It’s no secret that this 2016-17 free agent class has been a historically weak one. Case in point: Jhoulys Chacin was the 8th most valuable free agent pitcher this year, and he’s also projected by Fangraphs’ Steamer to be the 7th most valuable FA pitcher. Of all the players on the market, 15 were projected to be two wins (average) or better. But there’s one group of players that stuck out over the past three months, and that’s the reliever market.
Take a look at the relievers that are or were available this winter, in order of 2016 production.
Just look at all of those names!
Despite a surplus of available talent on this front, the Angels front office has been uncharacteristically quiet in their pursuit of free agent relievers (aside from spin darling Andrew Bailey, of course). With so many holes to fill, Chapman, Jansen, and Melancon were out of play from the start, but they could have nabbed a reliever from a second tier littered with solid yet unspectacular names: Brett Cecil, Sergio Romo, Joaquin Benoit, Drew Storen, Joe Blanton, Daniel Hudson, Boone Logan, Santiago Casilla, Brad Ziegler, and the list goes on.
But is/was avoidance the right decision to make given the team had the lowest reliever strikeout percentage and the second to worst bullpen in baseball?
It is quite puzzling, but here are a few possible explanations.
2016 saw the best of the Angels relievers on the bunch. Whether it was Cam Bedrosian, Huston Street, Joe Smith, or others, the bullpen was never operating at full-strength. With a whole offseason to rest and recover, that will change.
Others like Mike Morin, Deolis Guerra, Jose Alvarez, and JC Ramirez aren’t finished products yet, and will still evolve and continue to improve ever-so slightly as they gain MLB experience.
Low margin for error
The Angels as a whole are in a tricky situation. Eppler has to dance around the payroll situation while not incurring luxury tax, keep the team sustainably competitive, all while growing the farm system.
Having a reliever that doesn’t work out, even one that is only being paid $5M per year, puts a tremendous damper on the team’s ability to re-sign or extend core players moving forward and hurts the attraction of more important free agents in 2018-2020, when the team is in a must-win window.
More versatility, more depth, and higher floor
Most players picked up through trades, waivers, farm system, minor-league deal or otherwise can all fill in immediately at the big league level as a back-end starter, swingman, or reliever. Such players include Alex Meyer, Bud Norris, Vicente Campos, Brooks Pounders, Nate Smith, Troy Scribner, Daniel Wright, Manny Banuelos, etc. Potential relievers acquired recently include Blake Parker, Kirby Yates, Justin Miller, Drew Gagnon, and Abel de los Santos.
Essentially, this all serves as a hedge against buying relievers on the free agent market and finding a few gems among the list of names. Most of these names may not stick, but if a few do well it’s akin to landing reliable relievers (and/or starters) without shelling out millions.
As the season goes on, a few relief prospects are in position to get a shot at the majors, specifically fireballer Keynan Middleton. I previously wrote about him here. The tldr; version is that with just a few more games in the minors, he’s an MLB-ready relief piece that has all the tools to be a late-inning reliever. It’s possible he could burst onto the scene just as Cam Bedrosian did this year.
There’s also some hope for Greg Mahle, who profiles as a situational lefty — someone who the Angels could certainly use on the big league team.
At this point in the offseason, the Angels are approximately $10-12M under the luxury tax threshold. But if the front office has reached their budget for the year, then this entire discussion is likely a moot point.
Per Cot’s Contracts, the Angels 2016 ending payroll was about $186M. If this indeed is the budget, then the team still has $1-3 million before they reach their ending payroll.
The other option is to spend money and unload players on one-year deals at the deadline if necessary, but Eppler has not shown much interest in free-agent relievers over the course of this offseason.
Ultimately, Eppler is hedging his bets that at least a few will pay off and provide much-needed relief (pun intended) to the 2017 Angels team. Given the circumstances, it might not be the best plan, but it’s definitely not the worst one.