With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 18, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2016 roster. This is the fourth of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: middle infield. (previously: catcher, corner infield, bullpen)
ANAHEIM -- On one side of second base, the Angels have one of the premier defensive players in the game. On the other side, well, not so much.
The Angels took care of shortstop long term in the early stages of this offseason, trading free-agent-in-waiting Erick Aybar and their top two prospects, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, to the Braves for Andrelton Simmons. But they didn't necessarily solve second base, and now it looks like Johnny Giavotella will get another crack at everyday playing time in 2016.
Giavotella's first full season in the big leagues was in many ways a successful one, enough so that first-year general manager Billy Eppler didn't consider replacing him as one of his top priorities. The 28-year-old batted a respectable .272/.318/.375, going 11-for-30 after a late-season return from fourth nerve palsy and posting an impressive .819 OPS in late-and-close situations.
But Giavotella's glove didn't inspire much hope. Among 18 qualified second basemen last year, Giavotella ranked 17th in Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-7.2), tied for 17th in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-12) and fourth in errors (12).
Asked about second base early in the offseason, Eppler said, "We'll keep every option open. We'll keep our eyes open, but we're very confident in Johnny's ability to play the position."
The Angels went on to attempt a trade for Neil Walker and tried to sign Chase Utley, but neither panned out. They claimed a young, optionable middle infielder in Rey Navarro off waivers. But Giavotella, out of options, still looks like the favorite at second base. New utility infielder Cliff Pennington -- signed to a two-year, $3.75 million contract -- will probably see a fair amount of time at the position as a late-game defensive replacement and occasional starter.
In Simmons -- two-time Gold Glove Award winner, GIF machine and owner of a Major League-best 57.4 UZR since 2013 -- the Angels have game-changing defense at shortstop.
Some believe they may benefit from an offensive surge, too.
Simmons hasn't done much with the bat just yet. He belted 17 home runs in 2013, but he finished with only a .296 on-base percentage. In '14, his slash line was .244/.286/.331, but it improved to .265/.321/.338 last year. People with the Braves believe there may be more there because Simmons consistently puts the ball in play -- he's struck out only 184 times in 499 Major League games -- and has some of the quickest hands in the game.
If the 26-year-old makes some strides offensively, it could change the entire outlook of the Angels' lineup.
"It's a trust factor," one Braves evaluator said of Simmons' offensive game. "He needs to believe in what he's bringing to a system. He can be a knucklehead offensively sometimes because he wants to do so much. … He has quick hands. He slows the ball down defensively; he needs to slow it down offensively, too. And he can."
Beyond the active roster
As a Rule 5 Draft pick who would be lost by the organization if removed from the active roster, Taylor Featherston was thrust into a Major League utility role last season. Now, though, he has three option years remaining and is expected to get some seasoning in Triple-A. The Angels are hopeful that his bat will come around.
Cuban shortstop Roberto Baldoquin cost the Angels about $15 million in 2014, once you factor in the tax, and he kept them from signing an international free agent for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods. Baldoquin then struggled in his first taste of American baseball. The 2016 season is a crucial one for the 21-year-old.
David Fletcher ranks 24th in the system, according to MLBPipeline.com's rankings, but the Angels believe he has more upside than that. The 21-year-old shortstop was taken in the sixth round of the 2015 Draft, then batted .311/.377/.414 the rest of the summer. He's got a sound approach and good defensive instincts, but a subpar arm may move him to second base.