Burns as a possible replacement for free agent Lorenzo Cain, but more likely they see him for what he is: a fourth outfielder and pinch-running specialist. Not a lot of upside here, but precisely what the Angels need. This seems like a deal with the potential to work out well for both clubs.

The Finished Product

The commitments to Santana, Walker, Prado, Minor, Chatwood and Iannetta add up to $51 million in AAV per season. Shedding the potential contract for Cron, along with a non-tender of Jose Alvarez and Blake Wood, plus deducting the league-minimum salaries of a couple of the positional upgrades we made, brings us squarely to $45 million in added AAV for 2018, give or take a few hundred thousand.

The end result is a deep, diverse line-up with pop and on-base skills; a shut-down left-handed reliever who can excel in several different roles; a league-average starter with upside; an affordable bench with useful-if-unspectacular pieces that won’t sink the team if they have to fill in on occasion.

There is some risk built into this roster, particularly the health concerns of Walker and Prado. Even if both are busts, neither is being counted on as a primary contributor, with the stability provided by Santana giving the line-up a substantial boost. Given the reinforcements on the pitching side, a little bit of luck with the health of the starting staff should make this is very competitive club in 2018.