With pitchers and catchers due to report to Spring Training this week, the race to find the next ace for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is about to heat up.
Typically a strength in Anaheim, it was the Angels’ pitching staff that set an ominous tone at the start of the 2009 season.
John Lackey injured his shoulder just weeks before Opening Day. Ervin Santana was sidelined after straining his forearm early on in Spring Training. Kelvim Escobar, in his haste to fill the Angels’ rapidly depleting staff, suffered further setbacks in his recovery from shoulder surgery.
And of course, barely three games into the year, rookie stud Nick Adenhart was killed in a tragic drunk driving incident.
Questions hung heavy alongside grief around the mound at the Big A.
This year, the grief has subsided but questions still remain.
Lackey returned last season to anchor an Angels staff that essentially lacked a fifth starter for much of the year. He was so successful, in fact, the Boston Red Sox rewarded him with a brand new five-year deal this offseason.
With their ace on his way to Fenway, the Angels were involved in numerous trade and free agent rumors throughout the Winter Meetings and beyond.
But despite making a very public push, Angels GM Tony Reagins failed to acquire either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, the two biggest names on the trade block. It wasn’t until mid-January that he was finally able to strike a deal with what looks to be the next best option.
Joel Pineiro, a key part of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation last year and a veteran of the AL West after spending several seasons with the Seattle Mariners, will return to the American League to round out the Angels’ starting staff.
Now, with a veteran hurler thrown into a decidedly youthful mix headed up by Jered Weaver, the Angels look to sport one of the strongest starting rotations top to bottom in all of baseball.
Take a look at how the how the Angels’ starting pitchers will shake out in 2010.
1. Jered Weaver
In 2008, after yet another injury to Lackey, the Angels handed Opening Day honors to a 25-year-old Weaver.
The responsibility may have been too great as Weaver lost to the Twins in Minnesota, but the move showed just how highly thought-of he was in the eyes of Angels brass, who picked the youngster over veteran and World Series champ Jon Garland.
This time around, Weaver is two years older, two years wiser, and has established himself as a legitimate, front-of-the-rotation threat on the mound.
Despite his 6’7” frame, he lacks an overpowering fastball, which tops out at a meager 90-91 MPH. Contemporaries like Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander routinely hit those speeds with changeups.
But what Weaver lacks in power, he makes up for in intelligence and mound presence.
His delivery is a study in the art of deception. Winding up, Weaver is all arms and legs as he comes off the mound, hiding the ball behind his lanky body until just before the moment of release.
In doing so, he takes full advantage of his bland fastball by sneaking in his plus off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance.
Like Lackey before him, Weaver is also an intense competitor who has learned to harness his emotions and use them to bear down when times are tough on the field.
He showed uncommon poise in the face of adversity in 2009, and walked away with career highs in wins (16), strikeouts (174), complete games (4), and shutouts (2).
Weaver is the ideal candidate to lead this Angels rotation, not just in 2010, but potentially for years to come.
2. Scott Kazmir
After featuring a nearly endless string of substitutes and rookies at the No. 5 spot, the Angels finally made a move to bring strength and stability to their rotation.
In mid-August, they acquired Kazmir, ace of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Despite being just 25 years old at the time of the trade, Kazmir is an unquestioned veteran in the Major Leagues, including leading his squad to its first AL East championship, American League championship, and Word Series appearance.
Kazmir struggled mightily with Tampa early in 2009, but was a revelation for the Angels during his brief regular season stint out West, though his playoff performances were far less impressive.
His fastball lost some zip last season, but it remains the centerpiece of his repertoire, which also features a revitalized slider.
Ironically, the only knock against the left-handed pitcher is his tendency to throw too many pitches.
Kazmir often hits the century mark on his pitch count by the fifth or sixth inning, putting more pressure on the Angels’ bullpen to pick up those crucial outs in the middle of games.
Given Kazmir’s age, however, there is plenty of time for him to improve on all aspects of his game. And under the watchful eye of pitching coach Mike Butcher, who worked with Kaz for a season in Tampa, he’ll look to do just that.
3. Ervin Santana
This was an extremely difficult decision. The No. 3 spot in the rotation is hardly the most critical, but with two former All-Stars and a talented veteran in the mix, it was tough to leave anyone out.
In the end, it came down to which man had the best stuff, and when he is on, Santana is one of the best pitchers in the game.
In just his second start in the Major Leagues, Santana hurled a five-hit, complete-game shutout of the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox.
Since then, however, he has struggled to find consistency on the mound, often having one good game then one bad, one memorable month then one to forget.
In 2008, it looked as though he had found his stride, making his first All-Star team and pitching admirably for much of the season. But a forearm strain delayed his 2009 debut and when he finally made it back to the mound, it took him weeks before he was effective again.
This year, barring any setbacks in Spring Training, look for Santana to return to his All-Star form.
His fastball routinely reaches 95-96 MPH and is backed by a devastating off-speed combination reminiscent of Francisco Rodriguez. The only question left to be answered is how his mental status will hold up through the season.
If he can repeat his 2008 performance, Santana could easily move up the pitching depth chart, and fast.
4. Joel Pineiro
The veteran righty who first made a name for himself with the Seattle Mariners has finally returned to the AL West.
After Halladay and Lee, Pineiro was the best name left on the pitching market and the Angels did well to secure his services. Injuries hampered much of his career with the Cardinals, but in 2009 he showed what he can do with a clean bill of health.
Pineiro accrued a 3.49 ERA, his highest mark since 2002 with the Mariners, and picked up 15 wins, one shy of his career best in 2003.
He also featured the best ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the Majors last year, a result of his newly acquired sinking two-seam fastball that has turned him into a contact pitcher.
Despite moving back to the offense-heavy American League, Pineiro’s ability to force opponents to hit the ball on the ground should prove effective with the Angels’ stellar defense there to back him up.
But perhaps his greatest asset to this team will be his experience. Pineiro has been on good and bad teams, pitched injured and healthy, and helped multiple squads reach the postseason.
No matter what situations may arise for this mostly young pitching staff, Pineiro will be there to help guide his new mound mates through thick and thin.
5. Joe Saunders
It seems odd that the man who opened the 2009 season for the Halos should be relegated to the fifth spot just a year later.
But rest assured, his placement is more of a testament to the overall strength of this rotation than a personal knock against Saunders.
Coming off an All-Star year, Saunders was nearly flawless over the first month and a half, including an incredible 1-0 victory over Zack Greinke and the Kansas City Royals.
However, it proved to be a cruel summer for Saunders. He spent the next three months searching in vain for the form he began with, and it wasn’t until late August that he would find it.
The key to Saundo’s game is pinpoint accuracy. His stuff isn’t the most overpowering or most deceptive in the league. But when he spots his fastball and is able to work in his change and curve, there are few in the league who are tougher to face.
When he doesn’t, the big lefty’s pitches tend to hang over the middle of the plate. Last year, those mistakes lead to a career-high 29 home runs surrendered.
Again, though, much of that failure came in those long summer months in the middle of the season.
Like Santana, if he can find the consistency he showed in 2008, Saunders will be a major threat to invade the top of this rotation.