July 2, 2016
The Angels are rapidly sinking into local irrelevance for the summer. The Rams open training camp at the end of the month, the Dodgers are pushing toward a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, and USC and UCLA will hit the football practice field before long. The Angels, founded in 1961, are on pace to post the lowest winning percentage of their unexceptional history.
However, before the casual Southern California sports fans stamp “wait ‘til next year” upon the Angels and turn their attention elsewhere, we wanted to chat with Billy Eppler, the team’s first-year general manager. In speaking with reporters last week, Eppler made the rather remarkable claim that the Angels would not rebuild.
“It’s not in the DNA here to rebuild,” he said.
The Angels have the best player in baseball, Mike Trout. They also have a below-average offense at every position but center field, right field and third base, a starting rotation whose revival depends upon three pitchers successfully rehabilitating serious injuries, a minor league system ranked by Baseball America as the worst in baseball, and a top-heavy payroll bumping up against a self-imposed limit.
On Wednesday, the Houston Astros beat the Angels for the eighth consecutive time. On Thursday, the Astros’ triple-A team scored 23 runs against the Angels’ triple-A team.
The Astros did an extreme rebuilding, losing 100 consecutive games for three consecutive years but returning to the playoffs last year and putting themselves on pace to do so again this year.
No one who knows Angels owner Arte Moreno, who has sold 3 million tickets in each of the 13 years he has owned the team, believes he would sanction losing now to win later. Moreno has not responded to numerous interview requests this year.
But Eppler said the Angels need not undertake such drastic measures. He said they do not need to choose between winning now and winning later.
“If you are in a substantial market, you can do both,” Eppler said. “If you are not in a substantial market, you cannot.”
Eppler used the word “investment” several times. The Angels would get better, he said, “with investment.”
When Mark Walter and the rest of the Dodgers’ owners took over a team bankrupt in court and in organizational talent, they invested heavily in winning now and winning later, taking on $250 million in contracts to get Adrian Gonzalez and paying millions in luxury taxes each year to win now, spending millions more in bonuses and additional taxes for international prospects to win later. Baseball America ranks the Dodgers’ minor league system as the best in baseball.
Moreno invested $250 million to get Albert Pujols, and $125 million to get Josh Hamilton. The return on investment has been unsatisfactory, and Moreno has been reluctant to authorize additional spending that would subject the Angels to the luxury tax.
The Angels’ spending on international prospects is restricted for two years because they exceeded a league-imposed threshold to sign one player, infielder Roberto Baldoquin, for $8 million. (Return on investment: also unsatisfactory.) The San Diego Padres will be similarly restricted for the next two years, but they exceeded the threshold Saturday by signing eight of Baseball America’s top 50 international prospects, part of a class that reportedly cost more than $30 million.
Since he arrived last fall, Eppler said, the Angels have made significant investments in scouting, player development and analytics. He said they plan to spend all of their league-mandated allocation to sign international prospects every year — that figure is $2.2 million this year — unless they can trade some of that salary space for minor league talent.
Those first steps are welcome and entirely proper, particularly for a rebuilding team. But, if the Angels are not rebuilding, then what is their plan to win next year?
Heaney had elbow ligament-replacement surgery Friday; he almost certainly is out until 2018. Richards is on the disabled list and might still need similar surgery, with the same timetable as Heaney. Skaggs was scheduled to return from that kind of surgery in April, but he has yet to do so.
The free-agent market last winter offered quantity and quality in left field, where the Angels had a glaring vacancy. Eppler struck quickly and affordably at third base (Yunel Escobar for $7 million), catcher (Geovany Soto for $3 million), shortstop (Simmons for $53 million over five years, via trade) and backup infielder (Cliff Pennington for $4 million over two years).
That appeared to leave money for one of the big bats — Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward or Justin Upton. The Angels passed on them all, and their left fielders, all eight of them, have combined for a .562 OPS, the lowest figure at any outfield position for any major league team. The only lower OPS at any position: the Atlanta Braves’ shortstops (hello, Erick Aybar) and the Cleveland Indians’ catchers.
That left the appearance that the Angels compromised their chance to win by declining to pay the luxury tax.
“From the viewpoint you’re speaking of, it sounds like the only players that can help this club are $20-million players or better,” Eppler said. “I don’t believe that you have to make those investments to have a good team.
“I believe you can fish in the $2.5-million pool if it’s going to be a part-time, 60-65% player. Or you can invest $12 million in a full-time guy and be very happy with your results.
“If the opportunity comes, and there is a player that sets himself apart from the pack like none other, we do have the financial resources to go get that player. It’s not an absolute. I know it’s painted like an absolute.”
The Angels project to have about $25 million to $30 million available this winter, and the coming free-agent market is more about complementary players than stars. In the meantime, they will try to infuse their minor league system with talent. Relievers Joe Smith and Huston Street could be traded for prospects, as could Escobar, although the Angels would be happy to keep him atop their lineup for another year.
Eppler said the Angels run an above-average triple-A payroll, persuading minor league free agents such as infielder Gregorio Petit and outfielder Rafael Ortega to sign with the team on the promise of opportunity. As the Angels await results from rebuilding their farm system, they will continue to pursue minor league free agents and waiver claims.
David Eckstein was a waiver claim, after all, but the Angels would not have won their only World Series without such high draft picks as Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Troy Percival and Tim Salmon.
“That’s where you’re getting your front-line talent,” Eppler said. “To build a championship organization, you have to be committed to the farm. That has been articulated. That is being implemented.”
And that takes time. In the meantime, the Angels will ask their fans to renew their season tickets. Before those fans decide whether to spend thousands of dollars to do so, what would Eppler tell them about when the Angels might reclaim their status as perennial contenders?
“I would answer that by saying you’re asking a result question, and I’m going to talk to you about the process,” he said. “We’re always trying to compete, all the time. We’re not punting on competing.
“We’re not going to get wrapped up in results. I understand you have to report on results. I get that. But I can’t get wrapped up in results. I have to be wrapped up in process. If you trust the process, the results will come.”
In the eight years starting in 2002, the Angels won 21 postseason games. In the eight subsequent years, this one included, they will have won none. If you can’t rush the process, the results could be a while in coming.