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Danny Espinosa fills a gap for the Angels

They don’t have the trade chips to make a big splash, but the Angels are still finding ways to improve their roster.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

The pressure on the Angels to succeed while employing the best player of a generation is mounting. Either improve the team around Mike Trout and give him a chance to show his greatness in October, or trade him and rebuild your team with what would surely be an unprecedented haul of young talent. To continue to spin your wheels and field non-competitive teams would be a disservice to Trout, Angels’ fans, and really all of baseball. This is the task in front of Angels’ GM Billy Eppler: don’t let one of the greatest players of all time waste away on a bad team.

With a healthy payroll already weighed down under massive mistakes (the contracts of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton) from the not-so-distant past, it would be understandable if the Angels were gun shy about signing new free agents to huge contracts. Unfortunately their farm system, largely considered the worst in baseball, is far too thin to bring back a truly impact player. Hypothetically Brian Dozier would be a perfect fit in Anaheim, but they simply do not have the minor league talent to even begin trade conversations for a player as talented as him.

Those two impediments mean that Eppler’s only choice is to make incremental upgrades wherever he can. The two most glaring holes in Anaheim’s lineup over the past two seasons have been left field and second base. In one of the earliest moves of the offseason, the Angels acquired Cameron Maybin from the Tigers to take care of left field, and after a quiet week at MLB’s Winter Meetings, they have now addressed the need at second base.

The Nationals’ acquisition of Adam Eaton shifted Trea Turner back to shortstop and relegated Danny Espinosa to the bench. After Espinosa voiced his displeasure, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo acted quickly in shipping him to the west coast.

The move is a perfect example of a smart, incremental-but-valuable upgrade for the Angels. Espinosa is without a doubt the best player they will have had manning the keystone since Howie Kendrick was traded before the 2015 season. While Taylor Featherston, Gregorio Petit, and Cliff Pennington have all seen time at second base for the Angels in the past two seasons, let’s just compare Espinosa to the main player he’ll be replacing, Johnny Giavotella. Here’s a look at their respective 2016 seasons on offense.

G PA HR BB% K% Swing% (pfx) Contact% (pfx) AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+
Danny Espinosa 157 601 24 9.0% 29.0% 48.6% 68.7% .209 .306 .378 .169 .294 79
Johnny Giavotella 99 367 6 3.5% 10.6% 48.0% 84.4% .260 .287 .376 .116 .285 80

What’s most interesting is how similar Giavotella and Espinosa were in terms of pure offensive production, with wOBA and wRC+ marks that were almost identical. The difference lies in how they went about it. Giavotella almost never walks but makes a ton of contact without much power. Espinosa, on the other hand, has a very respectable walk rate that balances a terrible contact rate. Power is Espinosa’s calling card, and the source of most of his offensive value.

The distinction between the two players, and the main upgrade for the Angels, will be in the field. Defensive metrics should certainly not be treated as gospel, but in comparing the numbers both have amassed at second base in their careers, a clear difference in defensive skill is evident. You don’t need to drill down into these numbers to see the substantial upgrade that Espinosa represents.

Career Innings at 2B DRS UZR UZR/150
Danny Espinosa 4402.2 25 27 8.1
Johnny Giavotella 2814.1 -19 -16.7 -8.7

The Danny Espinosa-Andrelton Simmons double play combo should prove to be one of the best duos in baseball.

In 2016 the Angels’ second basemen combined for a total of -0.6 fWAR. If Espinosa can repeat or exceed his mark of 1.7 fWAR in 2017 – not an over-optimistic target, as Espinosa’s has a career seasonal fWAR of about 2.3 – Anaheim will have seen at least a two-win increase at the position. That’s a massive upgrade, and along with the improvement of left field thanks to Cameron Maybin, it’s a product of Eppler upgrading the fringes of his roster using only the minimal resources at his disposal.

Another incremental improvement at catcher along with healthy bounce-back seasons from Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, and Tyler Skaggs, and the Angels may actually be able to hang in the AL West race for most of 2017. Can they make the playoffs? Extremely doubtful, but Mike Trout is finally seeing the team around him get better, and that’s great news for him and for baseball fans everywhere.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Twins second baseman as Brain Dozier, which would be a pretty cool name, in fairness.

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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.