If his third offseason as Angels general manager was his finest, the challenges Billy Eppler will contend with in his fourth will make matching his earlier success difficult.
He will have to reconstruct the team’s pitching staff and coordinate the rehabilitation process of two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who had elbow ligament-replacement surgery Monday.
Oh, and Eppler must hire a manager to transition out of the Mike Scioscia era. The search will include candidates who prefer to use analytically driven approaches.
The next few months will allow Eppler to put his boldest stamp on the organization that signed him to a four-year contract in 2015.
These are some questions he’ll have to answer:
What to do about Ohtani?
Nothing has changed in the week since the Angels announced Ohtani would have the surgery. Even now that he has undergone the procedure, it’s too early to judge how soon Ohtani, who on Monday was named American League rookie of the month for the second time this season, will return from Tommy John surgery.
But the rehab process, which can take months and typically takes a year and a half for pitchers, will begin in upcoming weeks. Ohtani will start with range-of-motion exercises and build back strength in his right elbow when he is medically cleared.
Although he won’t pitch competitively until 2020, the Angels still expect Ohtani to recover in time to be their designated hitter for most of 2019.
Ohtani finished his debut season batting .285 with a .361 on-base percentage and .925 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He drove in 61 runs, launched 22 home runs and hit 21 doubles. His weighted-runs-created-plus score of 152 outranked all rookies who logged at least 350 at-bats. His wins above replacement (2.8) ranked sixth in that group, one full win behind leader Ronald Acuna of the Atlanta Braves.
What to do about the pitching staff?
Last year, Eppler thought he made the right moves to put the Angels in position to compete for a spot in the postseason. He re-signed outfielder Justin Upton, signed infielder Zack Cozart and traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Although the offense didn’t produce at the rate Eppler expected — the Angels were seventh in home runs (214) but 20th in OBP (.313) — it was the decimation of the starting rotation that did the Angels in.
“There were some instances where we were looking for starters the night before games sometimes,” Eppler said. “We tested our depth. We tested how often — we tested the airport, we were in there so much running guys back and forth.”
All the starters the Angels thought would carry them to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 succumbed to injury in some way or another this year.
And next season, Ohtani will not be the only missing link in the starting rotation. JC Ramírez had Tommy John surgery in April and won’t be ready on opening day.
So Eppler will have to reconstruct his pitching staff and be aggressive in the starting pitching market.
“What that’s going to yield, that’s hard to predict,” Eppler said. “But we’re going to have a lot of conversations.”
There are only three starters who have locked up a chance to start at the major-league level next season, but Eppler did not emphasize who. The remainder, he said, were strong candidates for rotation jobs.
Jaime Barría, Parker Bridwell, Matt Shoemaker and Felix Pena are the likely leaders of the candidate group.
The state of the bullpen, whose 3.97 ERA was seventh lowest in the American League, is just as unclear. With Keynan Middleton out rehabbing from Tommy John surgery for most of 2019 and the free-agent departures of Jim Johnson and Junichi Tazawa to consider, the Angels will have relievers Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, Taylor Cole, Hansel Robles and others compete for spots during spring training.
Who will catch those pitchers?
In the wake of Martín Maldonado being traded to the Houston Astros, Eppler was encouraged by the work of rookies Jose Briceno and Francisco Arcía. He touted their understanding of the pitching and their experience — although both debuted this year, Briceno spent eight seasons in the minor leagues and Arcía spent 12.
“Those two players established a pretty good rapport with the pitchers,” Eppler said. “They’re smart, they know the opposing hitters, they know the game plans and they stick to the game plans. I was impressed with both of them.”
So it’s more likely the Angels will look for an external candidate at first base. But even that position, Eppler said, offered plenty of internal options.
“We have more depth on the position player side than we’ve had in the past,” he said.
Does Mike Trout change the calculus?
In short, no.
Trout, who was named AL player of the month for September, will begin 2019 with two seasons left on the six-year, $145.2-million contract he signed in 2014. He will make just north of $34 million for the second straight year.
There is no logical reason for Eppler to ask owner Arte Moreno for any more money to shove into Trout’s already-stacked coffers.