ANAHEIM -- Al Alburquerque, Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava are all coming off down years, but the Angels' hope is that those 2015 performances were outliers, not the new norms.
Alburquerque, Gentry and Nava are each controllable for two years and are each slated to earn around $1 million in 2016. Alburquerque, 29, can evolve into the seventh-inning reliever if he rekindles his success from '14. Gentry and Nava, both 32, can form a formidable left-field platoon if they get back to who they were not long ago (though the Angels still hope to add an everyday left fielder).
"One of the things in the reclamation projects that we talk about is, 'Is there something to reclaim here?'" Angels general manager Billy Eppler said. "If you reclaim the version of Daniel Nava in 2014 and '13 and '12, you reclaim a really valuable player. Likewise with Gentry, likewise with Alburquerque. 'Were there inherent skills or tools on these players that made them attractive when they were still with their prior clubs?' If you can say yes to that, then I think you should find a way to make something work with them."
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Below is a closer look at all three.
The right-hander has always struck out a lot of batters (11 per nine innings) and walked a lot of others (five per nine innings). He seemed to finally come into his own in 2014, posting a 2.51 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP and a 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But in '15, his ERA jumped to 4.21, his WHIP shot up to 1.55 and his strikeout-to-walk rate fell to 1.76, prompting Detroit to non-tender him in December.
• Angels officially ink reliever Alburquerque
But some of the peripherals suggest he didn't really fall off that much.
Most concerning with Alburquerque is that his greatest asset -- the ability to miss bats -- is trending downward. His swing-and-miss percentage has gone from 15.7 in 2013 to 14.0 in '14 to 11.1 in '15. In that time, his average four-seam-fastball velocity has dropped from 95.0 to 94.2 to 93.7. It's easy to surmise a correlation here.
But what are hitters actually doing when they make contact? Baseball Info Solutions stated that Alburquerque generated 27.9 percent hard-hit balls last year, down from '13 (29.8) and '14 (28.2). Still, opponents batted a whopping .339 on balls in play, 43 points above the league average and an indication Alburquerque was perhaps partly a victim of bad luck.
Fielding Independent Pitching aims to account for that, portraying what a pitcher's ERA would look like if he experienced league-average results on balls in play while accounting for only homers, walks and strikeouts. Alburquerque had a 3.75 FIP in 2015, right around his 3.78 FIP in '14. His home-run rate dropped to a career-low 0.58, ranked 27th among relievers with at least 60 innings.
Now some weird stuff: Alburquerque's velocity spiked this past September -- 96.3 mph on four-seamers and 95.0 mph on two-seamers -- and yet he struggled to an 8.64 ERA that month. His walk rate jumped from 3.3 in 2014 to 4.8 in '15, but his 62.7 strike percentage was just slightly below the league average of 64.0.
"A lot of the indicators that we have show that there isn't this marked difference in the performance that maybe other people are pointing out," Eppler said. "We still see a guy who has the ability to miss bats, who is throwing more strikes than his walk rate would lend itself to."
While with the Rangers from 2011-13, Gentry batted .288/.365/.380 over 709 plate appearances, which is close to what an everyday leadoff hitter would get in one season. In that stretch, he stole 55 bases and carried an adjusted OPS of 101, slightly above league average. But then Gentry went to Oakland and struggled, batting .254/.319/.289 in '14 and spending most of the 2015 season in Triple-A, batting .256/.319/.327 during a 101-game stint in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
For Gentry, the Angels didn't seek indicators for improvement as much as they looked at tools that would thrive off the bench.
For fourth outfielders, the most important tools are the ones that typically don't slump -- speed and defense. Despite struggling offensively in 2014, Gentry posted an Ultimate Zone Rating score of 6.7 (23rd out of 105 outfielders with at least 550 innings) and tallied 10 Defensive Runs Saved (tied with A.J. Pollock for 16th). And despite reaching base only 32 percent of the time in the Minor Leagues last year, he wound up stealing 25 bases.
That plays in a bench role. The concern comes with how Gentry would handle a platoon role, a point that seems to further emphasize the Angels' need for an everyday left fielder.
In said platoon, the right-handed-hitting Gentry would get his starts against lefties. But from 2012-14, Gentry's OPS against lefties dropped from .859 to .801 to .645. Last year, it was .630 against Triple-A southpaws. But Eppler seems to like Gentry's ability to put the ball in play, as evidenced by an above-average career strikeout percentage of 17.6.
"He does a lot of the things that we like and things that have been successful here, as well as providing above-average defense and speed," Eppler said. "For a coming-off-the-bench basis, it's an asset that no doubt is advantageous for any Major League manager."
As a longtime Yankees executive, Eppler got an up-close look at Nava, who not long ago was a key contributor for the division-rival Red Sox. He batted a healthy .278/.364/.403 over a 335-game stretch from 2012-14, then dramatically fell off in '15, batting .194/.315/.245 in 60 games with the Red Sox and Rays.
Nava, a switch-hitter, has built a career out of mashing righties, sporting a career .281/.377/.409 slash line despite his down season in 2015.
But what exactly happened last year? Was it basically injury-related? Nava hurt his left hand in the first week of the season and was reportedly unable to properly hold a bat for much of those first two months. He didn't land on the disabled list until late May, then missed two months and was dealt to the Rays shortly after returning.
Nava batted only .233 and slugged just .301 over the last two months of the season, but his on-base percentage in that span (.364) was solid. During that time, his exit velocity was 88.3 miles per hour on the 47 balls Statcast™ tracked. Before landing on the shelf, it was 85.5 mph on 42 tracked balls. Though it was a small sample size, it was an encouraging increase nonetheless.
Eppler believes Nava "checks a lot of the boxes of our offensive philosophy," mainly because he draws a fair number of walks and strikes out at only an average rate -- skills that tend to sustain themselves.
"As far as jumping into some of the indicators to us that he's still a lot of the version of 2013 or '14 -- I don't want to jump into some of those metrics, only because they're proprietary to us" Eppler said. "But I'll say that there are some things to kind of give you some confidence that last year was not the new normal to Daniel Nava, but more of an outlier."