If you don’t want to read the many words to follow, skim down to the “TLDR” version. Thanks in advance for the snarky comment(s) about how long this is. You're funny.
IN DEFENSE OF EPPLER
I don’t consider myself an Eppler apologist, but I have been known to make the case that he is, at the least, a solid and smart GM who is building a team that should be in perennial contention in the not too distance future. Yes, there's a sense that this future is not only always receeding into the future, but the imaginary construct of optimists, apologists and nutswingers. But in this case, the details do matter More specifically, if you look at his four-year tenure, I think his approach has generally been quite reasonable, and for most of those years the team’s struggles were out of his control. Let’s take a look back…
If you remember, coming off the 98-win 2014 season, 2015 was a bit of a disaster. It started with the Angels trading busted free agent Josh Hamilton to the Rangers. What followed was an escalation of tensions between GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Mike Scioscia, resulting in Dipoto quitting in early July. Despite that, the Angels were in first place into late July, with a season best record of 54-40 on July 22. But they proceeded to go on an 11-26 run and eventually fell to 3rd place, losing a wildcard berth on the final game of the season.
On October 4, the last day of the season, Billy Eppler was announced as the new General Manager. A little over a month later he made a big splash and first of three big signature moments, sending Erick Aybar and top prospect Sean Newcomb to the Braves for defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, who has overall been better than expected, his recent injury notwithstanding.
2016: The Year of the Busted Arm
If 2015 was a disaster in one way, 2016 was in another. First of all, the team plummeted a double-digit loss in the win column for the second straight year: from 98 to 85 to 74 wins. This was largely due to almost comically unprecedented injuries to starting pitchers. Tyler Skaggs had Tommy John Surgery in August of 2015 and was out all of 2016; in the first month of the new season, Andrew Heaney went down, eventually needing TJS; staff ace Garrett Richards went down in May and was recommended to have TJS—he opted for plasma injections but ended up getting the surgery two years later; in August Nick Tropeano also had TJS, and finally in September Matt Shoemaker was hit in the head by a line-drive. Furthermore, the decline of Jered Weaver reached the point where he could barely throw 85 mph.
Coupled with the fact that the farm system was in shambles—this was the year that Keith Law called the Angels farm the worst he’d ever seen—and the entire organization was in crisis. The year was about trying to keep the ship afloat as the rotation imploded…not much Eppler could do about it. His task was merely to keep the ship from sinking further, or to mix metaphors, stop the bleeding.
2017: Transition, Part 1
Eppler’s 2016-17 offseason was quite modest, bringing in mediocre players like Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez, Luis Valbuena, Martin Maldonado, Cameron Maybin, and Yusmeiro Petit to plug holes in the roster – no major free agents or trades, no real attempt to push the team into contention. Perhaps after a 74-88 season and a questionable but talented starting rotation, Eppler realized that 2017 could be nothing more or less than a transitional, rebuilding year. And so it was, with the Angels finishing 80-82. The core young rotation that was projected as the “rotation of the future”—Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, Heaney, Tropeano—started a mere total of 41 games.
Even Trout got injured, messing up his thumb on a freak accident, sliding into second base. Albert Pujols’ decline continued as he had one of the thirty worst seasons by fWAR over the last 50 years (#26 out of 7,002 qualifying seasons, 1970-2019).
The one bright spot for the year was trading for Justin Upton for virtually nothing, prospect Grayson Long (who has since retired). There were also glimmerings that the farm was starting to improve; the Angels got their best draft pick in years in Jo Adell, thanks to that 74-88 record the previous season.
2018: Back to Conten…I mean, Transition, Part 2
Eppler had his second of three signature moments on December 9, 2017, when he convinced Japanese mega-star, Shohei Ohtani, to sign with the Angels. After the injuries of the previous couple years, it felt like a gift from the gods. Seemingly taking this as a sign that the Angels could be legit contenders in 2018, Eppler bolstered the lineup by trading for Ian Kinsler and signing Zack Cozart, who was coming off a breakthrough year with the bat.
With a lineup centered on Trout and Upton, but with a solid complementary cast of Ohtani, Pujols, Simmons, Kinsler, Cozart, Calhoun, and Maldonado, and a rotation of Ohtani, Richards, Skaggs, Heaney, Shoemaker, and Tropeano all healthy or coming back, the Angels were legitimate contenders entering the season. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a bit. The lineup was a mixed bag, but yielded disappointing seasons from Pujols, Cozart and Calhoun in particular. The rotation, once again, was in shambles. Shoemaker was never really healthy and started only 7 games. Ohtani started having arm issues and was shelved after his June 6 start. He pitched again in September and then reinjured his arm, requiring Tommy John surgery.
Disaster struck in July as Garret Richards went down with “right forearm irritation,” leading to Tommy John Surgery. The pitcher that was meant to inherit the role of Angels ace from Jered Weaver had pitched his last game as an Angel.
Andrew Heaney had a solid, healthy year, and Jaime Barria was a bit of a savior, but overall it was another disappointing year, a second 80-82 record in a row.
2019: Towards a Wildca…I mean, Transition, Part 3
OK, take two. 2018 was supposed to be a resurgence to contention, and so it was with this year, or at least the hope was that if things went right, the Angels could nab a wildcard berth. First of all, we all rejoiced when Eppler had his third signature moment, extending Trout to a 12-year contract. For those bemoaning the recent performance of the team, remember this: We have the best player in the game and the history of the franchise, and one of the best ever, for his entire career.
There was general optimism entering the season, but it was tempered by both the last few years and the fact that Eppler patched the pitching staff with a series of high-risk, high-reward—but one year—free agents in Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Cody Allen, and Luis Garcia. Couple those pitchers with the lineup improvements---a group of role players and fringers starters in Tommy La Stella, Brian Goodwin, Kevan Smith, Jonathan Lucroy, Justin Bour, and Peter Bourjos--and it was clear that 2019 was to be another year like 2017: patching the ship so it doesn't sink, hoping that maybe if everything goes right the Angels earn a wildcard berth, but without the hopes of legit contention that was felt before 2018.
Eppler's moves did yield pleasant surprises in La Stella, Goodwin, and Smith. La Stella was a bonafide star for half the year and Goodwin a solid fill-in while Upton recovered. Trout has continued being Trout, probably en route to his third MVP season.
But overall the season has been disappointing. Through August 4th they’re once again a game below .500. But unlike 2016-18, this feels at least partially on Eppler. Despite a couple standout acquisitions, Eppler's moves did nothing to improve the team. Consider that the four pitchers mentioned above plus Bourjos, Bour and Lucroy has yielded a -3.0 WAR…for almost $40 million. Add in Cozart and the mediocre cast from 2017, and there's a reason for some concern about Eppler's judgement in free agency.
What to Expect from 2020
Looking at the last four years, the first three of Eppler’s reign were largely out of his control. They were riddled by injury and the organization was recovering from the Dipoto years. 2019 feels like the first year that is Eppler’s, and it hasn’t been pretty.
But given that it has really only been one year, he deserves a chance to course-correct. His free agent signings of the last few years have largely been poor to mediocre, but with a few bright spots. But in that time he’s signed no major free agents, no stars. That should change this offseason, as he looks at Gerrit Cole and other top starters.
This is a very important offseason for Eppler. He had the three post-Dipoto, injury-plagued years; and he’s had the one, “whoops, that didn’t quite work out” year. Now he has a chance to course-correct and take this team to the next level. He needs to be aggressive in player acquisition – in particular, and perhaps only, starting pitching.
In other words, the team is actually pretty good in both the lineup—which should continue to prove as the youth movement continues—and the bullpen, which is the best its been in years, despite struggling to keep up with the failing rotation. But the rotation has just been terrible. This makes things relatively straight-forward this offseason, both in terms of what Eppler needs to do and what we can judge him by.
Gerrit Cole is the big prize and my guess is that Arte will open up the purse strings and give him the 6/$180M or so that he’ll require. But even if they don’t get him, there are quite a few other options. The Angels will sign at least two solid starters of #3 caliber or better.
2016: Not his fault, injuries
2017: Not his fault, injuries, transition
2018: Mostly not his fault, more injuries, transition
2019: Kind of his fault, but signs of improvement to come