There is discontent in the air. It’s not the type that drenches a person with a feeling of ice cold water, but it is creeping in the Halos Heaven environment, like a stream slowly wearing away at a high and mighty rock. Tick, tick, tick, goes the clock. With each passing signing at a reasonable or unreasonable price, with each trade Jerry Dipoto makes from his bedside table, another stone is thrown through the safety of our little cocoon, the one that is sheltering us from the harsh reality of Major League Baseball. One day, possibly very soon, the dam will burst wide open, and little miniature keyboard warriors will come raging at Billy Eppler, decrying him for wasting the Trout years, not putting together a competent team, and other crimes, though none as bad as the first. And so we keep plodding along, hoping that Twitter will break something spectacular.
It is December 18th, and the Angels have spent $3.7 million ($2.5 for Justin Bour, $1.2 for Tommy La Stella). Eovaldi, Ramos, McCutchen, Corbin, Kelly, they’re all gone. And we’re sitting here with practically nothing. What does this mean?
Yet, despite the rumblings, there’s actually nothing wrong with the approach Billy Eppler is taking to this offseason. Not because he’s punting away 2019, but because 2019 is actually quite winnable. Even if we do nothing else, there’s a chance in 2019 simply because the 2018 team is mostly still intact. We won 80 games this past season without any obvious overachievers such as Max Muncy. 80 wins isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a pretty good floor.
The goal shouldn’t necessary be just to go out and get superstars, but rather to marginally improve the ballclub as much as possible. You can improve by replacing the worst player in baseball with an average player, just as you can improve by replacing a Cozart with a Machado. Both improve the club, but one may be more cost-effective than the other.
Here is how we look in 2019:
Catcher: We got 1.5 fWAR from catching in 2018 (Martin Maldonado 0.6, Rene Rivera 0.4, Jose Briceno 0.4, Francisco Arcia 0.2, and Joe Hudson -0.1), and we can easily match that in 2019, regardless of if we pick up another catcher or not. Kevan Smith is projected for 1.1 fWAR in limited time (75 games), and Briceno is projected for 0.7. With them splitting the dish equally, catcher is a serviceable, if not great, position.
First base/designated hitter: I lump these together because the same three players (Shohei Ohtani, Albert Pujols, and Justin Bour) should be rotating through the spots throughout the year. Because of his schedule last year, Ohtani only racked up 367 PA, and despite the injury that very likely will cause him to miss the start of the year, with him in the lineup, it’s not unfathomable that he beats that 367 PA this year. Albert Pujols will continue to be his Pujols-ian self, being worth functionally 0 WAR. The X-factor is Justin Bour. Despite the grumblings behind his signing (mainly from our Fearless Leader JDL), he is an asset. He will take away ABs from such individuals as Jefry Marte, Luis Valbuena (RIP), and the many other options we threw in there. His power is raw, and it won’t die down in the marine layer. In 2018, a down year for him, his average HR distance was 405 ft (major league average 398 ft). In comparison, Justin Upton’s average HR distance was 403 ft. Bour is projected for 0.8 fWAR, and when Valbuena and Marte combined for -1.2 fWAR in 2018, this is an upswing of 2 wins.
Second base/third base: Barring any other moves, Zack Cozart and David Fletcher appear to have these two slots locked up. Cozart had a terrible 2018 that ended prematurely due to injury, and in his place the Angels played Kaleb Cowart, Taylor Ward, Luis Valbuena, and other options that did not end well for them. Cozart is a player to watch in 2019, because although it is tough coming back from a shoulder injury, it is worth noting that the injury is on his left shoulder. As Steamer projects him for 3.1 fWAR, mostly coming from the strength of his defense, it’s easy to envision a scenario where he meets or even surpasses this bar, providing production at an infield position that simply wasn’t there in 2018. Fletcher returns after a magical 2018 season, and although Steamer sees regression in his future, he can easily match the offensive numbers that Ian Kinsler put up while continuing to be a valuable asset on the defensive side of things.
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons is a top-5 shortstop in the league, and he remains in his prime.
Utility man: Here’s the other place where large strides have been made. Tommy La Stella is a player whose floor is high. We don’t need him to be good, but we do need him to be better than the Nolan Fontanas of the world. And he will be.
Left field: Justin Upton’s 2018 slash of .257/.344/.463/.808. We’ve heard that he’s been prone to hot and cold streaks, and the hot streaks didn’t really materialize in 2018. However, he’s always been consistent season-to-season, with his OPS+ since 2009 not dipping below 110 save 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised if he busted his his .900+ OPS of 2017, but I would be surprised if he had a Pujols-ian season. Upton may be overpaid, but you know what type of production you will get out of him.
Center field: Steamer, a conservative projection, has Mike Trout with 9.3 fWAR and a .441 OBP. Lord.
Right field: I also wanted to focus on Kole Calhoun, and here’s where a devolve a little again. Did Calhoun have a terrible 2018? Yes. Yet he’s not going to be traded, and he shouldn’t be traded. If he were a free agent, I don’t know if any team in baseball would sign him to a 1 year, $11.5 million contract (factoring in the 2020 buyout). Which means to get rid of him, we would have to pay other teams cash, and we wouldn’t get prospects worth snot in response. Rather than saving $4-5 million (if we’re lucky) and taking fliers on the Rajai Davis’s of the world, I’d rather give Calhoun the ABs. He’s about 3000 ABs into his major league career, and he’s running an OPS+ of 105. Coupled with his Gold Glove defense, there’s nothing that convinces me he should be moved this offseason. And despite the NTC, I’d sooner rather move Upton than Calhoun. Steamer knows all these things and projects Calhoun to OPS .733 (a little below his career OPS of .738) and produce 1.9 fWAR, 1.9 than he did last year. Factoring in Jabari Blash’s -0.7 fWAR, Chris Young’s -0.5 fWAR, and Eric Young Jr.’s -0.3 fWAR, this can easily be a positive swing of 3-4 wins for the Angels.
Pitching: Let’s take a look at the WAR leaderboard for the 2018 Angels pitching staff. The top 4: Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Felix Pena, and Jaime Barria, they all return. Traded to Philadelphia, Jose Alvarez had 1.2 fWAR, but despite being upset with the return from the Phillies, the general consensus is that Alvarez’s numbers were a mirage and should come back down to earth in 2019. Shohei Ohtani, Garrett Richards, and Matt Shoemaker combined for 2.6 fWAR, and that will have to be replaced somewhere, but I expect Eppler to find a starter or two on the market that can maintain some of this value.
On the flip side, we’ve gotten rid of some of the most negative value players. Deck McGuire (-0.6), Parker Bridwell (-0.4), Eduardo Paredes (-0.3), Luke Bard (-0.3), and Akeel Morris (-0.2). Although these numbers are not too far into the negatives, they do add up, and simply casting them aside is a gain. We might be laughing at the Angels trading for Dillion Peters, for example, but he’s projected for 0.4 fWAR in 2019. Replace a Paredes with a Peters and that’s a net positive of 0.7 wins. If Opening Day were today, the Angels would trot out a bullpen of Ty Buttrey-Cam Bedrosian-Taylor Cole-Luis Garcia-Dillion Peters-Noe Ramirez-Hansel Robles-Justin Anderson, with Keynan Middleton waiting to return. This isn’t bad. Once again, it’s not good, but we’re replacing dead weight with floatable items. Buttrey, Bedrosian, Cole, Ramirez, Robles, and Anderson return as the serviceable members of the 2018 pen, and Garcia (projected for 0.6 fWAR, about what I expect Alvarez to net in 2019) and Peters are other options that won’t be too bad.
If you take the baseline of 80 wins from 2018 and add one or two here or there from Calhoun, Cozart, the utility ABs, and the bullpen, there’s no reason this team couldn’t foreseeable be looking at an 87-88 win season, on the cusp of the playoffs.
This is me half spitballing optimism, but also preaching with logic. Be mad at Billy, yes. Be mad at the way the team is. But with the constraints of this offseason, I think he’s doing just fine thus far. We can sign Dallas Keuchel and Adam Ottavino and Yasmani Grandal. But how much better are we? Two, three wins? And that’s before those guys tank at the end of the deal. In our wildest dreams, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado might come trotting into town, offering their services. But committing $110 million a year to four players is dangerous, and it’s the type of process that leads to the rut the Detroit Tigers are currently in.
We saw this process last offseason—trying to improve at the lower levels of the team. Yet when Kinsler, Cozart, and Calhoun flopped, we didn’t see any improvement there. I can’t guarantee this will work in 2019, but the numbers are on our side.
Plus, wouldn’t it be damn cool if the Angels just started winning?
Do you approve of the way Billy Eppler has handled the offseason thus far?
This poll is closed
Leaning yes, but will reserve judgment
Leaning no, but will reserve judgment