The Angels may have found their ace in general manager Billy Eppler
He fired the first strike of the offseason, with the final out of the World Series still echoing, a most impressive fastball from a former college pitcher whose velocity peaked at 88 mph.
Then Billy Eppler delivered one, two, three more strikes, right in a row, in the span of barely a week, satisfying two obvious needs and acquiring a player who brought more sizzle to the Angels than even Mike Trout.
Suddenly, a team that at times has produced mostly indifferent shrugs in its own market had baseball as a whole buzzing.
“If you would have told me three months ago this would be our team, I would have thought there’s no way he could pull it off,” Trout said. “But you look around and here we are.”
Eppler, the Angels’ general manager, did all of this in a winter that will be remembered for its lack of player movement, a lull deemed so flagrant that a grievance was filed and an entire class of free agents decried baseball’s lagging pace of pay.
Looking back, it was all rather stunning, this speed-balling performance by a right-hander whose shoulder never has fully healed from the injury that ended his career before it had a chance to fizzle out on its own.
“Man,” began a mid-December text to Eppler from right-fielder Kole Calhoun, “you’re fun to watch.”
The Angels are a team without an ace pitcher, but Eppler seems to qualify, given his ability to pitch his team to prospective newcomers. He has built the most potent roster to date around Trout, who has won just about everything in his six full seasons — except a playoff game.
He also secured one of the most fascinating players ever to enter the big leagues, Shohei Ohtani, who arrived toting just the expectations of Japan and the legacy of Babe Ruth.
“I think we’re all impressed throughout the industry with what Billy’s done,” New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “But, I’m not surprised, not at all.”
Before he became the Angels’ ace, Eppler was Cashman’s set-up man, a top lieutenant in the Bronx. He spent more than a decade with the Yankees, working up from baseball operations to scouting to pro personnel to assistant GM.
Running a team wasn’t necessarily his end-all, although Eppler, as a 17-year-old growing up in San Diego, did include “be a general manager” on his list of life goals.
Then again, the handwritten compilation also included “be a big leaguer,” a dream that was dashed after his only season at Connecticut, where, in his dorm room, Eppler had hung that goal list in full display to better keep himself accountable.
He graduated with a degree in finance in 1998 and did the most logical, business-school of things. He got a job in finance, as an analyst for a commercial real estate firm.
Uninspired running pro forma cash flow figures, Eppler remembers sitting at work and repeatedly hearing the words of one of UConn’s deans, who encouraged his soon-to-be graduates to attack life by being unafraid to take risks and live cheaply.
After barely five months, and with no other job prospects, Eppler quit. Returning to school was a possibility, but that was, at best, Plan C. What he really wanted to do was work in sports.
“If I swung and missed,” Eppler said, “I was going to go to law school.”
During his senior year at UConn, he had interned with the Washington Redskins, doing everything from scouting opponents to delivering the morning newspapers to the coaches to pulling the fire alarm at 6 a.m. each day to roust the players.
Being around the NFL seemed natural for this future baseball executive; Eppler’s closest friend during his childhood was Jon Zampese, whose father, Ernie, was at that time the offensive coordinator of the Chargers.
Those were the days of “Air Coryell,” Eppler as a kid playing catch with Dan Fouts, running pass patterns with John Jefferson and living in the dorms during training camp, just like the players.
Later, when Ernie Zampese joined the L.A. Rams, Eppler would spend game days on the sidelines. Before warmups, he and Jon would kick footballs on the same field on which the Eppler-built Angels now play.
It was at Ernie’s urging that Eppler gravitated toward a job in baseball, the belief being that, as a player who at least reached the college level, he’d have a better chance of advancing in that sport.
The way things began, there was no direction to go but up. Through a contact, Eppler received an interview with Bill Schmidt, scouting director of the Colorado Rockies. The full-time job that was available went to someone else, but Schmidt eventually called Eppler with a part-time offer, one that paid $5,000 — a year.
If you would have told me three months ago this would be our team, I would have thought there’s no way he could pull it off.
— Angels outfielder Mike Trout
“That’s like $133 every two weeks,” Eppler recalled. “This was the epitome of taking risks and living cheap, right? Fortunately, I had a home in San Diego. Well, not me, my mom.”
So Eppler moved back into the bedroom he had slept in during high school, scouting local baseball prospects and, with time and a need for money, bartending poolside at a La Jolla hotel.
It took less than a year for the Rockies to find a more permanent position for him, one paying $29,000 annually, more than half of which went to paying rent in Los Angeles.
“He had great evaluation skills and even better people skills,” Schmidt said. “People just like Billy. They can’t help it. I knew he had a future in this game.”
Soon enough, Eppler was promoted to Denver, to the Rockies’ front office and into a job that included player development, his resume expanding into something that would catch the Yankees’ interest.
After the 2004 season, he was hired by New York to be a baseball operations assistant. Eppler was first stationed in Tampa, Fla., more than 1,000 miles from Yankee Stadium but a distance that shrunk dramatically once he started working.
“When I first crossed paths with him, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy … there’s something special here,’” Cashman said. “It radiated. I knew he was capable of doing way more than he was doing for us at the time.”
Eppler was as old-school as the weathered notebook of a weathered scout. He was trained in part by graying talent evaluators who trusted nothing more than their own learned eyes.
Within five years and having promoted him to New York, Cashman was sitting across from Eppler at the winter meetings, telling him he’d be a general manager some day.
Schmidt had told Eppler the same thing a few years earlier, during a phone conversation so significant that Eppler pulled off the road to better focus on what he was hearing.
Yet, even as he climbed within the Yankees’ offices, it says something about Eppler and his approach that the team’s batting practice pitcher, Japanese interpreter and chiropractor had biographies in the media guide before he finally did.
He was in the running for the Angels’ GM job that instead went to Jerry Dipoto in 2011. Three years later, he was in the running for the San Diego Padres’ GM job that instead went to A.J. Preller.
After the 2015 season, and with Dipoto having resigned three months earlier, Eppler crossed “be a general manager” off his goal list when the Angels took advantage of having a second chance to hire him.
“Every opening that came up I would have been willing to bet Billy against the field,” Cashman said. “It was just a question of who was going to be smart enough to invest in him.”
Arte Moreno was the one who did, though the Angels owner somewhat famously has not always been on target with his high-profile investments.
This offseason alone might be reason enough to celebrate Eppler’s hiring as a success.
The Angels are regarded as one of baseball’s potentially most improved teams.
They have increased their chances of both scoring runs and preventing them, with several analytic forecasts calling the Angels baseball’s best defense.
They are considered to be one healthy rotation away from standing as legitimate wild-card contenders.
“It’s exciting to possibly be part of something this big,” reliever Blake Parker said. “That feeling has vibrated through the whole locker room.”
And it all happened under the watch of a man so committed to his life’s pursuits that he still has that goal list, sitting on his nightstand at home, easily within reach.
With two young children, he has removed “go skydiving,” but many others have been achieved, including “learn guitar.” Eppler taught himself after he purchased a guitar on a Carolina League scouting trip after a rainout.
“I can play well enough,” he said, “that my 3-year-old son thinks I’m good.”
And isn’t that one of the keys to succeeding in the entertainment industry? Giving your audience performances that please?
Eppler did that, in a flurry of fastballs each landing with the clear smack of a mitt, delivered by an ex-pitcher who says he “could have barely puffed your lip if I hit you in the face.”
No matter. Strikes are strikes.
“The good part starts now,” said Calhoun, whose text to Eppler could have spoken for all the Angels. “We get to go out and play. The front office has put a good team together. We get to do the rest.”
Now, if Eppler’s creation can be as equally fun to watch.
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