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Billy Eppler wants a catcher and a first baseman

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There may not be urgent need at those spots— but the GM wants to upgrade where he can

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Diego Padres
Eduardo Escobar can rake
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The GM said to Fox Sports West and the OC Register’s Jeff Fletcher was that the Angels’ GM may look outside the organization for help at catcher and first base.

Sensible.. He said he would look internally for position players, so curb any dreams of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or even Nick Markakis from this year’s dream free agent class.

Eppler wants on-base percentage — he’s tired of solo HRs. The theory of Epplertunism is to try to improve anywhere.

A starting catcher looks like the Angels’ most glaring need.

We can dream about J.T. Realmuto all we want, but the Miami Marlins star would require a trade from Eppler’s carefully sown farm. Trades are for another article.

At catcher, Jose Briceno and Fernando Arcia paid long dues in the minors before finally getting their shot in 2018 after Martin Maldonado and Rene Rivera left.

(Maldy was traded at the July deadline for Patrick Sandoval. Rivera was DFA’d and picked up by the Braves).

Both Briceno and Arcia are fine, but seem better suited to back up a proven someone starter.

At first base, there’s also no clear everyday starter — or is there?

Ah! The perma-cloud that always blocks your sunshine, Albert Pujols. He’s still around, unless he isn’t.

The Machine is broken and no longer has Mike Scioscia to protect his lineup spot. That could make first base a priority.

There is also the very real chance that Pujols simply can’t play anymore after knee surgery. That has ended more than one career.

Albert has been hurt almost every day in since 2012, but knees are harder to fix than the other lower-body parts that have slowed Pujols to a crawl.

Would Eppler cut the legend and eat his salary? Maybe. Owner Arte Moreno wouldn’t like it, but we’ve already seen one of the owner’s pets depart when manager Mike Scioscia tearfully quit Sunday.

Eppler’s job is to win — Deirdre Pujols’ amazing charity work and her husband’s career milestones are nice and owner Arte Moreno appreciates them, but they don’t win anything on the field.

Baseball can be a ruthless business. Now we’ll see how much power the GM really has and if he’ll go full ninja.

First, where might Eppler look for help behind the dish? It’s handy to remember these backstops don’t have to pass the Mike Scioscia catcher smell test anymore.

Free-agent catchers

First-tier guys

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Everlasting love?
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Jeff Mathis, Marlins: Premium athlete! (Don’t break your computer or phone please, that was just a Snark Test.)

The real list starts here:

Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers: The prize of the pack. It would be a joy to pry him from the Dodgers, who may not be able to keep him. But he will have the most of suitors — switch-hitting catchers who can produce 2.6 WAR don’t grow on trees. His defense is awesome. He won’t come cheap.

Wilson Ramos, Phillies: The “Buffalo” wins the nickname game and the Venezuelan, 31, is a beast when healthy. Ramos’ right-handed bat has pop and put up 2.5 WAR in 2018. Eppler may relish another battle with Phillies GM Matt Klentak, the former Angel assistant GM. Billy won Round 1 when he was hired over Klentak to replace Jerry Dipoto as GM.

Martin Maldonado, Astros: Everyone loved Maldy — the hard-ass catcher with a soft heart. His departure was sad when he was sent to Houston to chase a ring. Maldonado already knows most the Angels’ pitching staff, and was mentor and BFF to Shohei Ohtani. They can renew their bromance and Ohtani can pitch again in 2020. Cool.

Second-tier guys

Kurt Suzuki, Braves: One of Braves’ catching duo may go. Alex Jackson and William Contreras are next in line from a still-loaded Atlanta system. It may make sense to say aloha to the Hawaiian and his big price tag.

Robinson Chirinos, Rangers: A very nice player for a badass. Chirinos got bowled over in a home-plate collision by giant Dodger Matt Kemp and got up ready to throw punches. Props.

Tyler Flowers, Braves: The best pitch framer in the biz and cheaper than Suzuki. But Flowers is injury prone — one of the problems of being a 6-foot-6 catcher.

Third-tier guys

Nick Hundley, Giants: Good bat, but his defense is still lacking despite 11 years trying to get it right. Is it just me or do a lot catchers are named Hundley?

Jonathan Lucroy, A’s: He’s tough as hell and funny too. In 2015 he had his toe “shattered in half” by a foul tip and laughed if off. Lucroy’s funny and cool enough to play the comic foil in a home-run derby act with YouTube legend Domingo Ayala. It’s hilarious and well worth the watch.

Devin Mesaraco, Mets: A 2014 All-Star with the Reds. The problem with him is he can’t stay healthy. Proceed with caution, Billy.

Brian McCann, Astros: He’s 34 and a one-year deal could work. McCann always could hit and has a WS ring, but “veteran grit” may not matter much post-Sosh. Probably a future DH.

Jeff Mathis, Marlins: If nuclear war comes, hide behind Mathis. The cockroach has lasted 14 years in MLB despite a .198 career batting average. When the bomb drops, you can find him under your skirting boards.

When you’re done throwing up, let’s take look over what might be available over Yonder at first base. Not Alonso.

Free-agent first basemen

This section is split between “Real first basemen” and “Swiss Army Knife solutions” — utilitymen who can rake and could probably play first. (Most people can).

Eppler may not make a move here because he has MLB-ready talent to audition in Jared Walsh and Matt Thaiss. He may throw them in the fire or wait for them to simmer more.

“Real first basemen”

First-tier guys

At the risk of insulting first basemen everywhere, you play first base #1 because you can mash — and catch most baseballs thrown to you by real infielders. You also talk to baserunners a lot, so a gift of gab helps.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox
Steve Pearce goes deep and knows it.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Luis Valbuena, unemployed: What? Nope?

Just joking again.

Moving on again to the real list below;

Justin Smoak, Blue Jays: The Jays want to get younger with Vlad Guerrero Jr. and others on the way. Smoak is 31 and the switch hitter was a 2017 All-Star. He has a club option that only costs the Jays $250K to buy out. If they want to start the youth movement, setting Smoak free would be one way.

Steve Pearce, Red Sox: He’s 35, bald and smiley. He posted a solid 1.4 WAR, but even if the FA market doesn’t stall again, Pearce can’t expect the $12.5 million he cashed last year. In the pic above Pearce hits a bomb and respects the game. Thumbs up.

Joe Mauer, Twins: He’s 35 and will probably retire unless he gets a offer from the Twins, the only club he’s ever played for. If Mauer wants to keep playing after the departure of his manager Paul Molitor, he’d make a nice Cooperstown-bound platoon with Pujols. Risky.

Second-tier guys

Lucas Duda, Braves: Eppler may have had interest before 2018 but the Royals beat him to to the punch. Kansas City later moved the lefty slugger to Atlanta in their summer fire sale. He’s only 32 and could be affordable.

CJ Cron, Rays: Would Eppler bring him back? He fell out of favor with Scioscia for pouting over playing time, so Cron was sent off to Florida for player-to-be-named later Luis Rengifo. The Rays gave him a shot to play every day, and he hit 30 homers. He’s arbitration-eligible but the Rays may not offer.

Matt Adams, Cardinals: He’s 29 and makes sense at the right price only if Pujols stays. That could form a lethal platoon — Adams murders right-handed pitching and Pujols could take on lefties. Adams’ real name is dull. I prefer his nickname, “Big City.”

Third-tier guys

Mark Reynolds, Nationals: He’s on the cusp of 300 homers and he’ll get them if he gets a chance. He hit 13 dingers in only 86 games in DC before the Nats cut him. He’s streaky and strikes out a ton — but would make a cheap bench piece for a desperate team. The Angels shouldn’t be desperate.

Hanley Ramirez, umployed: The two-time Red Sox and three-time All-Star may find a taker because he is only 34 and can still flat-out hit. He has a lot of money in the bank but also a ton of baggage ... no thanks.

Luis Valbuena, unemployed: Great if you need a fat flip, and he can also play third. But would be very un-Eppler to bring back a guy he cut this season. He may as well trade Mike Trout.

“Swiss Army knife solutions”

This one requires some outside-the-box thinking, but Billy Eppler has pulled off this trick before.

Our intrepid GM just needs to ask a guy to change positions and chill. Want to play with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in paradise? Grab a new glove.

Eppler did just that when he signed Zack Cozart at the 2017 Winter Meetings,

First he asked Cozart, who had only played shortstop, if he’d mind a little switch over to second base. Then when Ian Kinsler was in play, Eppler asked Cozart if he’d try third base.

Cozart was cool about it. He just wanted to get out of Cincinnati with his pet donkey.

He pretty much said “whatever you want dude.”

As it turned out, Cozart played all around the Angel infield before he suffered a season-ending injury playing shortstop, where he was filling in for injured Andrelton Simmons, who got hurt falling down the dugout steps.

God, 2018 was bad.

In order to pull off this type of move, Eppler has to persuade a guy who either owns, has used, or has even seen a first baseman’s mitt.

Defending first base isn’t as hard as guys like Pujols claim.

First off, starting first basemen need pop.

This list only has one tier.

A lot of utility guys start as shortstops, which means they can play anywhere because they’re awesome athletes and a bit arrogant about it.

Shortstops love their spot even if they suck with with the glove — Manny Machado? But as a former SS myself, first base is a piece of cake. Here’s a short list of conversion candidates:

Eduardo Escobar, Diamondbacks: He’s only 30 and started out at short, but will play anywhere. The only position he hasn’t played is first. He’s played catcher and even caught and pitched! A switch hitter who put up 3.2 WAR in 2018 is nice. He might cost in the range of $5MM, but his agent is DJ Rengifo — I’m reaching.

Marwin Gonzalez, Astros: Another 30-year-old natural SS who will take his glove anywhere. It would be nice to steal an Angel-killer from Houston. It’s not far-fetched — Gonzalez played 24 games at first for the Astros last year and put up 1.3 WAR. Is $5MM too steep?

Evan Gattis: This guy is listed last because he can barely move let alone play first full-time. That’s another Pujols. Gattis has played first in the past but the toll of catching and Father Time. But he’s an Angel killer who put up 0.3 WAR in 2018, so his $6.7m price tag will drop.

Final thoughts:

It’s unlikely Eppler nabs any of these names — at least to my eyes there doesn’t see much there. Eppler should use the lion’s share of his budget on pitching — plus, internal options like Thaiss, Walsh, Arcia, Briceno can be tried first.

The now one-way Shohei will anchor the offense. Isn’t that a happy thought?

If I had to choose, Maldonado or Grandal at catcher and Escobar at first, or Adams in a platoon with Albert.

Anyone here you like? Anyone I missed?