The Angels needed to create financial flexibility. So in December 2019, they included their first-round pick from the previous June, infielder Will Wilson, to convince the Giants to agree to take the final season and $12.6 million of Zack Cozart’s failed three-year, $38 million pact.
San Francisco was essentially buying a prospect. A month later Cozart was released.
The Angels GM at the time was Billy Eppler, working under the Wilponian ownership of Arte Moreno — among other things, think a refusal to exceed the luxury tax threshold.
In his second stint as a GM, Eppler is going to see how the other side lives. Mets owner Steve Cohen has vowed his baseball operations department will receive “whatever they need” to try to win in 2022. Nevertheless, the Mets still must have a two-prong operation: 1) Upgrade in the majors so that if Jacob deGrom is healthy and Francisco Lindor has adjusted better to New York, the Mets have a puncher’s chance to contend. 2) Continue to accentuate the future by bulking up a top-heavy farm system that is not deep.
Cohen’s wallet will give the Mets opportunities to address both at one time, if Eppler opts to be on the other side of the Cozart trade. The market of distressed contracts actually lines up well for the Mets in — that among other items — it is deep in starting pitching and third basemen. Keep in mind that many players mentioned below have some form of no-trade protection. Plus, this is my assessment of a distressed contract. But it will give an idea of what Eppler could possibly pursue to get an established player who fits a need plus prospects to take on some to all of the remaining contracts:
1. Milwaukee Brewers
This is a strange bedfellow moment since it was assumed that if Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio allowed president of baseball operations David Stearns to leave for the Mets that part of the compensation would be taking on the final year of Lorenzo Cain’s contract ($18 million) and/or the $17.5 million Jackie Bradley Jr. is owed between his 2022 pact and 2023 buyout.
The Mets could use a center fielder and Cain and Bradley are, at the least, still strong defenders (Bradley, though, might have been the majors’ worst hitter last year). If the Mets were willing to take Milwaukee out of financial hell by taking on one or both, could they gain easier access to Josh Hader, who Milwaukee is considering trading anyway because he is owed $10 million-ish for 2022 in his next-to-last season before free agency?
I feel obligated to mention that Christian Yelich has seven years at $188.5 million left and is not playing like the MVP he was when he signed his big deal.
2. San Diego Padres
After amassing by far the largest payroll in team history and not making the playoffs, there have been no indicators that San Diego is in payroll-dump mode. Still, at last July’s trade deadline, the Padres were willing to attach a prospect to Eric Hosmer to remove the final four years at $59 million.
If there is a DH coming to the NL (almost certainly), could the Mets take on Hosmer for first base with Pete Alonso becoming the DH, if they also could get their hands on a few prospects? What if the Mets were willing to take on the $21 million owed Wil Myers? The two years at $37 million on Yu Darvish? The three years at $23 million on Ha-Seong Kim? The two years at $16 million of Drew Pomeranz? Lots of permutations here.
In the same vein as Yelich, it should be mentioned that Manny Machado has seven years at $210 million left. Would one more playoff-less season motivate San Diego to try to get out of that deal?
3. Dallas Keuchel
Including his 2023 buyout, Keuchel is owed $19.5 million. He would be a younger, more expensive version of Rich Hill — an athletic lefty who can supply back-of-the-rotation innings. Would the White Sox rather redirect his funds on other items and include a prospect to make a deal appealing?
The Dodgers owe David Price $16 million next year on the final season of his deal and he has similarities to Keuchel.
There are three other lefties who have three years left on pacts: Boston’s Chris Sale and Washington’s Patrick Corbin (both owed $85 million) and Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner ($60 million). Bumgarner and New York seems a bad marriage. As for Sale and Corbin, even Cohen isn’t taking on those full deals hoping to regenerate them in Flushing. But what if the Mets could cut the obligation nearly in half by trading Robinson Cano (owed two years at $40.5 million)? Would Boston and Washington want to get out of the uncertainty of the two veteran pitchers and spend half their totals elsewhere?
Remember that the Mets took on the last five years of Cano’s contract in a trade (while the Wilpons were still the owners) that is a cousin to what is being suggested here — it allowed them access to Edwin Diaz.
4. Evan Longoria
He is owed $24.5 million between his 2022 salary and 2023 buyout. At 36, he is still a good player who can defend third base. But would the Giants, say, want to use his dollars to help re-sign Kris Bryant?
Josh Donaldson is owed two years at $50 million and Minnesota would probably prefer to re-allocate his dollars, especially on pitching. Cincinnati is into payroll slashing and has two third basemen with Mike Moustakas (two years at $38 million) and Eugenio Suarez (three years at $35 million) coming off of poor seasons.
5. Justin Upton
In November 2017, rather than risk having Upton opt out, the Angels added one year onto the four seasons remaining on his contract. The GM who did that was Eppler. The additional year is the $28 million due in 2022. Eppler always liked Upton, but that was a previous version, not the one that has hit .210 over the last three injury-marred seasons.
He still has power. Could the Mets use him as a DH for a year if they could also get a prospect? Would the Angels — in a similar place as the Mets — be willing to give up a prospect to have more money to pursue pitching after already taking Aaron Loup and Noah Syndergaard away from the Mets?
Their current teams would love to be free of the contracts of two other past Eppler favorites — the Cubs’ Jason Heyward (two years, $44 million) and the Phillies’ Didi Gregorius (one year, $14.5 million).
A few more players/contracts team might be anxious enough to move to consider including a prospect as inducement: Houston starter Jake Odorizzi ($11.5 million), Cincinnati center fielder Shogo Akiyama ($8 million), St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas (two years, $31.5 million) and Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon (two years, $31 million).