It set the tone for an up-and-down season for the Angels so far, as they’ve done their best to weather injuries but have been in what seems like a constant battle to reach .500 this year.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler recently talked with MLB.com about the season to this point and his vision for the future:
MLB.com: First of all, a general question, looking at the standings. You're in fourth place and two games under .500. Where do you stand right now as a team?
Eppler: I think that's a fairly fair representation of how we've played. We've had spurts where we've gone on runs where it's been four, five, six, seven in a row, or whatever it is. And then we've got on spurts on the other side of that, too. So, especially in the early going up until about mid-May, the season was tormenting a lot of us. Because we'd win a number in a row, or we were losing a number in a row. And so it was a world of extremes. But ultimately I think if you look into things like the Pythagorean [expectation], and so on and so forth, you'll see we're playing right around .500 baseball right now. And I think that's fairly representative of our true talent level at this moment in time. We hope to be better than that. Obviously, when Upton comes back, when Simba [Andrelton Simmons] comes back, hopefully we're just a few weeks away, I don't have a specific timeline. The emergence of some young players like Griffin Canning and now Jose Suarez also kind of show the “direction over speed” thing that I've talked about. We're moving in the positive direction that we want to move into year to year. We're financially healthy, we haven't compromised opportunities for the future. And so we've taken this mindful “direction over speed” approach. And that's where we stand now.
MLB.com: I know that you don't want to use injuries as an excuse, but like last year, injuries seem like they’ve been an issue.
Eppler: We’ve been trying to weather the storm up until Justin comes back, and then Shohei [Ohtani] was in the first wave of guys coming back. Losing Simba for a little while definitely hurts. He's one of our most valuable players on our club. Hopefully, that's not too far in the distant future. And there's a heck of a lot of season left to play. So the players that are here, the talent of those players, speaks for itself. And that should be enough to kind of continue to accumulate more wins than losses.
Eppler: We've had to kind of patchwork a little bit, but the emergence of Canning and Suarez has really kind of helped us in that regard. Dillon Peters came up and pitched a heck of a 5 2/3s the other day, and just really again kind of validated the confidence that we have in him to come up here to make starts to contribute. And then getting creative like we’ve been using an opener here and there. It’s been a 4.20 ERA or so when we utilize that. So when you take the first inning, our goal is obviously to try to get out of that. Get out of six innings with three runs or less. If we do that, with an opener inserted in there, that's fine. That's that should be enough for us to win because we're a team that even right now that can score 4.8, 4.9, five runs a game. And when you add in Upton back into the fold regularly, I think it's a team that if we can keep the other team under five, we got a pretty decent shot to win that baseball game.
MLB.com: You've mentioned guys like Suarez and Canning. We've seen them up here, but what about prospects in the Minor Leagues?
Eppler: I think they've been doing great. I think our pitching has been phenomenal in our farm system. It's got a lot of upside, and a lot of guys have been moving pretty quick. Luis Madero (Angels' No. 21 prospect) didn't take long and he got dropped into Double-A. Patrick Sandoval (Angels' No. 12 prospect) pushed his way up to Triple-A. I just got a note from Nate Horowitz, our pro director, who's in Burlington right now, and said Jose Soriano (Angels' No. 13 prospect) a few nights ago was 93 to 99 mph with an above-average curveball, and looks like the ceiling is massive on him. Those are good things to kind of hang your hat on for the future strength of this organization. And again, that will only allow us to stay healthy as we continue to move into the future years. I think now, with our farm system, depending on the outlet you're looking at, it’s seventh-ranked, or eighth-ranked. We're trending back into the era of a farm system that I think a lot of Angels fans experienced from 2002 to 2008. Those were perennial Top 15 farm systems. And in some of those years, top five. The ‘03, ‘04, ‘05, ‘06 years, all top-five farm systems and that set up a dynasty, or at least what I would consider a dynasty. And that's a good feeling when we feel like we're trending in that direction again.
MLB.com: You’ve talked about rebuilding on the fly. Has that still been the process here?
Eppler: Absolutely, I think it’s been very upfront from both myself, as well as [owner] Arte [Moreno]. This wasn't a team that ever looked to tank or punt or any of those things. We didn't want to look that way. It wasn't fair to the fans, it wasn't fair to this organization to do that. And it also wasn't fair to players in the clubhouse. We have been sitting with Mike Trout, we should always take an opportunity to try to win as many games as possible, but just not to the point where we're going to jeopardize future building of the farm system, as well as the financial health of the organization. And so that's kind of been the lines that we've operated in, and we're at a point now where we're starting to feel pretty good about the [young group of] players, and some of them are showing up here in front of us on a nightly basis.
MLB.com: The fans, though, want another trip to the postseason. It's been since 2014. How close do you think you are to that goal and could it happen this season?
Eppler: I think if we're still in the tunnel looking out, we now know that we're looking into the light now. So we're not seeing darkness right now. It all surrounds the talent. If you put the talent out there, you always have an opportunity, and we feel good about the talent that's going to be rejoining this roster to add to the talent that's out there right now. So we'll see ultimately what happens.