Angels aim to 'supplement core group' in '16
Although club has holes to fill, new GM Eppler believes team has 'championship-caliber players'
ANAHEIM -- Angels owner Arte Moreno said it on Monday, immediately after Billy Eppler was introduced as his new general manager and shortly after his team's season ended without a spot in the playoffs.
"Our plans are not to rebuild," Moreno said. "We would like to become more competitive."
Over the last four years, the Angels employed the consensus best player in the game and did not capture a single postseason win. That's the reality. Mike Trout is still under club control for at least another five seasons, but the Angels have a lot of work to do if they want to enhance his supporting cast.
They have a lot of holes to fill in their lineup, and some in the organization believe they also need a top-of-the-rotation starter to truly be World Series contenders.
They have a payroll that's already roughly $25 million below the luxury-tax threshold, with a budget that doesn't necessarily allow them to exceed it. And their farm system still isn't fruitful enough to either fill spots from within or spin the type of deals that would yield significant, immediate upgrades.
Eppler, a Major League GM for the first time, has his hands full.
"There's a core group of championship-caliber players here," Eppler said from his introductory press conference. "What we'll look to do as we navigate this winter will be to supplement that core group."
Eppler's ambitions could receive a major boost if Moreno consents to exceeding the luxury-tax threshold this winter, a possibility he recently left open. If that's the case, Eppler can fill some of the Angels' holes through a deep, star-studded free-agent class and may not have to pluck from a Minor League system that still needs to cultivate.
If not, Eppler will have to get creative.
Either way, the Angels definitely need a power-hitting left fielder, probably require a catcher and utility infielder, could use a third baseman and second baseman, and would ideally get an ace pitcher and a lefty specialist. Oh, and they must fortify the position-player depth in the upper levels of their system.
"After 162 games, or 150 games, you start figuring out what areas you're weak in and what areas you're stronger in," Moreno said. "We need to get better."
Arbitration-eligible: Starting pitchers Garrett Richards (second-year eligible as an initial Super II qualifier) and Hector Santiago (second), right fielder Kole Calhoun (first as Super II), relievers Fernando Salas (third) and Cesar Ramos (third), and outfielder Collin Cowgill (second as Super II).
Free agents: Third baseman David Freese, outfielders David Murphy (contract includes a $7 million club option), Shane Victorino, David DeJesus ($5 million club option) and Matt Joyce, catcher Chris Iannetta, reliever Wesley Wright and starting pitcher Mat Latos.
Rotation: Before stepping down as Angels GM, Jerry Dipoto did a fine job of acquiring young, talented, cost-controlled starting pitching, trading for Santiago, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano. Now the Angels may have to move some of them. Since they can't go the free-agent route to address all their needs, they'll probably use some of their Major League starting-pitching depth to acquire offense.
C.J. Wilson, owed $20 million in his final season before free agency, will likely come up in trade talks this offseason. Santiago, Tropeano and Matt Shoemaker probably will, too. It'll be interesting to see if the Angels dangle Richards or Heaney, who would yield the highest return. It'll be even more interesting to see if they pursue the likes of David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann or Johnny Cueto in free agency.
Bullpen: Their closer, Huston Street, and setup man, Joe Smith, are in the books, and the Angels may have already found their seventh-inning man in Trevor Gott, a 23-year-old with a 98-mph fastball. Then there's Mike Morin, Salas, Ramos, Jose Alvarez, Cam Bedrosian and Cory Rasmus rounding out the depth. The Angels seem pretty set here. But they could still use a true lefty specialist to counter all the power left-handed bats in the American League West. Their current lefties, Alvarez and Ramos, are better served pitching multiple innings.
Catcher: Carlos Perez took the starting job from pending free agent Iannetta down the stretch and earned himself at least a part-time role in 2016. The 24-year-old rookie impressed early on with his throwing arm, receiving skills and overall presence behind the plate, and his bat came alive throughout September. The Angels also have catching prospect Jett Bandy, who's pretty skilled for someone 6-foot-4. But they'll probably try to add another backstop this offseason, ideally a left-handed hitter who can platoon with Perez. Matt Wieters is the top prize among free-agent catchers, but he'll be expensive. Alex Avila could be a buy-low option.
First base/designated hitter: After getting optioned for a second time, C.J. Cron came back up to the Major Leagues and turned into the menacing slugger the Angels were hoping for, posting a .285/.325/.507 slash line with 15 homers and 45 RBIs in his last 78 games. His defense seemingly got better down the stretch, too. That's important. Albert Pujols will be 36 as he enters the fifth season of a 10-year, $240 million contract, with a litany of lower-body ailments to go along with it. The more the Angels can get Pujols off his feet at DH, the better. Cron is vital for that.
Second base: Johnny Giavotella gave the Angels everything they could've hoped for this season, providing several clutch hits while becoming an important piece to their lineup. But he posted a minus-7.2 Ultimate Zone Rating that was the second-lowest among starting second basemen. In other words, his defense was a liability. Second base could be the position the Angels choose to save money and trade chips on. But they'll probably explore the possibility of an upgrade, perhaps via trade. In free agency, Daniel Murphy and longtime Angel Howie Kendrick are the best of the bunch. Giavotella is out of options.
Third base: Freese wants to return and the Angels would like him back, but his price may get too high. Freese -- with a .260/.328/.394 slash line the last three years -- is the best available third baseman in a very thin free-agent crop. The Angels like what he brings to the bottom of their lineup and to their clubhouse, but Freese may became too expensive for an Angels team with a lot of other needs. If so, they can go with either of their two young third basemen, Kaleb Cowart or Kyle Kubitza. If that's the case, perhaps they find a veteran utility infielder to share time.
Shortstop: Taylor Featherston spent the entire year as Erick Aybar's backup, acting as a Major League utility infielder and a late-game defender in his rookie season. That's a tough task for a Rule 5 pick who hadn't played above Double-A before 2015. But now Featherston has three option years and can get some seasoning in Triple-A. Ideally, the Angels would give him that. But that's only possible if they can acquire a veteran to handle the utility-infield role. Looking ahead, Aybar is a free agent after the 2016 season, and it doesn't look like Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin will be Major League ready by then. Perhaps the Angels explore another extension with Aybar, who turns 32 in January.
Outfield: The Angels' biggest need this offseason is a left fielder, a troubling thought when you consider they'll pay Josh Hamilton about $48 million to play that very position for the division-rival Rangers these next two years. The Hamilton issue aside, the Angels may attack their left-field issues via free agency again. Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton lead a class of splendid corner outfielders, with Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist making up the next tier. The Angels could decide to pick up Murphy's option, but bringing him back and signing a high-priced left fielder may not be mutually exclusive. Center field (with Trout) and right field (Kole Calhoun) are pretty well taken care of, but left field is a black hole.