We have all heard the narrative before. “The Angels are wasting Mike Trout’s talent” was a pretty common click-bait headline for the better part of the past five-six seasons. Aside from a brief postseason cameo against the Kansas City Royals in 2014, Trout has never been in a playoff series. There are several factors that play into this, such as Jerry Dipoto’s stint as the teams General Manager leaving the farm system barren and the Major League talent relatively average, subpar drafting whenever they did have a selection, or the franchise crippling contracts of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and CJ Wilson. Oh, and there were the international restrictions that bound the team after the infamous Roberto Baldoquin signing. In short, incumbent GM, Billy Eppler, had inherited an absolute mess. The responsibility of putting a competitive Major League team on the field while rebuilding a farm system is a daunting task for any GM.
Flash forward to the offseason of 2017/2018. The Angels had finally shed the enormous commitments of Hamilton, Wilson, Jered Weaver, Huston Street, and others, but had several holes on the roster (including the continuous revolving door in left field, the black hole at the keystone position, and no real solution at the hot corner). But while us fans were busy speculating and discussing, Eppler was a man on a mission. In an offseason slowed down by a flawed Collective Bargaining Agreement, Eppler made sure to finally silence the tired narrative of wasting a talent like Trout by being, arguably, the most proactive team this winter.
Before getting into the nuts-and-bolts of this past offseason, I am going to place a disclaimer: Eppler loves his transactions. The dude does not sleep, it seems. Every winter, dating back to Dipoto’s second year as the GM, I keep a log on my iPhone of the transactions the Angels make. This ranges from front office personnel being added, coaching additions, minor league signings, Rule V moves (both in the Major League portion and Minor League), everything. I am not going to go too deep into a lot of the major additions since they have mostly been oft-discussed and dissected already, but it will serve as a healthy reminder about just how much work goes into an offseason, and it is glorious. It will be a blend of chronological order along with certain categories. Let’s jump into it.
One of the main things I have noticed after doing these logs for a few years now is the foundational work that the team does in order to prepare for the heavy lifting. It mostly invovles minor league players opting out of their contracts in favor of free agency (often opening up 40-man roster spots), front office staff coming in-and-out, and getting the coaching staff intact. This winter did not start out any differently than in years past. It may have been lost in the flurry of moves Eppler made, but this offseason actually started with the re-signing of RHP Vicente Campos and C Jose Briceno. Campos was a waiver claim from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, while Briceno was the headliner of a trade that involved some guy named Andrelton Simmons.
For my birthday, the Angels acquried a RHP Felix Pena from the Chicago Cubs to compete for a bullpen spot, but most likely to give them some depth in the upper levels of the minors. LHP Jason Gurka was the casuality of a 40-man roster spot after pitching 0.2 IP for the Halos in 2017 (Gurka would eventually elect for free agency and sign with the Orioles). RHP Daniel Wright and OF Ramon Flores, both who had made quick appearances for the Angels in 2017, also ended up electing to test the waters.
But it was the coaching staff decisions that ended up being the talk of the Hot Stove at the time. After struggling offensively in 2017, the team decided to go in a different direction with their hitting coach, relieving Dave Hansen of his duties after a two-year stint at the helm, replacing him with assistant hitting coach for the star-studded Chicago Cubs team, Eric Hinske. Freshly-minted manager for the Boston Red Sox, Alex Cora, poached beloved third base coach, Ron Roenicke, leaving a temporary vacancy at the spot, only to be filled with, then bench coach and former third base coach, Dino Ebel. More on the bench coach spot in a little.
An Actual Left Fielder!?!?
Remember the Daniel Nava/Craig Gentry experiment? Collin Cowgill, Ji-Man Choi, J.B. Shuck, Rafael Ortega, Todd Cunningham? Tried to forget? Well, how about the last time the Angels made a big splash in free agency? That should be an even more uncomfortable flashback. The answer to the last question was Josh Hamilton, the seemingly potential energy that shifted the disfunction and perpetual sorrow of left field into kinetic energy for years. But, Josh Hamilton no more! The Angels got their man in Justin Upton by tacking on one more year on his contract worth an additional $18 million dollars. Our own htennis got to break the story and it’s pretty funny going through the initial thread to see the comments, I’d definitely check it out. But this was the first signing that actually moved the needle in years and it sent quite the jolt throughout the franchise and its fanbase.
Part of the clubs ability to gain payroll flexibility was made by the easy decisions of declining the club options of Ricky Nolasco and Huston Street and, instead, be on the hook for a combined $2 million in 2018 for their buyouts. To clear more spots on the 40-man roster for the upcoming Rule V Draft, the Angels outrighted RHP Deolis Guerra (who later elected for free agency) who joined outfielders Shane Robinson and Eric Young Jr. on the open market after electing for free agency. Those roster spots would eventually go to rising RHP prospect, Jaime Barria, RHP Jesus Castillo, and OF Michael Hermosillo to protect them from getting selected in the Rule V Draft.
Rahul would publish this story that same week with a list of minor league players who chose the path of minor league free agency. We’ll miss them dearly.
RHP: Austin Adams (AAA) | Abel de los Santos (AAA) | Luis E. Diaz (AAA) | Drew Gagnon (AAA) | Ivan Hernandez (AA) | Sam Holland (Hi A) | Eric Karch (Hi A) | Jhondaniel Medina (AA) | David Perez (R) | Brooks Pounders (AAA)
LHP: Manny Banuelos (AAA) | Cody Ege (AAA) | Kevin Grendell (AA) | Jason Gurka(AAA) | John Lamb (AAA)
C: Francisco Arcia (AAA)
1B: Dustin Ackley (AAA)
2B: Nick Franklin (AAA)
SS: Rey Navarro (AAA)
OF: Forrestt Allday (AA)
The following weeks were a bit more dull. They finally announced that Ebel would be the third base coach again, hired former Angels catcher Josh Paul as the new bench coach (yes, that former Angels catcher) to replace Roenicke while also bringing in former Detroit Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus as a special assistant to Eppler. He will assist in the scouting and evaluations of the Angels, and other, organizations players. But he may have played a key part later in the offseason.
OF Jared Hoying and C Curt Casali enjoyed incredibly short careers with the Angels on minor league deals before getting released to pursue other opportunities (Hoying went on to sign in Korea with the KBO Hanwha Eagles and Casali would sign-on and later get released by the Texas Rangers). Out of this time period of minor league deals, IF Colin Walsh was the only one to survive through Spring Training. He’ll likely serve as depth in Salt Lake City.
The Ohtani Pursuit:
This is where things started to get fun, even before we knew that things were going to be fun. On November 30th, the Angels acquired veteran reliever RHP Jim Johnson and international bonus pool money from the Atlanta Braves for minor league left-handed reliever, Justin Kelly. Johnson could be a key part of the bullpen heading into 2018, but the big story here was the $1.21 million in international bonus pool money they acquired. Was this to pursue Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani? Or maybe some of the recently released Braves prospects? Well, the answer was both.
We, as fans, had no inkling that the Angels would pursue Ohtani, so when this trade, and more importantly, this quote from Eppler came out, hysteria began.
“The money acquired in this deal was with an eye toward Shohei Ohtani and the pursuit of him as a player for us,” General Manager Billy Eppler said Thursday afternoon.
But stepping away from the Ohtani pursuit for a second, the Angels sandwiched that earth-shattering move with a pair of signings to help boost that barren farm system we’ve heard so much about. Due to the circumvention of rules in the international free agent market/domestic amateur draft, the Atlanta Braves were forced to declare a number of their international prospects as free agents following an investigation by commissioner Rob Manfred, and since they were technically free agents and not traditional international signings, the Angels could rollover their international bonus pool allotment in 2018-2019 as opposed to their 2017-2018 pool which only consisted of less than $250K at the time. Because of this, the Angels were able to sign top prospect, Kevin Maitan, to a $2.2 million dollar deal and a glove-first SS prospect, Livan Soto, to an $850K deal.
Maitan may have lost some of his shine as a prospect after a rough U.S. debut, but he’s still young enough, he turned 18 in February, to be given some leeway. Soto himself is only 18-years of age. Eppler was able to boost the farm system while adding some current cash flow to pursue Ohtani. Not bad. But there’s more, on December 7th, Eppler traded a pretty solid OF prospect in former 3rd rounder, Jacob Pearson, to the Minnesota Twins for another $1 million dollars in bonus pool allotment. All that was left was the actual chase for the biggest thing to come out of Japan since Ichiro Suzuki: Shohei Ohtani.
This will do it for Part I of this “series” if you want to call it that. As you can see, a lot of work goes into such a productive offseason and while I originally wanted to keep this to a single post, I realized that wasn’t quite feasible. Afterall, we haven’t even talked about a former divisional rival and villain who was acquired or the signing of a donkey owning, shortstop-turned-third baseman. Plenty more to come, so stay tuned.