Billy Eppler begins his four-year contract as general manager of the New York Mets much like he began his five-year tenure in the same position for the Los Angeles Angels in 2016: with a minor league system bereft of prospects and a threadbare Major League pitching staff.
“Upon arrival in Anaheim there was this convergence of circumstances,” Eppler, 46, said during his introductory video call last week, accompanied by Mets owner Steve Cohen and club president Sandy Alderson. “We had this depleted farm system that [some observers] said was the worst [they’ve] ever seen. The lack of depth made us dip into free agency to fill multiple holes on the roster.”
Now compare that to where the Mets are situated. Their payroll going into what could be a chaotic off-season, plagued by a labor stalemate and a possible owner-induced lockout, is already about $185 million, according to Cohen, who’s beginning his second season as owner. Spotrac lists the Mets’ current commitments as $155.9 million to 37 players.
“And that’s without even signing anybody,” Cohen said. “If we’re going to find that right kind of talent, it’s either going to be in trades with other clubs or free agents. We don’t really have a lot in our farm system to supplement what we need. It’s going to require some spending. That’s what’s going to happen.”
While in Anaheim, Eppler spent plenty of owner Arte Moreno’s money—including Mike Trout’s 10-year, $360 million contract extension—only to see little return on the spending.
The Angels never had a .500 season under Eppler, who banked much of his reputation in 2018 on signing Japanese two-way player Shohei Ohtani, even with knowledge that Ohtani had a Grade 1 tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Ohtani had Tommy John surgery after his rookie season, never reaching fruition as a pitcher until this year, after Eppler was fired.
Ohtani had an all-world season in 2021 both on the mound and at the plate to win the AL MVP award in a unanimous vote. Eppler deserves some credit for his vision –even though the Angels still finished eight games under .500.
“Thanks for the congratulations,” Eppler said. “But they really [should] go to Shohei.”
Ohtani only made 12 pitching starts during Eppler’s time in Anaheim, none in 2019 and two during the COVID-abbreviated 2020, 60-game season. The Ohtani factor set back the entire Angels injury-prone pitching staff, which finished 22nd out of 32 teams in earned run average.
Now, spin it ahead to the Mets, heading into the 2022 season.
The young starting rotation that propelled New York into a five-game World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals in 2015 under Alderson’s guidance has been scattered to the winds. Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and now Noah Syndergaard are gone, with Syndergaard signing a one-year, $21 million free agent deal with the Angels after missing almost the entire last two seasons in New York because of his own Tommy John surgery.
Jacob deGrom, also a member of that 2015 staff, made no starts after July 7 on account of a mysterious shoulder injury. The Mets were interested in bringing Matz back as a free agent before he reportedly signed Wednesday with St. Louis for four years at $44 million.
“I look at the roster and definitely want to address the pitching,” Eppler said. “After having Noah sign somewhere else I just want to reinforce the overall depth. We’ll have the economic resources. That won’t be an issue. I think you can walk away from this knowing we’re going to be aggressive, and we’re going to address the pitching, along with the infield and the outfield. All of the above.”
Eppler has all that on his plate. He also must find a manager to replace the deposed Luis Rojas, who’s now the new third base coach for the New York Yankees.
In Anaheim, Eppler inherited Mike Scioscia, who chose to step down when his long-term contract expired. Brad Ausmus, Eppler’s hand-chosen replacement, was fired after one season and replaced by Joe Maddon, who cut his deal with Moreno.
When Eppler was longtime Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s assistant, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi were the managers.
Eppler knows the pressures of managing in New York, and that choice will be his first and most significant for the long-term success and health of the franchise. Like many of his contemporaries, Eppler comes from an analytics-based perspective, although he said that “watching how a player responds or behaves to game situations can never be evaluated through the analytic platform.” He most recently worked on the talent side of the table as a partner at WME Sports.
Old school or new school, or a combination of both?
“I’d love to find somebody that checks every box,” Eppler said.
Cohen hopes he has found that in Eppler, who said he wants “to build a culture that’s an inclusive and collaborative environment, defined by high operational standards.”
He’s the Mets’ third general manager since Cohen bought the club. The first, Jared Porter, was fired by the club and is suspended by Major League Baseball through 2022 because of making unwanted and explicit sexual advances to a female reporter while he was with the Chicago Cubs. His replacement, Zack Scott, was let go after being charged with a DUI.
Eppler had his own track record in Anaheim. Under his watch, the Angels hired former Mets manager Mickey Callaway as pitching coach under Maddon. Callaway was fired by the Angels, and like Porter, is suspended by MLB through the 2022 season following a sexual harassment investigation into reports of his lewd behavior toward female reporters.
Pitcher Tyler Skaggs died during the 2019 season from an oxycodone overdose, and it was later determined an Angels employee was supplying the drugs. Eric Kay, once an Angels communications director, is under federal indictment, and the case is still pending.
Eppler declined to go into any detail.
“The Angel organization has been asked and has answered for it,” Eppler said. “There’s not anything more specific I can add today.”
Considering those circumstances, Alderson said Eppler was the only candidate for the GM position to receive an offer this off-season from the Mets after an exhaustive vetting process. He will report directly to Alderson.
“Well, we’ve done our due diligence,” Cohen said, when asked about what happened under Eppler’s watch with the Angels. “It’s an organization, and Billy was just one person in that organization. We vetted it in multiple ways. We spoke to a lot of people who were around the organization at that time. We spoke to people from within baseball, and we’re incredibly comfortable with Billy, his decision-making, his ethics and his integrity.”