Angels hit winter meetings with several needs on shopping list
It has been a busy first two months for new Angels General Manager Billy Eppler, who assembled his front office and coaching staff, found a long-term solution at shortstop in Andrelton Simmons and signed veteran infielder Cliff Pennington and catcher Geovany Soto.
But with the winter meetings starting Monday, the heavy lifting is just beginning for the head of a club that is an impact player or two away from pennant contention in 2016.
The Angels fell one game short of the playoffs last season despite lacking a true ace, a true leadoff man, a thumper to hit behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and September injuries that thinned the bullpen.
There are plenty of attractive free-agent options, including outfielders Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Justin Upton, first baseman-outfielder Chris Davis, second baseman Howie Kendrick and pitcher Mike Leake, but none will come cheap.
The magnitude of the team’s moves will probably hinge on owner Arte Moreno’s willingness to incur a luxury tax for the first time in a decade, a decision that could drive the team’s off-season agenda.
The Angels are about $20 million under the $189-million luxury-tax threshold, and the addition of a premier free agent would likely push them beyond it. But if there is a good year for the Angels to incur a tax, 2016 would be it.
This is the deepest free-agent pool in years, and with $32.5 million in luxury-tax salary coming off the Angels’ books when the contracts of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson expire after 2016, the Angels could dip under the threshold in 2017 and incur a one-time penalty.
Moreno has been one of baseball’s biggest spenders, but he’s also big on loyalty. A player will have to show he wants to be in Anaheim, that he’s not just using the Angels to leverage a better deal elsewhere, for Moreno to commit.
“If the right player and the right situation arises, we’ll do whatever,” Moreno said in October.” Eppler said taking the team’s payroll north of $189 million “hasn’t been ruled out.”
“It feels fluid,” Eppler said. “Things will be determined on a case-by-case basis. There are scenarios where you can see it being reasonable and scenarios where you can see it not being worth it.”
No question, it’s left field, a position from which the Angels produced a major league-worst .592 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, nine home runs and 51 runs batted in last season.
Any of the top free-agent outfielders would be a huge upgrade, but Heyward, 26, Gordon, 31, and Davis, 29, appear more attractive because they bat left-handed and can balance a predominantly right-handed lineup.
There are also trade options such as Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce or the New York Yankees’ Brett Gardner, who could hit leadoff.
The addition of Gordon or Heyward, who could push right fielder Kole Calhoun to left field, would give the Angels’ one of baseball’s best defensive outfields, and the strong-armed Cespedes is an excellent defender.
The Angels did not extend a $15.8-million qualifying offer to David Freese, but Eppler has maintained a dialogue with the third baseman and could retain him on a deal with a lower average annual value.
If not, there are trade options such as Oakland’s Brett Lawrie and Danny Valencia, or rookies Kaleb Cowart and Kyle Kubitza could battle for the job.
The Angels would like to upgrade at second base, where Johnny Giavotella provided solid offense (.272, 25 doubles, 49 RBIs) but spotty defense.
The team is open to a reunion with Kendrick, their long-time second baseman who played for the Dodgers in 2015.
Less taxing options
If Moreno wants to avoid a luxury tax, there are still ways for the Angels to improve. They could form a decent left-field platoon with David Murphy, who performed well for them in August and September, and Justin Ruggiano.
They could trade from their rotation surplus — they have eight starters in Weaver, Wilson, Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, Nick Tropeano and Tyler Skaggs — for a left fielder and pursue Kendrick, a superb hitter and defender. Kendrick hit cleanup behind Trout and Pujols in September, 2014 and would fit well in the fifth spot in 2016.
The Angels would prefer to trade Wilson and his $20-million salary or Santiago, who is projected to get $5.1 million, because of the payroll savings, though youngsters such as Heaney and Skaggs might be more attractive to other teams.
They could also trade two or three pitchers to fill holes and pursue a second-tier free-agent starter such as Leake or Ian Kennedy.
“We have a lot of options in the free-agent and trade markets,” Eppler said. “There’s flexibility on this roster, and that allows you to get creative. You’re not in a spot where you’re looking for just one thing. If we wanted to, we could look for four things. The permutations are endless.”
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