Eppler's creativity to be tested during Hot Stove

Angels' first-year GM tasked with upgrading within budget

Eppler's creativity to be tested during Hot Stove

ANAHEIM -- Billy Eppler's first offseason as the Angels' general manager has officially begun, and it won't be an easy one.

The lineup has holes, the budget seems tight and the owner wants a ring.

Eppler has spent the better part of the last four weeks meeting with coaches and scouts throughout the organization to get a better feel for the players he has inherited. Friday (2 p.m. PT) is the deadline to tender qualifying offers, and it is the final day to negotiate exclusively with his own free agents. The next day, the floodgates essentially open on free agency -- and it's a star-studded group.

Hot Stove Tracker

Below is a categorical look through the Angels' offseason.

Free agents/options: Third baseman David Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, starting pitcher Mat Latos, lefty reliever Wesley Wright and outfielders Matt Joyce and Shane Victorino officially became free agents on Monday. Iannetta and Joyce are coming off dismal years at the plate, Victorino played sparingly upon being acquired midseason, Wright didn't factor into the bullpen and Latos was only brought in under desperate circumstances for the final week. They'll all likely sign elsewhere, as will outfielder David DeJesus, who possesses a $5 million club option that is expected to get declined.

The interesting ones are Freese and left fielder David Murphy, whose $7 million club option was declined Wednesday. Freese brings power to the bottom third of the lineup, and Murphy proved to be a productive left-handed bat over the last two months. The Angels like what both bring on the field and in the clubhouse. But third base is a relatively thin position in free agency, so Freese may price himself out of the Angels' plans. Murphy's option was reasonable, but the Angels -- with a budget that is already tight -- chose to allocate that money elsewhere.

Freese is the only player with a slight chance of receiving the qualifying offer of $15.8 million, and even that may be a stretch. The Angels' hope would be that he declines it so they get a Draft pick if and when he signs elsewhere. But Freese won't make close to that on an average annual value.

Must C: Murphy wins it in 9th

Needs: The Angels could have a lot of needs and they may have only a few. It depends on how much they want to improve. More accurately, it depends on how much Eppler has to spend. Johnny Giavotella was a spark at the plate this season, but he was also a defensive liability. Prospects Kyle Kubitza and Kaleb Cowart are next in line at third base, but the Angels could choose to upgrade with a veteran. The same can be said behind the plate, where Carlos Perez impressed as a rookie catcher. There's depth in the rotation, but a top-of-the-rotation starter certainly wouldn't hurt. The bullpen has some weapons, but a true lefty specialist would fit nicely. The definite need is in left field, and there are some nice options, if the Angels are willing to splurge.

Perez throws out Fuld

Potential targets: Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Jason Heyward make up a star-studded crop of free agent corner outfielders, with Alex Gordon, who declined his player option on Wednesday, making up the next tier. They'll all command major contracts, and the Angels are still paying Josh Hamilton about $48 million to play for the Rangers these next two years. But they're all worth monitoring nonetheless. Another intriguing name is Ben Zobrist, a switch-hitter who can fill a need in left field and second base. Matt Wieters is the best available catcher, but he'll probably be too expensive. Alex Avila is an intriguing buy-low option behind the plate. Then there's Zack Greinke, David Price, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto headlining a star-studded pool of free-agent starters. In all likelihood, the Angels won't go there, but you never know this time of year.

MLB Tonight: Free Agents

Trade assets: Their farm system still needs time to cultivate, so right now it seems like the only way the Angels can significantly upgrade via the trade market is by plucking from their Major League starting-pitching depth -- a depth former GM Jerry Dipoto worked so hard to compile. C.J. Wilson, owed $20 million in the final year of his contract and coming off surgery to remove loose bodies in his pitching elbow, will probably be dangled. So will the likes of Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker and Nick Tropeano. It'll be interesting to see if the Angels shop Garrett Richards or Andrew Heaney, who would yield the highest return for their lineup.

Richards escapes with strikeout

Financial situation: The Angels' payroll sits at roughly $25 million below the luxury-tax threshold, which will be $189 million in 2016. Teams that exceed that threshold for the first time are taxed 17.5 percent of the overage. Angels owner Arte Moreno has said the team's budget doesn't necessarily allow them to exceed it, but he also said: "If it's the right player, in the right situation, we'll do whatever is needed." Now could be the right time. There's a deep free-agent class and a lot of money is coming off the books after next season, allowing the Angels to potentially only exceed the tax one year and avoid the escalating penalties.

Bottom line: The Angels want to continue to compete for a championship, but they also have several holes in their lineup and don't have players in their system ready to fill them. Either Moreno expands the budget, or Eppler gets creative.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez and Facebook , and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.