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If I Were Billy Eppler..., Part V

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You are NOT going to be happy with this.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the fifth installment of the If I were Billy Eppler series, where HH writers explicate the transactions for their desired Angels offseason. Previous editions by various authors can be found here:

Part I: Jessica DeLine

Part II: H.T. Ennis

Part III: Noy Telinú

Part IV: Jeff Joiner

In order to rosterbate responsibly, guidelines for the series are as follows.

For the luxury tax payroll, $157.4 million is the amount of estimated present obligations for the 2020 season, when contracts, arbitration-eligible players, 40-man salaries, and player benefits are accounted for.

All in all, 25-man player salaries will be estimated at $175 million for the upcoming season, which is achieved by adding 10% to the prior year’s 25-man player payroll. See this payroll post for more information. Assuming no additional arbitration-eligible players are non-tendered, this gives the GM $34.3 million to spend during the offseason (Justin Bour, Luis Garcia, and Nick Tropeano have already been non-tendered, and this is reflected in these numbers).

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

Trades must be as realistic as possible. One popular tactic among baseball fans on the internet is offering a bunch of players you don’t like in exchange for some you do. In reality, that’s not how trades actually work, so that’s off limits. Furthermore, even if player values are equal, teams make acquisition decisions based on player tendencies, immediate needs, supply and demand, ability to develop talent, among other things: that is to say, trades made should be mutually beneficial. The Baseball Trade Values trade estimator can be used as another data point to estimate, though at the end of the day, each team has their own motivations and apparatuses to value players differently, and this should be taken into account.

Finally, if an arbitration-eligible player is to be involved in a transaction, MLBTR’s arbitration projections are to be used to calculate the player’s luxury tax implications since final arbitration numbers are not yet in.

Got it? Let’s go.


My offseason priorities:

  1. Starting Pitching
  2. Starting Pitching
  3. Catching (x2)
  4. Depth

Stop me if you have heard this before: the Angels’ pitching is bad and they need good pitching. In fact, bad is pretty darn generous. The Angels rotation was 30th in fWAR (3.3), 29th in ERA (5.64) and FIP (5.41), with the second most homeruns allowed per nine innings, HR/9, with 1.90 homeruns per nine innings, 5th highest in BB/9 (3.4), and perfectly average in K/9 (15th with 8.46 K/9). For those keeping track at home, there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, the Angels have five statistics where they are the worst or second-to-worst in the game. That is worse than teams that are actively trying to lose baseball games. Good gravy.

Now, Rome wasn’t build in a day, and I, Billy Eppler, secretly don’t believe a roster that can take down the Astros and their centerfield cameras can be built in one offseason. Obviously, I am in a contract year and feeling the pressure from Mr. Moreno to build a competitive roster around a generational talent in David Fletcher and his co-stars, but with “only” $34.3 million available in cap space and limited options in the upper minors on the way as reinforcements, I am backed up against the wall. Turning the worst rotation in the sport into a competitive one is virtually impossible, so I will spend a good amount of my time updating my LinkedIn profile while attempting to plug-in a few holes on my way out.


Sign RHP Zack Wheeler

4-years, $72 million [$18M AAV]

No, Zack Wheeler is not Gerrit Cole, but that is an astute observation (much like how I am not Ryan Reynolds). The Angels have a dire need for a front-of-the-rotation arm like Cole, but there are so many holes in the rotation, let alone the roster, that need filling. Wheeler is my attempt at landing ace potential. While the ERA isn’t sexy, the StatCast numbers show some intriguing underlying factors that go into this decision.

The 3.96 ERA doesn’t leap off of the page, but over the past 350 innings, Wheeler has a 3.27 FIP, a tick under a strikeout per inning, and a strong 2.4 BB/9 (which would rank just ahead of Stephen Strasburg this year). Wheeler throws very hard, (95th Percentile in fastball velocity at 96.7 mph) and limits hard contact (90th Percentile in exit velocity, 82nd Percentile in Hard-Hit %), so why are his numbers so underwhelming?

Funny enough, I made an eerily similar move last winter when I was Eppler, buying low on Sonny Gray after a tough season with the Yankees. The part that intrigues me is his pitch usage and not utilizing a good pitch enough. I see a lot of the same issues that plagued Gray with New York and I feel like I nailed that call last winter, so while it didn’t end up happening, I’m going back for round two.

Wheeler is in the 71st percentile in curveball spin rate, not an astronomical number by any means, but it’s still quite an effective pitch. Looking exclusively at the expected outcomes batters had against this pitch, Wheeler produced a measly opponents expected batting average of .205, a xwOBA of .210, and an xSLG of .250 against his curveball (in which he threw 315 times or 10% of his total pitches). Those were the lowest totals of any pitch he threw more than 300+ times (he has a split-finger changeup that he threw 32—1% of his total pitches— times that produced similarly outstanding results). His curveball also induced whiffs 28.1% of the time and sexy 37% K%. Both the highest of any pitch in his arsenal

The main problem seems to lie with his sinker and his maddening insistence on using it. Wheeler nearly doubled the usage of his sinker from 2018, 15.2%, to 29% in 2019. The results were, using wOBA instead of OBP, a .298/.347/.488 line with an expected slashline of .276/.337/.454. Left-handed batters, in particular, seemed to be okay with the increased usage, batting .333/.422(wOBA)/.586 against the sinker (lefties hit .275/.341(OBP)/.434 against him over the whole season). Wheeler had a better ERA, FIP, and xFIP in 2018 when he relied on his fastball more than his sinker (his fastball% decreased from 43.2% in 2018 to 30% in 2019, but was just as effective even with the heavier reliance in 2018).

The Astros have formed a very formidable pitching staff by constantly taking guys like Wheeler, who have things like elite spin rates or under-utilized elite pitches, and churn them into aces or shutdown relievers. They have done it with less-heralded pitchers like Ryan Pressly, Chris Devenski, and Collin McHugh and, oh hey, they’ve also done it with everyone’s SoCal darling Gerrit Cole when they acquired him from Pittsburgh and turning him into a legitimate terror.

Cole transformed into perhaps the best pitcher in the major leagues after that one-hour presentation, increasing the usage of his four-seam fastball and curveball, pretty much dropping his two-seam sinker and attacking the top of the strike zone far more frequently.

I could do an entirely separate piece on Wheeler, but I’ll finish this part up with one last little nugget worth mentioning. Since Wheeler was issued the Qualifying Offer by the Mets, and since the Angels are not a revenue sharing recipient nor are they a luxury tax threshold violator, signing Wheeler would meaning relinquishing their second-highest pick along with $500K from their international signing bonus pool. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s worth taking into consideration in the grand scheme of things.

Sign RHP Kyle Gibson

2-years, $18 million [$9M AAV]

Much to the chagrin of Angels fans, who are suffering from some serious PTSD due to various pitcher injuries in recent years, Wheeler is not the poster boy of a clean bill of health, so I’m going out of my way to find some durability with my limited budget. Enter Kyle Gibson. Now I am aware this is not an overly exciting move for those of you who have been feverishly obsessing with the idea of Cole since MLBTradeRumors updated their annual upcoming free agent list last year, but the Angels could use a pitcher like Gibson. I realize this is like going to a fancy steak restaurant and ordering the more cost-efficient chicken tenders, but you know, sometimes you just really need some more cost-efficient chicken tenders, no matter how the rest of the table might judge you for it. This is my personal agenda, mind your business and please pass the BBQ sauce.

Gibson doesn’t really excel at any particular thing. He doesn’t throw hard, he doesn’t have some secret breaking ball with high spin rates, and the ERA leaves a lot to be desired— again, chicken tenders— but that doesn’t mean he isn’t useful. Since his first full season in 2014, Gibson has averaged about 30 starts a season and 172 IP a season. Those numbers would be a touch higher if his 2019 season didn’t end early due to an unfortunate case of ulcerative colitis (in which he blames on E. coli he contracted during a trip to the Caribbean). Wanna know how many Angels pitchers have averaged those numbers in that span? I’ll save you a couple clicks and/or some mental gymnastics and tell you: zero. Over the past two seasons, Gibson has averaged 2.6 fWAR and 30 starts. To me, that’s worth $9 million a year. The Halos need some durable arms in the worst way.

Trade RHP Stiward Aquino to the Blue Jays for C Reese McGuire

Wow, our very own Jessica DeLine was kind of enough to use the trade estimator to get me a deal for a catcher. Truly the Oprah of generosity when it comes to fictionalized armchair GM practices.

Truth be told, McGuire and Danny Jansen caught my attention when a report the other day came out saying the Toronto Blue Jays were getting calls on their catchers. With a bit of a surplus up there in the north and a shrinking budget, I need a trade somewhere in here to help free up some space elsewhere. Enter McGuire.

McGuire hit a more-than-respectable .297/.343/.539 in a limited 138 PA last season. Now, part of that could be due to a high BABIP for a catcher, .324, and things like his Hart Hit%, Barrel%, Exit Velocity, are a bit below league average, but even when that stat line regresses to something around league average, that’s still a pretty sizable upgrade from what the Angels got last year.

Collectively, Angels catchers produced -0.6 fWAR (which is somehow only the 4th worst mark in the majors) with a combined 70 wRC+. League-wide, only 5 teams had a combined catching offensive output that surpassed the league average 100 wRC+, it is not currently a position of offensive output. A league average batter from the catcher position is well above league average. The breaking point is defensively.

In an, admittedly, much smaller sample size, McGuire ranked as the 5th best defensive catcher from Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Stats. I don’t expect him to be that good over a much larger sample size, but his defensive game was his calling card when he was selected 14th overall by Pittsburgh in 2013. He should be an asset behind the plate from a blocking standpoint (+0.4 blocking runs in 1,312 blocking chances) and pitching framing (+5.0 framing runs in only 1,674 chances). League average-ish offense and a positive contributor defensively? Sign me up.

Sign C Russell Martin

1-year, $3 million [uh...$3M AAV]

“But, Chase!”, you might be thinking, “You already got a catcher! Why get another one!?” Oh, you sweet, naive pontificator. Simply put, I still don’t trust the position enough to let Kevan Smith or Max Stassi backup the newly acquired McGuire, which is why they’re getting non-tendered. I know, that was pretty merciless, but I’ve been getting advise from Brad Pitt on the cutthroat nature of the business and needed to practice.

No, Martin is not the star he was when he first came up with the Dodgers, but I still think he’s useful for a cheap, one-year deal. He had a respectable .218/.348/.400 line against left-handed pitching last year, which could come in handy since McGuire bats left-handed, and he still rated fairly well defensively in that same Baseball Prospectus link up above. To make it clear, this does not equal a strict platoon scenario, this is just to ease the load of a young catcher like McGuire and provide a little insurance (and veteran grit, we love veteran grit on this team. Wake up early to drink straight motor oil in lieu of coffee with our rusty nails for breakfast, grow a five o’clock shadow immediately after shaving and then hitting the batting cages with the Happy Gilmore routine. You know. Grit.). Anyway, yeah, Martin’s coming aboard as the backup.

Sign RHP Joe Smith

2-years, $8 million [$4M AAV]

Yes, folks, this is happening. I’m bringing our deal ol’ friend “Mr. Alias” back. The bullpen, apart from Hansel Robles, seemed to fade as the season wore on. Probably had something to do with them throwing the second most innings in the majors, 761.2 IP, partly due to all of the injuries to the rotation. It was still a relatively ineffective unit, but I’m bringing in some depth with my favorite submarine pitcher, Joe Smith.

Smith’s still a groundball machine and the greatest escape artist since Houdini. The 49.3% GB% and 84.9% LOB% rates fills me with the warm nostalgia of his days with the Angels (he had an 80.8% LOB% and 53.8% GB% as an Angel). I’d welcome him back with open arms to add some much-needed depth to the bullpen. I’m going against my old ways of velocity-hunting, give me a guy who gets outs.

Non Tender:

Luis Garcia, Justin Bour, Miguel Del Pozo, Kaleb Cowart, Nick Tropeano (who were already non-tendered), plus Max Stassi (estimated $800K) and Kevan Smith ($1.3 million).


Offseason in review:

I’m sure you thought you were getting Cole, I am here to tell you that is not happening. Now I’m sure your next thought is that I didn’t do enough to make the Angels a contender, and I am here to tell you that you are exactly right. Being in the unenviable position of creating a pitching staff from near rock-bottom up is pretty difficult to do with $34.3 million dollars (who knew?). To me, the Angels are too far from competing, that trading away prospects for some short-term gains would most likely set the Angels back in another year or two.

So with that, I bid farewell after my last winter as the Angels GM. Maybe I’ll take up cooking, maybe join-in on the drone craze that’s swept over countless dads across the nation. At the very least, I’ll have the soothing San Diego beaches and gnarly waves that I’m stoked to drop-in on with my dude, Doug White. Thought about deleting this part. Decided not to.

81-81, here we come.

Here are the team’s depth charts:

Projected lineup (no Ohtani):

1 La Stella 3B/2B

2 Trout CF

3 Upton LF

4 Pujols DH

5 Goodwin RF

6 Thaiss 1B

7 Fletcher 2B/3B

8 McGuire C

9 Simmons SS

Projected lineup (w/ Ohtani):

1 La Stella 3B/2B

2 Trout CF

3 Ohtani DH

4 Upton LF

5 Pujols 1B

6 Goodwin RF

7 Fletcher 2B/3B

8 McGuire C

9 Simmons SS

Bench:

1 Rengifo 2B/3B/SS

2 Thaiss 1B/3B

3 Martin C

Starting rotation: Wheeler, Canning, Gibson, Heaney, Sandoval, Ohtani. Possibly some combination of openers/relievers with Sandoval.

Bullpen: Robles, Buttrey, Middleton, Smith, Bedrosian, Anderson, Ramirez, Suarez/Barria/Peters