Angels GM Eppler sees potential on market
Free-agent class provides avenue for filling club's needs without parting with pitching
ANAHEIM -- The sobering reality about the Angels' offseason is that they may have to part with some of the starting-pitching depth they've worked so hard to attain. Controllable starters are the game's most valuable commodity, a necessary ingredient for sustained winning but also a useful means to access talent at other positions.
With several holes in the lineup, a farm system that still needs to grow and a budget that may be close to maxing out, the Angels will seemingly have to lean on that depth to address a multitude of other needs. It's basically inevitable.
"Nope," first-year general manager Billy Eppler said from the General Managers Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla.
Now that Tyler Skaggs has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Angels enter the 2016 season with at least eight Major League-ready starters, a list that also includes Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Nick Tropeano.
But Eppler sounded hesitant to pluck from that.
"You can never have too much starting pitching," Eppler said. "There's flexibility that exists with a lot of those starting pitchers. What I witnessed in some experiences is that you think it's eight in November and it turns out on April 1 that there's six. You have to protect your depth."
And to protect that depth, the Angels will have to venture back into the volatile world of free agency.
Former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, now with the Mariners, once compared delving into the free-agent market for needs to "a game of Russian roulette." The prices are higher, the players are older, the risks are far greater.
The Angels splurged on Wilson and Albert Pujols heading into the 2012 season, then swung and missed on a quartet of free agents before '13 -- Joe Blanton, Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Josh Hamilton. Over the past two offseasons, though, the largest contract given to a free agent went to setup man Joe Smith, at $15 million spread out over three seasons. Last year, Dipoto didn't sign a single Major League free agent.
But the Angels have bigger needs this winter -- and they have a deep free-agent class to lean on.
Eppler seems to embrace it.
"There's players of all caliber on the free-agent market," Eppler said. "People can read or posture on who they feel the top this number is, but there's a lot of players. So just because you hear the word 'free agent' doesn't mean you have to associate it with multiyear deals and lots and lots of money."
The Angels' biggest need is in left field, but the club could also upgrade at catcher, third base, second base, utility infield and the back end of the bullpen, and it may even try to access a top-of-the-rotation starter. Everything is on the table, and much of it could hinge on the budget.
The club sits roughly $25 million below the luxury-tax threshold, which has acted as the spending limit these last two years. But Angels owner Arte Moreno has said in the past -- and again in early October -- that the right player could change that.
Eppler, unopposed to signing a free agent attached to Draft-pick compensation, isn't ready to narrow the focus.
"I don't really walk into a winter with, 'I have to get this,' or, 'I have to walk out with this,'" Eppler said. "That's a tough spot to put yourself in. We're just going to try to maximize the value wherever we can on the diamond, and maximize our opportunities to put the best club we can on the field, and a club that can play deep into October."
The Angels may splurge on a free-agent outfielder who can bat behind Pujols, pursuing Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton or Alex Gordon.
They could also spend on an ace like David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann. That would then make Eppler more comfortable trading some starting-pitching depth.
That pitching depth could then allow him to access a third baseman like Trevor Plouffe (Twins), a second baseman like Neil Walker (Pirates), a catcher like Stephen Vogt (A's), a utility infielder like Jed Lowrie (Astros) or a left fielder like David Peralta (D-backs).
The Angels could also spread their money out on middle- to lower-tier free agents. There are plenty of options at catcher (Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila, Jarrod Saltalamacchia), second base (Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist), left field (Gerardo Parra, Colby Rasmus, Nori Aoki), utility infield (Mike Aviles, Cliff Pennington, Sean Rodriguez) and lefty reliever (Tony Sipp, Matt Thornton, Antonio Bastardo).
Eppler said he's heard "a lot of positive things" about rookie catcher Carlos Perez and feels "confident" in Johnny Giavotella's ability to play second base. But he's open to upgrades. His go-to line on free agents: "They're in the marketplace, they're in play."
Eppler has only had the job for five weeks, so he isn't intimately familiar with the players he's inheriting -- and he considers that a good thing.
"I actually don't think it creates any greater challenge because of that," Eppler said. "I think it actually may be an opportunity to check some biases or some subjectivity at the door."