Angels' uphill climb just got even tougher

The Los Angeles Angels are a big-market ballclub, with all that entails. A big payroll? Mission accomplished -- they're spending almost $146 million on players this season, seventh-most in MLB. They've made big commitments to more than a few big stars. And with all that comes big expectations, which you'd expect -- no, demand -- from the team that employs Mike Trout, the best player in baseball.

Ask Billy Eppler about the pressure of those responsibilities, of trying to win now and to do it while the Angels have Trout wearing a Halo over the next five seasons, and the general manager was frank: "Everybody here feels that urgency to win."

Which is fine, but the Angels have made it to the postseason only once in the past five seasons. It isn't going to get any easier with the news that they might lose perhaps their two best young arms in the rotation, with elbow trouble afflicting Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney. If both end up needing Tommy John surgeries, that would take them out of the picture for more than just this season.

It's especially tough news for an organization that, on paper, thought it had good rotation depth. The equally promising Tyler Skaggs is rehabbing from his own Tommy John surgery in August 2014 and was expected back in big-league action this season, but last weekend he was shut down in the minors because of biceps tendinitis. Veteran lefty C.J. Wilson was recently transferred to the 60-day DL as he rehabs a shoulder injury; he might be back in June, if then.

"I kind of walked in knowing we're going to be using eight [starters], and more often than not you're going to end up using 11," Eppler told ESPN.com. "I like the eight names we have to talk about in the rotation, but we have another one right now in Triple-A in Nate Smith."

Smith, 24, was an eighth-rounder out of Furman in 2013; he has a 3.79 ERA in six starts at Triple-A Salt Lake, with a 31-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 2/3 innings pitched. A lefty with a broad assortment, he projects more as a No. 4 starter -- which sounds pretty good right now with the starting staff in shreds. But he hardly sounds like a solution to a franchise whose problems are bigger than just fixing this one season.

If you thought Eppler's job as the Angels' new general manager wasn't already tough enough, it just got a lot tougher. Remember, Eppler took over an organization with $160 million committed to Albert Pujols through 2021 and almost $53 million to Josh Hamilton -- who was traded to the Texas Rangers last season -- through 2017. That's on top of the $138 million committed to Trout through 2020. So at least initially, Eppler inherited a roster with the biggest big-ticket items already locked in.

In joining the Angels from the high-expectation, big-market New York Yankees, Eppler also came into a situation where his predecessor, Jerry Dipoto, lost out on a midseason power struggle with manager Mike Scioscia. A big source of that clash involved process, namely how the organization would use data to inform front-office decisions as well as on-field adjustments. And changing that part of the Angels' institutional culture is something Eppler takes seriously.

"When I got over here and had a chance to start putting together a front office and getting to know our coaching staff, one of the things that I wanted to see happen was a lot more integration between the front office and the coaches," Eppler told ESPN.com. "From the front office to player development, and from the front office to pro scouting. And we started having these collective meetings, one by one and department by department.

"And then started building an analytics department here."

That gives you a sense of the magnitude of the culture shift Eppler has taken on. You don't want to be playing catch-up on this front in an industry where Moneyball is more than a decade out of date and the competitive ecology of the game has never been less forgiving.

"Data has to be actionable. One of the expressions I kept using, was 'Analytics can be very powerful if used properly,' " Eppler stressed. "So I took almost the approach with our staffers, where we just need to educate. You're going to be around this information, it's out there, there's so much available. So we needed to start from, 'We need to educate, here's what's important to us.' "

Now, bundle that culture shift with the understandable need to evaluate his front office from the executive suite to every area scout on a beat and to assess everyone in the organization on their own merit, and you get a sense of the magnitude of Eppler's task. Much as the Chicago Cubs didn't make all of their changes within the organization the instant Theo Epstein held his first news conference, Eppler's heavy lifting has only just begun.

"We've been taking the very pragmatic approach of just seeing how we do things and what the processes that have been in place and then pivot off of those as necessary," Eppler said, which makes sense when you're talking about the hundreds of people an organization employs.

The trouble is, right now on the field the Angels don't really have a core you can talk about in the long term. Trout is simultaneously the longest-tenured Angels position player on the Angels and -- at 24 years old -- their youngest. Sure, Pujols is 36, but right fielder Kole Calhoun is already 28. Guys like C.J. Cron and Johnny Giavotella might seem as if they just got here, but they're in that 26-28 age range that tells you their future is now -- or never.

If the Angels are going to win in the next five years that they have Trout on the roster, they're going to have to make quick decisions as well. And Eppler gets that.

"I've been around winning, and I'm addicted to it," Eppler said, talking about his experience with the Yankees' front office and the duty he feels to the players in his charge, and to Angels fans. "I don't think I could live in an environment where we weren't committed to winning year-in, year-out. I want Albert to experience it again, and I want Albert to experience it here. I want Mike to experience it. I want Kole Calhoun to experience it, I want Andrelton [Simmons] to experience it, I want all these guys to experience that. It's my obligation to them, and it's my obligation to the people in the hats."

It's a great sentiment, and if acted upon, might ultimately have us talking about what a great GM Eppler has been a decade from now. Call it telling or simply pragmatic that he didn't name a starting pitcher in that list. Because right now, with a pitching staff in ruins, the Angels' rebuild might not wait until next winter, when the contracts of Wilson and Jered Weaver come off the books, and $40 million -- a quarter of the current payroll -- goes back into the till.

Now, with Richards and Heaney potentially out of the current conversation, the rebuild starts. Next winter, Eppler will have money with which to play and the time to have rebuilt an organization to serve not his needs. But it will take more than money to fix the Angels if they're going to live up to the expectations -- from fans, from Arte Moreno, the man signing the checks, and of themselves.

But the payroll commitments are daunting enough as far as what the Angels can deliver now. As one scout who covers the AL West observed, the Angels "really tied their hands payroll-wise once they decided they didn't want to go over the luxury tax threshold. I tend to think that [Eppler is] doing the best he can working around the limitations, and I admire the creativity. They have so much money tied up in Albert and Hamilton that they need a bunch of guys on the cheap to make it all work."

"One of our expressions here is, how do we squeeze more juice out of the orange?" Eppler responded, suggesting the Angels can't just spend their way out of trouble. "That's the overriding challenge in all of our departments. Amateur scouting or pro, international scouting or the big-league club, let's get bang for the buck, let's go."

"The division was already going to be tough with Texas and Houston clear favorites, and Seattle looking better," the scout observed, before addressing some of Eppler's low-cost roster tweaks this winter, like trading for Yunel Escobar and building a (now-injured) platoon to cover left field in Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry. "I think the idea was to create roster flexibility and good platoons to build around the core and give it their best shot. Hard to pull off, but I didn't think it was crazy preseason to suggest they would be competitive. But Wilson's setbacks and Heaney's injury already really changed that outlook quickly."

With expectations for this season already sinking, the challenge for Eppler and for the Angels -- to live up to their responsibility to get themselves and Trout back into the postseason -- is deciding where do they go from here. It's a big-market job that just became an even bigger challenge than the one Eppler initially signed up for, and just as turning around an organization's culture overnight was going to be slow going, it's not any easier on the field where progress is immediately measured in wins and losses.