For years, Angels general manager Billy Eppler has spent his offseasons tracking down upgrades for his starting rotation in an effort to bolster the most maligned segment of the roster.
He has foraged scrap heaps and emerged with bargain-bin pickups — take Félix Peña, who pitched seven innings in the Angels’ combined no-hitter July 12 — that have served the Angels well. He has also struck out on top-tier free-agents and settled for reclamation projects who disappointed — witness Trevor Cahill, Cody Allen and Matt Harvey last season.
Eppler’s objective has not changed this year. He will arrive in San Diego for baseball’s annual winter meetings, which begin Monday, focused on finding a quality arm or two.
One thing has changed: The resources at Eppler’s disposal. With owner Arte Moreno’s blessing, Eppler will operate this offseason without spending restrictions. Such limitations have hurt the Angels in the past. Last year, their by former Angels draft pick Patrick Corbin and 2018 World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi.
Eppler is at liberty to compete alongside baseball’s richest and most successful franchises to secure the services of someone like Cy Young Award runner-up Gerrit Cole, the Orange County native expected to sign a record-breaking contract.
Should Eppler fail in an earnest pursuit of a free agent, it would not be for lack of money. It would likely be because the player is not convinced the Angels are ready to shake off four consecutive losing seasons and contend for the playoffs.
Eppler can mount a favorable case.
The Angels are a few acquisitions away from becoming a legitimate postseason threat. Eppler has made strides throughout his tenure to get there — trading for Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons prior to 2016, signing two-way player and eventual Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani, flipping veteran players for promising youngsters Luis Rengifo and Ty Buttrey, and locking up MVP Mike Trout for 12 years.
One of baseball’s best prospects, Jo Adell, was drafted by Eppler’s front office and is one step away from the major leagues. Eppler has so rehabilitated the Angels’ farm system that he can even reach into its depths to assemble a trade, as he did when landing durable right-handed starter Dylan Bundy for four minor league arms last week.
Eppler was not in control of all the circumstances that led to the Angels’ first 90-loss season this century. Starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs died July 1 with the opioids fentanyl and oxycodone in his system. Immediately thereafter, the Angels played their best stretch of baseball, climbing to five games above .500 July 24 before they crashed. Rookie starter Griffin Canning and veteran Andrew Heaney, both slated to anchor the Angels’ rotation alongside Ohtani and Bundy in 2020, were among the franchise-record 26 players to land on the injured list.
“We had some players that fell short of productivity, but probably more so we had players fall short of availability,” Eppler said.
There is no better remedy to the Angels’ predicament than to make a splash. And Moreno telegraphed his desire to build a competitive team around Trout in March with the words, “We need some jewelry.”
Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and other notable free-agent pitchers remain available. Others, perhaps Boston’s David Price or Arizona’s Robbie Ray, might be available via trade.
The Angels aren’t limiting their search to the circumference of the mound. They must add a catcher after non-tendering Kevan Smith. Eppler suggested he might also improve other positions.
That means the role of veteran third baseman Zack Cozart, whom Eppler said is making progress from a shoulder injury that has limited him to playing 96 games in the first two years of a three-year, $38-million deal, could change if Eppler happens upon an upgrade.
Armed with financial and prospect capital, the Angels could be one of the most active teams in San Diego next week — and beyond.
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