SAN DIEGO -- The Angels made an intriguing trade to free up salary in 2020, sending infielder Zack Cozart and his $12.67 million contract to the Giants along with 2019 first-round pick Will Wilson in exchange for cash considerations or a player to be named later.
It could signal that the Angels are ready to make a splash in free agency even after right-hander Gerrit Cole reportedly agreed to terms with the Yankees on a nine-year deal worth $324 million Tuesday night. Cole was the Angels' top target this winter but they still have options to improve the roster and were linked to third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson for the first time on Tuesday.
The Red Sox are also reportedly making lefty David Price available via trade, while the Angels could also target fellow lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu or Madison Bumgarner in free agency. Price, who has ties to new manager Joe Maddon from their time with the Rays, is due $96 million over the next three years but Boston could look to take on salary in a trade. With Cole out of the mix, the Angels are likely to add two starters via free agency or trade, as they still have plenty of payroll flexibility.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler indicated that after the trade he now has the payroll flexibility to add two players with salaries of at least $20 million or more.
"We are exploring a lot of things in the trade market as well as the free agent market," Eppler said. "When you want to entertain a lot of different permutations, having more resources available is a little bit more fun to play with."
Eppler is trying to be aggressive in an attempt to make the Angels contenders with Maddon at the helm. Eppler traded four prospects, including two pitchers selected in the 2019 Draft, to the Orioles for right-hander Dylan Bundy last week and clearly has his eye on improving the Major League roster at the expense of prospects.
This trade was another sign that the Angels are looking to win now and are willing to make sacrifices in an attempt to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014.
Mike Trout ($37.67 million), Albert Pujols ($29 million), Justin Upton ($21 million) and Andrelton Simmons ($15 million) are the only players whose contracts are set for the 2020 season. With arbitration raises and other pre-arb salaries, the payroll is at roughly $140 million. It's about $20 million less than their payroll last year and roughly $65 million below the luxury tax line. Owner Arte Moreno has indicated payroll will be up compared to 2019.
"I think now it's probably fair to say the balance is gonna shift a little bit more towards, 'What else can we do for this Major League club?'" Eppler said. "We have Mike locked up, we have Shohei [Ohtani] here, we have Upton, we still have Albert, we have [David] Fletcher playing lights-out, we have Andrelton Simmons, who's an impact player, the best defensive player I've ever laid eyes on in my life. Should we take advantage of that?"
Agent Scott Boras, who represents Cole, Ryu and Rendon, also said Tuesday that the Angels have been aggressive this winter with regards to his clients.
"I think from the ownership level on, they have expressed a desire to improve their team, and to make things better," Boras said. "I am confident that they are at an at aggressive level. I think the Angels are open to both pitchers and position players."
Cozart, signed to a three-year deal worth $38 million before the 2018 season, suffered through two injury-plagued seasons with the Angels and was recently cleared to begin baseball activities after a second surgery related to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The Angels were able to unload his salary to the Giants, but it comes at a significant cost in Wilson, who was ranked as the club's No. 4 prospect by MLB Pipeline and was the No. 15 overall pick in the Draft.
Cozart was also expendable because the Angels have infield depth in Tommy La Stella, Luis Rengifo, David Fletcher and Matt Thaiss as well as a surplus of shortstop prospects in the Minors, including Jeremiah Jackson and Kyren Paris. Adding a third baseman such as Rendon or Donaldson would be a surprise move, considering their need for pitching, but would instantly make the Angels' lineup much more powerful.
Eppler wouldn't rule out adding an impact bat, but said when asked if his priority remains at both pitcher and catcher, nothing had changed on that front.
"I try to look at it in a fairly simple way of run production and run prevention," Eppler said. "If that money can be utilized for run prevention, OK, but if it can be utilized for run production, that's good too. We try to focus on that run differential. I wouldn't say it's earmarked for anything in particular."
Wilson, a shortstop from North Carolina State University, hit .275/.328/.439 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 46 games with Rookie-level Orem in his first year of pro ball. The 21-year-old has surprising power for a shortstop but has below-average speed and is considered to have a higher floor than ceiling.
"We're probably positioned pretty well for the now and for the future, and losing that first-round Draft pick hurts but we're picking 10th this coming year," Eppler said. "We have a lot of things queued up internationally. The talent's going to keep coming in."