Angels fate rests with pitchers

Staying atop the division requires better luck and production from the staff

Updated: February 3, 2010, 9:24 PM ET
By Mark Saxon |

John Lackey's cross-country flight to New England leaves a cold draft running through the Angels' rotation, but this team can't obsess over replacing Lackey's production. The Angels can't afford to pitch as well as they did last year -- they have to pitch better.

After five straight seasons finishing in the top five in the American League in ERA, the Angels slid to ninth last year, the staff ERA ballooning to 4.45. Every other team in AL West out-pitched them.

But you have to cut pitching coach Mike Butcher a little slack. The season turned into an endless series of obstacles, from the tragic to the trivial. Within a week of Opening Day, premium prospect Nick Adenhart died in a car crash hours after his best major league start.

Adenhart's death hit his teammates hard, particularly Jered Weaver, who was set to share his Long Beach apartment with him. It also left the rotation with only four proven starters, a hole that wouldn't be filled until the Angels traded for Scott Kazmir four months later.

Injuries to Lackey, Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders made it a season of constant turmoil for Butcher and manager Mike Scioscia. A struggling bullpen, with ace set-up man Scot Shields bothered by knee tendinitis, further roiled the Angels' pitching woes.

If the Angels are going to stay atop their division, they'll have to have better luck and production from a veteran staff. Their only winter additions were starter Joel Pineiro (two years, $16 million) and reliever Fernando Rodney (two years, $11 million), iffy replacements for Lackey and Darren Oliver.

Since last September, aces Cliff Lee, Ben Sheets and Rich Harden all have joined other AL West teams. It figures to be harder to score out West this season, so the Angels turn again to the men on the mound.


The Angels won't just miss Lackey's outs, they'll miss his swagger.

It's a rare starting pitcher who can become a team leader, because he only contributes every fifth day. Lackey, with a laid-back, friendly demeanor in the clubhouse and a fiery presence on the mound, fit the bill.

None of the Angels' remaining starters has the look of an ace. Weaver was the closest thing the Angels had to one last year while Lackey was working through an early season forearm strain. With improving off-speed pitches, Weaver dramatically increased his strikeout ability and finished in the top 10 in the AL in ERA, wins and strikeouts.

Saunders was a different man when he was healthy, a good reason why he probably shouldn't keep his next injury a secret. Saunders concealed some shoulder tightness from Angels trainers for about a month. After he gave it a three-week rest on the disabled list, he returned to go 6-0 with a 2.55 ERA after Aug. 25. Before that, he was 10-7 with a 5.33 ERA. Saunders, who relies on a hard sinker, should benefit from a solid Angels infield, led by flashy shortstop Erick Aybar.

A good infield was one of the things that tempted Pineiro to sign in Anaheim. After learning to rely on his sinker, which he said he throws 95 percent of the time, Pineiro thinks he can rediscover success in the American League. Things weren't going so well when he left Seattle after the 2006 season. Pineiro allowed 209 hits in 165 1/3 innings in his final year with the Mariners.

Acquiring Kazmir looked wise when he posted a 1.73 ERA in his six final starts after the trade, but it looked dicey after Kazmir was hit hard in two playoff starts. The Angels hope Kazmir can keep his mechanics together and avoid the minor injuries that caused him to have a 5.92 ERA at the time of the late-August trade.

There's a reason Kazmir was able to clear waivers -- other teams weren't willing to take on a pitcher with his numbers and $24 million remaining on his contract. If Kazmir continues to regress, that trade could become an albatross approaching the Gary Matthews Jr. signing.

Ervin Santana took a big backward step off a 2008 All-Star season, but he can blame an early season elbow injury that sapped his velocity and caused his slider to flatten. Even when Santana was healthy, the Angels weren't confident enough in him to use him in their postseason rotation. If he avoids aches and pains this spring and regains his high-90s velocity, Santana could be the surprise boost this Angels' rotation could use.


Reporters might not even wait until Opening Day to begin a closer controversy. It could become an issue when pitchers and catchers show up in two weeks.

For a man who led the league in saves, Brian Fuentes inspired little confidence in those who watched him. It wasn't just the media and fans. By the end of the season, Scioscia only allowed Fuentes into ninth-inning save situations that featured favorable matchups. Fuentes was OK in the playoffs, but he allowed a game-tying 11th-inning home run to Alex Rodriguez in Game 2 of the ALCS that may have sealed the Angels' fate in that series.

Though he's entering only his second full season, Kevin Jepsen looks like he might soon be ready to take over as the closer. There were stretches, particularly after he started throwing a cut fastball around midseason, that Jepsen looked as menacing as any AL reliever. He routinely pitches in the upper 90s and he allowed just two home runs in 54 2/3 innings.

If knee surgery cleaned up the tendinitis that was bothering Shields, the Angels' bullpen has a chance to return to dominance. Shields was one of the game's most underrated players from 2005 to 2008 while working in a setup role. He wasn't the same guy last year. His velocity was down and his command was a mess. Shields, 35, hopes to be fully healthy by the start of spring training.

Other than Fuentes, the Angels won't have a left-handed reliever. That's not uncommon for one of Scioscia's teams. He has always favored stocking up on hard throwers rather than using a roster spot for a left-handed specialist. Given his track record with bullpens, it's hard to second-guess Scioscia on that one.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for

Mark Saxon
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.