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The picture you get of Billy Eppler, especially from people he worked with in the Yankees’ organization, where he essentially developed from scout to executive, is one of someone ideally qualified to be a GM.
That is, he’s said to be a smart guy with an eye for evaluating talent and also an understanding of the value of information in today’s game -- because he worked hard at it when analytics became a huge part of the decision-making process in the Bronx. All of that pairs with easygoing people skills that allow him to communicate effectively throughout an organization.
Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ VP of baseball operations who worked under Eppler for several years, described the Mets’ new GM-to-be this way:
“He’s an outstanding person and he’s always been very growth-minded,” Naehring said. “By that I mean it’s one thing to be open-minded to new concepts and theories, but it’s another thing to learn them and implement them -- to take them and grow as a professional by becoming a better evaluator, communicator, and leader.
“Billy came up through the scouting ranks, and once you evaluate, that becomes part of who you are. So even as he’s moved on, it’s nice that he can sit down behind the plate, have an understanding of what he’s seeing and have a total understanding of how to take what the eyes see and blend it with the analytics to write a report. I think all of that helps him in a leadership position when he’s gathering information, listening to opinions, and making decisions.”
It also makes Eppler sound like a great fit as the new GM in Queens, yet obviously a long list of potential candidates had to reject the Mets before they zeroed in on him as the guy they wanted.
And certainly nobody was proclaiming him to be a Theo Epstein-like savior for owner Steve Cohen coming into this offseason. Furthermore, Eppler was working on the agent side of the baseball industry, presumably because he didn’t have a lot of job offers from teams after he was fired by the Angels as their GM a year ago.
Five losing seasons in Anaheim with the best player in the sport, Mike Trout, playing in his prime years? Obviously baseball isn’t basketball, where one superstar can at least assure contention, but it didn’t look good.
Indeed, the presence of Trout, and then Shohei Ohtani, in addition to an owner, Arte Moreno, willing to spend money, created the perception that Eppler should have been able to find a way to make the Angels a contender.
As one team executive told me, “Hey, look, you can make a case that every GM in the game has qualities that make him right for the job. But that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t get results.
“I’m not knocking Billy Eppler. It’s well-known there were some difficult circumstances there with the owner. But when you don’t win for five years in a big market when it’s your first crack as a GM, that’s going to stick to you a little bit until you get another shot to change the narrative.”
It’s no secret that Eppler inherited a weak farm system and a top-heavy payroll that made it difficult to address the Angels’ shortage of quality pitching. Beyond that, sources close to the situation say that while Moreno spent money on players, he wasn’t willing to spend in other areas to build a well-rounded organization, in particular International scouting or analytics. That put Eppler at a disadvantage compared to other GMs.
Whatever the reasons, the Angels produced precious few homegrown players in recent years, especially on the pitching side. Meanwhile, with a win-now edict from Moreno, Eppler was forced to try to patch together pitching staffs via trades or free agency.
And on that count the GM certainly has to take some of the blame, for he didn’t find much value among the pitchers he acquired or signed, including the likes of Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez, Julio Teheran, Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, and Dylan Bundy.
“He had to take some gambles but he also didn’t get results,” one source in the Angels’ organization told me. “I know he would have preferred to develop young pitching, but he couldn’t take a step back because the expectations from the owner were to win every year.
“The organization hasn’t done a good job of developing pitchers, and Billy had to try and force things.”
Forcing things might not fully explain signing Harvey for $11 million going into the 2019 season, for example, but it surely spoke to Eppler’s desperation to find affordable pitching.
At the same time, sources say Moreno was very involved in at least some of the decision-making, in particular wanting to sign Anthony Rendon for $245 million two offseasons ago rather than spending on pitching (after losing out on Gerrit Cole to the Yankees).
In addition, Eppler inherited old-school manager Mike Scioscia, and had to wait three years to hire his own guy, Brad Ausmus, who was then fired after one season because Moreno insisted on bringing in Joe Maddon.
So Eppler did have some obstacles in Anaheim. How much they inhibited him from turning the Angels into a winner is hard to say specifically, but now he’ll get another opportunity to prove he can be a successful GM.
“I’m glad to see him get another shot,” the source in the Angels’ organization said. “He’s a good guy, a smart guy who I think didn’t know quite what he was getting into here and didn’t always know how to handle everything. I think the experience will make him a better GM.”
The Mets are counting on it as Eppler takes a job that demands he makes important decisions immediately, from hiring a manager to restocking the roster, especially the starting rotation after losing Noah Syndergaard to the Angels on Tuesday.
Yep, the most pressing issue for him is pitching, just as it was in Anaheim. This time, however, he’ll have Cohen’s money to work with as well as the owner’s apparent commitment to building a model organization, as Mets people say the owner has already significantly beefed up the analytics department and is a believer in having strong scouting.
The rest is up to Eppler. Will he prove to be the right choice as GM? Yankee people who know him best are convinced of it.
“I was pretty pumped up to hear that Billy got the job,” Naehring said. “I just think he’s got what it takes to be good at it: very good communicator, calm demeanor, good evaluator, tremendous work ethic. … he checks all the boxes.”
Well, not all. He can’t erase those five years in Anaheim. But he can sure make them irrelevant if he builds a winner in Queens.