Premier free agent could help Halos fill hole
Left field is club's major focus at Winter Meetings
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The widely held belief at the Winter Meetings was that the markets for Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Davis would pick up once Ben Zobrist came off the board. Now that Zobrist has agreed to a contract with the Cubs, the Angels' outfield search could become more clear.
Signing one of those premier free agents may be the club's only chance at becoming a legitimate threat in an increasingly competitive American League West.
That's the belief of several people inside and outside the Angels, because they don't have many trade assets at their disposal, and because their offense was so ineffective last season, ranking 20th in runs, with the lowest left-field OPS in the Majors in 23 years.
Cespedes' rocket arm would fit nicely in left, as would his 2015 slash line of .291/.328/.542. Upton provides consistency, batting .275/.354/.468 while averaging 148 games over the last seven seasons. Gordon adds a solid left-handed bat and elite-level defense.
Davis, a natural first baseman, won't impact games with his glove, but his power left-handed bat is a perfect fit behind Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
And with Heyward, the Angels would get a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, a lifetime .268/.353/.431 hitter and a 26-year-old right fielder, one who would move another Gold Glover in Calhoun to left field.
But they'll all command long-term contracts close to and beyond $20 million on an average annual value, a difficult proposition for an Angels team somewhere between $15 million and $20 million below the luxury-tax threshold. Speaking from his room at the Opryland Hotel on Tuesday, the second day of the Winter Meetings, before Zobrist signed, Angels general manager Billy Eppler suggested that the $189 million mark could be exceeded for the right player.
"It's more measuring scenarios than anything else," Eppler said. "'In this scenario, what's our payroll?' 'In this scenario, what's our payroll?' Etc., etc. That would probably be described as fluid."
The Angels are still looking at trade options, but those would seemingly be used for potential upgrades at second and third base. Eppler said he's open to building a left-field platoon via trade, but that's probably only a fallback option if the likes of Heyward, Upton, Gordon, Cespedes and Davis all price themselves out of the Angels' plans.
Hector Santiago has received the most interest from other teams thus far, but he's under control for only two more years and walks four batters per nine innings. He won't yield a significant return by himself. The Angels could pair him with young, hard-throwing reliever Trevor Gott in a deal, but they aren't necessarily enamored with the third- and second-base options on the trade market.
C.J. Wilson is another potential chip, but teams are still requiring the Angels to absorb the vast majority of his $20 million salary for 2016 in a trade.
Asked how much he feels he needs to improve his lineup, Eppler said, plainly: "I think there are spots in that lineup to upgrade. I don't just run to left field and look at that. I look at all nine hitters as a whole. Getting guys in there who either put more balls in play, have more selectivity or bring more power -- and ideally all three. If you can add in those buckets of average, [on-base percentage] and [slugging], anywhere. The more the merrier."
The Angels have cut costs elsewhere, opening themselves up to the possibility of acquiring a big-name player.
They declined a reasonable $7 million club option for left-handed hitter David Murphy, opted against extending a qualifying offer to third baseman David Freese, whom they'd still like to keep, and found inexpensive free agents to plug other holes. They signed utility infielder Cliff Pennington (two years, $3.75 million) and catcher Geovany Soto (one year, $2.8 million), all while basically ignoring a star-studded starting-pitching market and hardly making a run at Zobrist.
Second basemen Howie Kendrick and Daniel Murphy, who can also play third base, would help, but they'd be improving positions that aren't anywhere near as much of a need as left field. Gerardo Parra is a solid option for left field, where the Angels' .592 OPS was the lowest since the 1992 Padres, but he can't take the Angels to another level.
Heyward, Upton, Gordon, Cespedes and Davis all can -- and their markets are about to heat up.