Before most had settled into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino workrooms in Las Vegas for the first day of baseball’s winter meetings, the Angels on Monday had already churned the rumor mill.
An early report from The Athletic indicated the Angels had put in contract offers on free-agent starting pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Patrick Corbin. They were even finalists in the Eovaldi sweepstakes. But they fell short of the contracts both players agreed to — Corbin for $140 million over six years with the Washington Nationals and Eovaldi for $68 million over four years with the Boston Red Sox.
That they’d engaged on such a high level with top-tier free agents inspired hope they might have enough resources to pull off a surprise move that could help push the Angels into the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
But when general manager Billy Eppler met with reporters late in the afternoon, he declined to acknowledge if the Angels were in the final running for Eovaldi or Corbin’s services. Instead, he said he was more engaged in the trade market than in free agency.
“I’m in both,” he said. “My phone call log today has plenty of sports agents on it but also has plenty of teams.”
The Angels remain open-minded, but maybe adding a frontline starting pitcher to a rotation that once again crumpled because of injuries isn’t as high a priority as upgrading the bullpen or acquiring a catcher. They could choose to remain hopeful about the health of their current players instead, and supplement what they have with a starter of lesser market value.
After all, it was barely a year ago when the Angels seemed as though they were ready to jockey for a top spot in the American League West division. It was during the week of last year’s winter meetings that the Angels traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler and signed infielder Zack Cozart. Those moves closely followed the signing of two-way star and eventual AL rookie of the year Shohei Ohtani.
“With Shohei and Cozart, re-signing [outfielder Justin] Upton and trading for Kinsler, there was some momentum. It kind of turned on the injury spectrum in May,” Eppler said. “We didn’t really get a chance to watch it. … So that was difficult. That kind of shows, at least for me, that we’re growing.”
If they remain status quo and choose not to fill the yearlong void caused by Ohtani’s offseason elbow ligament-replacement surgery, the Angels have internal options. Their 2019 rotation on opening day could feature left-handers Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, and right-handers Jaime Barria, Felix Pena and Nick Tropeano. Top prospects Griffin Canning and Jose Suarez reached triple A last season and seem poised to make their major league debuts next year, improving the Angels’ depth chart at starter. JC Ramirez is expected to return to the major leagues around the All-Star break and should get turns in the rotation, too.
Things could change quickly.
“I think there are some things we could do if we wanted to but maybe we should play time of possession for a little bit,” Eppler said. “Keep running the ball a little bit and march down. We could kick a field goal right now if we wanted to but let’s go for a touchdown.”
First-rounder surrendered to Mariners
The Angels relinquished control of one of their first-round draft picks to a division rival.
Switch-hitting infielder Kaleb Cowart, picked 18th overall in the 2010 draft and signed above-slot for $2.3 million, was claimed off waivers by the Seattle Mariners.
Cowart, 26, made his major league debut in 2015, but offensive struggles felled his stock. He batted only .177 with a .241 on-base percentage in 162 games over parts of four seasons with the Angels, for whom he primarily played at second and third base. The Angels exposed Cowart, who is out of minor league options, to outright waivers in the hopes he’d go undetected. He would have then continued his development in the minors next year.
But the Mariners, led by former Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, were drawn to Cowart's dormant pitching ability. Cowart was a highly touted hard-throwing pitcher in high school in Georgia when he committed to the Angels as a position player. Upon encountering roadblocks at double A, where he hit around .220 in 2013 and 2014, Dipoto and the Angels considered moving Cowart back to the mound. The plan came back up this fall with Eppler, who said Cowart was preparing to pitch and play a position in spring training. Cowart threw an encouraging bullpen session sometime in the last six weeks.
“I talked to him about the concept of either playing a few days a week and then pitching, or just pitching,” Eppler said. “We told him that we probably should not make a determination on that until later, until we actually see how this looks with batters.”
Dipoto will put the idea into motion. The Mariners, who are in the beginning stages of a rebuild and have room to experiment, are going to test Cowart as a two-way player in Arizona.