Thanks in part to a host of injuries – including to right-hander Shohei Ohtani – the Angels’ pitching staff turned in a below-average performance in 2018, ranking 18th in the majors in ERA (4.15) and 22nd in fWAR (11.0). Now, with the offseason around the corner, the Angels are turning their focus to improving their pitching, general manager Billy Eppler revealed Monday (via Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register).
“We are going to be in the pitching market, both in the starting and relief market,” Eppler said. “What that’s going to yield, that’s hard to predict, but we’re going to have a lot of conversations.”
The Halos already know their staff will go without Ohtani next year after he underwent Tommy John surgery Monday. Realistically, the Angels may not be able to replace Ohtani’s per-inning production, as the two-way star put up a 3.31 ERA/3.57 FIP with 10.97 K/9 and 3.83 BB/9 in 2018, though injuries limited him to 10 starts and 51 2/3 frames. He was among several Angels starters who endured injury-shortened seasons, with Tyler Skaggs, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Parker Bridwell, Nick Tropeano, Alex Meyer and J.C. Ramirez also among the team’s rotation possibilities who were shelved for most or all of the campaign.
Looking ahead to 2019, Eppler said the Ohtani-less Angels have three “locks” for their starting staff, according to Fletcher, who writes that Skaggs and fellow southpaw Andrew Heaney are surely among them. The other choice could be one of three righties – Shoemaker, Jaime Barria or Felix Pena – though each member of that trio comes with concerns. Injuries weighed down Shoemaker from 2017-18; Barria posted a 3.41 ERA in his 129 1/3-inning rookie year, but uninspiring peripherals accompanied his quality run prevention; and Pena, 28, carries a limited track record of major league success.
With multiple question marks in their rotation and, in Fletcher’s estimation, around $30MM to spend, the Angels could dip into free agency to augment the group. Richards will be among the league’s free agents, and there’s no word on whether the Angels want him back. Even if they do, he underwent TJ surgery in July and may miss most or all of 2019. Richards won’t be part of the Angels’ season-opening plans no matter what, then, though they could look to other free agents for help. The top options available are expected to be Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who seems likely to opt out of the remaining two years and $65MM on his contract, as well as fellow southpaws Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel. There will be several other capable, less expensive arms out there, too – including Hyun-Jin Ryu, J.A. Happ, Gio Gonzalez, Nathan Eovaldi and Matt Harvey, to name just a few. There’s also C.C. Sabathia, a California native whom the Angels pursued last winter and whom Eppler knows from his time as an executive with the Yankees.
Sabathia and some of the other hurlers named above would likely improve the Halos’ rotation without coming at premium prices, which would give them room to upgrade elsewhere. That includes their bullpen, which Eppler cited as an area of interest. With the exception of free agent-to-be Jim Johnson, all of the Angels’ innings leaders from their 2018 relief corps are under control heading into next season. Further, all of Blake Parker, Cam Bedrosian, Jose Alvarez, Justin Anderson, Hansel Robles, Taylor Cole and Ty Buttrey performed at least reasonably well this season, and the club could welcome back Keynan Middleton – yet another TJ patient – sometime next year. It’s not a dire-looking situation in the Halos’ bullpen, then; however, considering the group only turned in a middling statistical performance this year, it could stand to improve.
Like the Angels’ bullpen, their position player group was more decent than great in 2018, as it finished 11th in wRC+, 12th in fWAR and 15th in runs. Those rankings factor in yet another otherworldly performance from center fielder Mike Trout, who’s sure to lead the group again in 2019. The rest of the Angels’ outfield may also be set, with Justin Upton a lock to continue in left and right fielder Kole Calhoun having bounced back in the season’s second half after a dreadful first few months. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons figures to continue starring in the Angels’ infield, meanwhile, though the rest of it looks decidedly less promising. Zack Cozart – signed to a three-year, $38MM contract last winter – endured an injury-shortened, down season, and Eppler said Monday he should spend the winter preparing to play either second or third. That means the Angels could shop for a help at either spot in free agency, where there will be quite a few veteran infielders looking for jobs, or turn one of those positions over to another player who’s already in the organization.
At first base, the club will continue to be stuck with the soon-to-be 39-year-old Albert Pujols, an all-time great who’s amid a sharp decline and who’s still due $87MM over the next three seasons. Pujols may once again see the majority of time at the position in 2019, though Jose Fernandez, Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh could also get some action there, per Fletcher, who writes that Eppler hasn’t ruled out adding external help at first or behind the plate.
Eppler mentioned Fernandez, Thaiss, Walsh, fellow infielders David Fletcher, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, outfielder Michael Hermosillo, and catchers Jose Briceno and Francisco Arcia as in-house options who could help the Angels’ offense in 2019. Aside from Thaiss, Walsh and Rengifo, each of those players saw action with the Angels in 2018, though none registered eye-popping production. There is clear promise in at least some of those cases, however. The 24-year-old Fletcher dominated at Triple-A Salt Lake before earning a promotion to the majors in June, where he racked up 1.9 fWAR in 307 plate appearances on the strength of a combined nine Defensive Runs Saved and a 10.2 Ultimate Zone Rating between second and third. Briceno, 26, is also a well-regarded defender, and he managed a respectable 91 wRC+ in his 128-PA audition in Anaheim this year. And Baseball America (subscription required) has Thaiss, Rengifo and Ward among the Angels’ top 10 prospects in a system that has taken significant steps forward under Eppler.
All things considered, Eppler believes the Angels “have a lot of answers internally” with respect to their position player group. Consequently, it seems the lion’s share of Eppler’s offseason attention will go to the Angels’ pitching staff as he works to snap the team’s four-year playoff drought in 2019.