Inside a posh Phoenix resort at a Cactus League media event in February, a columnist from Major League Baseball’s website approached Billy Eppler to say hello and praise the array of defensive talent the Angels’ second-year general manager had assembled for his 2017 team.
Eppler smiled and nodded.
“Kind of traditional,” he replied. “Like a team from the ’80s maybe, don’t you think?”
Baseball might have eschewed defensive focus a few decades ago, but the Angels have returned to it.
They were an acceptable defensive team a year ago, 91 runs worse than the league-best Chicago Cubs, 99 runs better than the league-worst Oakland Athletics, according to metrics compiled by fangraphs.com. That was good for 10th-best out of the 30 teams.
But defense received Eppler’s off-season spotlight, and it is expected to be the club’s strength.
Catcher Martin Maldonado, second baseman Danny Espinosa and left fielder Cameron Maybin should supply fielding upgrades. When Luis Valbuena returns from a hamstring strain, he should do the same at first base.
In center field, the Angels have Mike Trout, arguably baseball’s best player, and in right they have Kole Calhoun, one of the most underrated.
But if the 2017 team surprisingly qualifies for the postseason, it will be because its limited pitching stock stayed healthy and its defense overall is elevated to unforeseen levels.
“The way you would project this defense to be is probably the best all-around defensive team we’ve had here,” said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, who is in his 18th season. “I think Billy Eppler made a focused effort to upgrade defensively, and we have.”
Two days after the 2016 season ended, Scioscia invited three reporters into a boardroom adjacent to the Angel Stadium clubhouse. For one hour, he discussed his vision for the upcoming season.
He said the team required improvements but was not as far out of playoff contention as many people thought.
“The one real fly in the ointment right now that really needs to be addressed is our ability to churn out quality starts from our rotation,” he said. “That’s the heartbeat of our club …”
And it is difficult to envision substantial improvement in that category with the current staff.
Right-hander Garrett Richards is a wild card. He expects to be limited to 100 pitches per start while throwing with an ulnar collateral ligament in his arm that was regenerated by his own stem cells.
Veteran right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Matt Shoemaker can reasonably be expected to replicate their 2016 results. Young left-hander Tyler Skaggs, while promising, typically has not pitched deep into games, and is coming off elbow ligament replacement surgery. Right-hander Jesse Chavez has started 49 times in the majors and turned in 23 quality starts — which would have been exactly average in the AL last year.
Right-hander Alex Meyer could be the first choice for a call-up from triple A in case of an injury. However, several scouts who watched him this spring said he was a better fit in the bullpen.
Right-hander JC Ramirez, a converted reliever, was impressive during spring training but has never started a major league game.
Yet, the Angels say they like their pitching depth.
“Our rotation has the probability of being much deeper, much more effective, although we can’t tell you exactly what the names are gonna be,” Scioscia said recently. “I think we can see on the horizon that we’re gonna be better. The way we established a bullpen in the second half of the season that held leads for us made an impact. There are some really good arms that maybe aren’t household names, but they’re gonna help us win.”
Rival scouts are less convinced about the Angels’ bullpen, which remained unsettled deep into spring training. Each time a reliever such as Kirby Yates, Jose Valdez or Austin Adams strung together a solid stretch, a blow-up soon followed.
The Angels don’t seem concerned.
“We feel like the people that are in this camp can give us a competitive bullpen,” Eppler said near the end of spring training.
How much the defensive upgrades will help was difficult to evaluate during spring training.
“We haven’t had our entire group together at the same time very often,” Eppler said. “And the environment in Arizona is different than the environment where we’ll play in Anaheim and the American League West. But, looking at individuals and how they’re playing, it’s easy to see their own specific defensive contributions.”
Maybin used to play center field, Espinosa was a shortstop and Valbuena a third baseman. Eppler is asking each to play a less demanding position, but, as with any change, there is a measure of uncertainty.
“With the guys that we’ve got, I think it’s pretty likely that they’re going to be fine at their new defensive positions,” utility man Cliff Pennington said. “But, in general, it’s not a slam dunk.”
The same could be said of the Angels’ season.