Joe Maddon wants to turn around the Angels fast, but Billy Eppler is on the clock
The nationally televised news conference Thursday turned into Story Time with Joe Maddon. The Angels’ new manager, linking his deep connections with the team’s history with the team’s place in baseball history, dropped the name of Jimmie Reese.
The Angels retired Reese’s uniform number. Reese never played for the Angels, but he was a beloved coach well past age 90. He hit infinite fungoes to Nolan Ryan. He roomed with Babe Ruth.
Arte Moreno, the Angels’ owner, was in a good mood too. But he was not jovial. He is a fan more than an investor. He is the young man who paid to watch Ryan pitch at the Big A four decades ago, the owner who comes early to spring training to watch the pitchers take fielding practice.
Moreno is sick and tired of losing. On Thursday, he had seven words to say about that.
“The payroll will go up next year,” he said.
Those words will be of particular interest to the guy who owns the suite directly behind home plate at Angel Stadium, but we’ll get back to super agent Scott Boras in a bit.
Moreno is the owner. He is not going anywhere, except to his wallet.
New manager Joe Maddon turned around the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs, and he vows to do the same with the team with which he spent 31 years — the Angels.
“Arte was very adamant that he is all in,” Maddon said.
Maddon, who led the Chicago Cubs to the 2016 World Series championship, has a three-year contract. “My intent is to stay here longer than three,” he said. He is not going anywhere.
That puts Billy Eppler, the general manager, on the firing line. He’s on a one-year deal and could be gone this time next year.
“I’ve already told Billy I want to work with him for at least five-plus years,” Maddon said.
The Angels have not won a postseason game in 10 years. Eppler has run the Angels for the last four. The team has finished with a losing record in every one of them.
Eppler has overly relied on starting pitchers with injury histories, and inevitably the Angels have run short of healthy starting pitchers.
A hollowed minor league system is once again turning out position players. Eppler persuaded Shohei Ohtani to come here and Mike Trout to stay here, two legacy accomplishments.
But it is time to win, or else. Moreno declined to give Eppler a new contract this fall. Instead, he exercised a one-year option in the current contract, fired the manager Eppler had hired, and on Thursday acknowledged he had been interested in Maddon from the time Mike Scioscia left.
“I like Billy a lot,” Moreno said. “I like a lot of his people. I like a lot of his ideas. A lot of times, all those things don’t translate completely to the field.
“So the idea for us was, sit down during the season, and if we were going to make any changes, we’d wait until the end of the season and we’d spend some time. But we really spent the last six or eight weeks talking about the team.”
To say the Angels need starting pitching is about as obvious as saying the Houston Astros are in a bad spot right now. The trouble for the Angels is that Moreno has no choice but to spend. There is no other option.
With one exception, the farm system has produced a bunch of fringe arms, and the Angels should be no more reliant on them next season than the Dodgers were reliant on Brock Stewart or Caleb Ferguson last season.
The exception: Griffin Canning, one of three starters the Angels claim at the moment. Canning pitched 90 innings as a rookie last season, with a 4.58 earned-run average. Andrew Heaney pitched 95 innings, with a 4.91 ERA. Ohtani is coming off Tommy John surgery. For the Angels to expect a combined 60 starts out of those three would not be unfair.
So, yeah, Boras is smiling. He represents Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who will be free agents, and Stephen Strasburg, who could opt into free agency.
Cole grew up in Orange County. On Monday, asked at a news conference about his memories of the World Series, the Astros’ ace talked about sitting in Angel Stadium in 2002, watching Barry Bonds hit a ball close to 500 feet off Troy Percival.
“The stadium just dropped dead for a minute,” Cole said.
And then he talked about the Rally Monkey, and the thunder sticks.
“Whenever David Eckstein would hit,” Cole said, “we would make an X with the sticks.”
Of course, sentiment gets you nowhere with Boras, unless it comes with a big fat check attached. In the first winter after he bought the Angels in 2003, Moreno spent $145 million on Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Jose Guillen and Kelvim Escobar. Moreno might need to spend twice that much just to get Cole.
Moreno never has put the Angels into tanking mode, never even considered it. He has spent, consistently if not always effectively. He committed half a billion to Trout, a quarter-billion to Albert Pujols, an eighth of a billion to Josh Hamilton. In Scioscia, he spent $50 million on a manager.
If the Angels sign two starters in free agency, they still would need a catcher, a couple of bullpen arms, and maybe a power bat. That might require Eppler to trade from the minor league system he has nurtured back to respectability.
Before the Angels hired him, Eppler worked as an assistant general manager for the New York Yankees, where any season that does not end in a parade is considered a failure. He is no stranger to the concept of a must-win season.
“You focus on putting the strongest team that you can on the field, and you let everything happen as it comes,” Eppler said. “For me, that’s kind of second nature. It’s business as usual for me.”
He forced a smile at the question of whether he would feel pressure to compromise his rebuilt minor league system in order to put a winner on the field next season, because he is guaranteed nothing beyond then.
“I’m going to be opportunistic this winter,” he said. “All right?”
It was all right for Maddon on Thursday. We’ll check back on Eppler next summer.
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