As someone who busted their sabermetric chops watching the Yankees of 2013-16, I think I’m pretty adept at reading through the lines of a Billy Eppler move, who was the chief architect of a lot of the trades and acquisitions that have made the Yankees recently successful.
The Angels are not as equally successful, largely because of their incredibly weak farm system and poor pitching pipeline, but they still have enough pieces to reasonably contend in the fraught AL West. If the Athletics could come out of left field last season, a team with the best player on the planet is never truly out of the conversation.
Eppler and the Angels made a minor move a couple of days ago that probably signals something a bit larger, the signing of Justin Bour to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. That seems like basically nothing at all, right? Sure, until you think for one second that Bour plays two positions (first base and designated hitter), and the Angels already have two of those in Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani.
To start the season, Ohtani will still be recovering from his Tommy John surgery but will be ready to swing a bat a month or two into the season, meaning that Bour will face right-handed pitching, as he has clubbed a 129 wRC+ against right-handers in his career. That means at least in the early going, Pujols will face lefties, which one would assume even he has some advantage against. Well. Ha. He had a .290 wOBA against left-handers last season, and .267 in the year previous.
I’ll never forget the two times I saw Pujols in person. One was back in 2010 (remember, I watched mostly AL games, so seeing him at the newly minted Citi Field was kind of a big deal), when I remember noting to myself that I was seeing one of the best hitters and players ever at the height of his career. Through 2010, he had a career 172 OPS+ and averaged 8.1 rWAR per season. Since then, he has a 117 OPS+ and averaged just 2.3 rWAR per season, totaling just 0.1 over his last three seasons and 1784 plate appearances.
It means that despite the fact he has three years and a whopping $87 million left on his deal, there isn’t really a precedent for a team eating that much. Eppler likely remembers cutting ties with Alex Rodriguez, and even he produced an average 4.5 rWAR per season with the Yankees, and even he put together a three-win season before packing his bags and the Yankees eating what was left of his two years and ~$40 million.
Eating double that seems inconceivable, and yet signing Bour only signals that if he hits, Pujols could get the very same treatment. The money, as we know, is a sunk cost, and if Pujols continues to decline, which is a sure bet, then even Bour’s projection of 1.4 fWAR per 600 plate appearances per Steamer makes a big difference when Pujols is projected to be a 96 wRC+ hitter and replacement level.
And with Ohtani returning to grab even more DH at-bats, the only saving grace for Pujols is if Bour flat-lines given the low salary. Yet there’s only so bad he could be next to Pujols. As sad as that is, a team with about the same AL Pennant odds as the Rays (25/1), every small advantage matters. If it happens to mean sunsetting one of the best players in baseball history and one of the worst contracts at that, Eppler and the Angels seem prepared to maneuver around it.