Angels hunting for increased production in left field
Limited financial flexibility may affect options
ANAHEIM -- Angels general manager Billy Eppler called the $189 million luxury-tax threshold "fluid." That mark, which the Angels sit roughly $22 million below at the moment, has basically acted as the spending limit these last handful of years.
Exceeding it, a decision that ultimately rests with Angels owner Arte Moreno, would allow the Angels to sign a premier left fielder and potentially upgrade at second and third base.
"I think there's scenarios where you can see it being reasonable, and there's scenarios where you can see it not being worth it," Eppler said of exceeding the threshold, something the Angels haven't done in more than 10 years. "You just keep a mindful approach. Undetermined is probably the best way to put it. Undetermined."
The upcoming Winter Meetings, which run from Monday to Thursday from Nashville, Tenn., could determine whether or not it's worth it.
MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel, with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings broadcasts on Sunday at 5 p.m. PT. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 8 a.m. and the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday at 7 a.m.
If the Angels do splurge this offseason, it's expected to be for a corner outfielder. The market is just as flush with starting-pitching depth, but Eppler said Thursday that he's satisfied with his starting-pitching depth and believes Garrett Richards, 27, is a legitimate ace for the top of his rotation.
"He has the ability to miss bats, he throws strikes with a number of pitches, he can dominate a game, he can absolutely take any offensive threats away," Eppler said of Richards. "He has the tools and the ability to do that. He's got youth. And with that youth comes the arrow pointing in the right direction. For him, I think you'll continue to see marked improvement, because he's young, and that's what young players do -- they improve."
Eppler didn't get into specifics on the Angels' potential targets, saying they're eyeing players on the free-agent and trade front and that his primary focus is to "build some more depth on the position-player side, if possible."
Below is a categorical look at where the Angels stand …
Left field: The Angels received a paltry .592 OPS from their left fielders last season. It wasn't just the worst production in the Major Leagues; it was the second-lowest mark at the position in their franchise's history, "topped" only by the team from 1976. This remains the Angels' greatest need, and it's expected to be their top priority heading into the Winter Meetings. Lucky for them, the free-agent pool is still flush with corner-outfield talent. Jason Heyward (a right fielder who would move Kole Calhoun to left), Yoenis Cespedes (unattached to Draft-pick compensation) and Alex Gordon (more affordable) all make sense for different reasons. This is where the Angels are expected to spend, but don't rule out solid-yet-cheaper options like Ben Zobrist and Gerardo Parra.
Third base: Two notable third basemen were non-tendered on Wednesday, but one (Pedro Alvarez) has extreme limitations defensively and the other (Will Middlebrooks) has them offensively. Trevor Plouffe looked like a nice option on the trade market, but Twins general manager Terry Ryan recently indicated plans to keep him. The options at the hot corner remain limited. The Angels would still be interested in bringing David Freese back, but that thin market could price him out of their plans. If not Freese, they'd ideally land a veteran who can share time with their two young in-house options, Kaleb Cowart and Kyle Kubitza.
Second base: Some intriguing free agents remain at this position, a list topped by Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy and Zobrist, an everyday player at second base and both outfield corners. But Kendrick and Murphy would cost a first-round Draft pick and, more importantly, would probably eliminate the Angels from any of the premier free-agent corner outfielders. They'd ideally find an upgrade over Johnny Giavotella, who batted a solid .272/.318/.375 but was limited defensively. But their ability to upgrade at second base -- and third base -- will hinge on what happens in left field. The Pirates' Neil Walker remains an intriguing trade option, but will cost around $10 million in his final year before free agency. Chase Utley could be a cheap free-agent option.
Who they can trade if necessary
C.J. Wilson: He's coming off surgery to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow, and he's owed $20 million in his final year before free agency. Wilson's market isn't necessarily robust, but the Angels could move him in hopes of either saving some money or plugging a hole. Another team could be swayed by Wilson's durability -- 12th-most innings in the Majors from 2010-14 -- and the possibility of giving him a qualifying offer at the end of next season.
Hector Santiago: The Angels could be selling high on Santiago, who made the All-Star team last season and will be under team control for two more years. Santiago is one of eight Major League starting pitchers for next year, and conventional wisdom tells you they'll trade at least one of them. But with Tyler Skaggs returning from Tommy John surgery, Jered Weaver declining, Matt Shoemaker coming off a rough year and Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano still varying levels of unproven, can they afford to?
Trevor Gott: With Huston Street set as the closer, Joe Smith entrenched as the setup man and the likes of Mike Morin, Fernando Salas, Jose Alvarez and Cory Rasmus on the depth chart, the Angels may be able to use Gott as trade bait, like they did with Kevin Jepsen last year. Gott is only 23 years old, throws a lively fastball in the upper 90s and posted a 3.02 ERA in 48 appearances last season. Morin -- poor numbers but good peripherals in 2015 -- could replace him as the seventh-inning reliever.
With starters Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis used to acquire shortstop Andrelton Simmons from the Braves in November, the Angels' farm system looks barren once again. Most of their best prospects -- Victor Alcantara, Joe Gatto, Roberto Baldoquin, Taylor Ward and Jahmai Jones -- remain in the lower levels. And when prospects haven't matriculated to Double-A and Triple-A, it's hard to get quality Major League players in return. Eppler probably won't be able to rely on his farm system to access much else.
Rule 5 Draft
Rule 5 Draft selections rarely ever work out, because players exposed to it are flawed to begin with and because it's hard to keep unproven guys on the active roster for an entire season. It really only makes sense for teams in a bind, like the 2015 Angels, who badly needed infield depth, selected Taylor Featherston and watched him spend the entire year as their backup infielder. Featherston had a tough job for someone who hadn't played above Double-A, and, predictably, he struggled. But each selection costs only $50,000. And if an intriguing reliever or outfielder is on the board, the Angels may take another shot.
Big contracts they might unload
The Angels are responsible for plenty of big contracts, but one of them resides with a division rival and most of the others are untradeable. They'll pay the Rangers about $48 million of the remaining $60 million on Josh Hamilton's contract over the next two years. That hurts. Weaver -- like Wilson -- is owed $20 million in his final year before free agency, but he has a full no-trade clause and is coming off his worst season. Albert Pujols is owed another $165 million over six years, so he isn't going anywhere. Wilson's contract is the only one they can dump, and they may settle for a team willing to take on half of it. The 35-year-old can only block trades to eight teams this winter.
After Wednesday's non-tender deadline passed, the Angels' Competitive Balance Tax payroll sat at roughly $167 million. That payroll is calculated at the end of each season -- using the average annual value of all 40-man-roster contracts, plus benefits and bonuses -- to figure out which teams exceeded the luxury-tax threshold, set at $189 million. They could exceed the tax next year and then get under it for 2017, with Weaver and Wilson off the books, to avoid the escalating penalties.