Angels general manager Billy Eppler was in bed Sunday morning when his 4-year-old son climbed onto the mattress, wiggled himself between his parents, placed his head on a pillow, and coughed and sneezed in his father’s face.
It was the day before baseball’s winter meetings officially started in Las Vegas. Eppler knew in the moment the encounter with his son would throw a wrinkle in his plans for the week.
Besides taking his voice and forcing him to hoarsely whisper the terms of a trade deal that did not come to fruition, the illness has not pushed Eppler away from any tables. He has made calls, met teams and spoken with agents as usual.
In his Delano Hotel suite Tuesday evening, he even affected his familiar brand of coyness with reporters.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he said with a smile when asked to comment on the Angels’ interest in signing left-handed starter Yusei Kikuchi, the free agent from Japan who graduated from the same high school as Shohei Ohtani.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he repeated later when asked to divulge which top prospects would earn invites to major league spring training.
The Angels, whose farm system has flourished in the three drafts since Eppler’s hiring in October 2015, have a lot of prospect capital to draw from for trades. They were also in on starters Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi before the two signed multiyear contracts, signaling that Eppler may have enough room in his budget to lure a $20 million pitcher.
However, it is hard to surmise what the search will yield. Eppler is unwilling to part with star prospects and jeopardize the long-term health of the franchise. He is committed to developing the Angels’ own players. That leaves little room for the intersection of his goals.
The encouraging thing is Eppler has been busy at baseball gatherings throughout his Angels tenure. He laid the groundwork for the acquisition of shortstop Andrelton Simmons at the 2015 general manager meetings. He traded for catcher Martin Maldonado the day after the 2016 winter meetings. A year ago, he dealt for second baseman Ian Kinsler on the third day of the winter meetings and announced the signing of infielder Zack Cozart two days later.
Eppler, playing cards close to the vest as always, is willing to wait for things to fall his way.
“There are smaller things we could do right now but there are things we could do that are above smaller,” Eppler said.
Veteran Albert Pujols, who turns 39 next month, continues to progress in his recovery from the left knee surgery he underwent in late August. He hasn’t been cleared to swing a bat, but he has the go-ahead for light-impact lower body workouts and all upper body exercises.
Should things proceed at a favorable pace, it’s likely Pujols will arrive at spring training ready to return to playing first base at a rate similar to last year. Of the 117 games he played in 2018, he started at first base 70 times — the most appearances he’d made at the position since 2015.
Eppler wasn’t ready to commit to any 2019 projections, though.
“We have to see how he feels going through January, February and how he is at the start of spring training,” Eppler said. “We’ll see from that. Take it organically.”
The Angels made official the minor league signings of eight players: sShortstop Wilfredo Tovar; outfielders Peter Bourjos, Jarrett Parker and Cesar Puello; right-handed reliever Matt Ramsey; right-handed starter Forrest Snow; and catcher Dustin Garneau. All received invites to major league spring training.
The Angels plan to announce in late January which players not on the 40-man roster will also receive big league camp invites. It’s likely top prospects Griffin Canning and Jo Adell, who are both on fast tracks to the major leagues, are among them.