Durability of rotation will be crucial for Angels to succeed

Angels rotation needs to be durable for team to do well

If the Angels rotation can withstand the rigors of a grueling 162-game season the way it held up to scrutiny this spring, it should be a strength for a team that begins defense of its American League West title against the Seattle Mariners on Monday.

Jered Weaver will take the ball in Safeco Field for his seventh opening-day start, most in franchise history, and he will not blow away the Mariners with his fastball. Velocity isn't Weaver's thing. You know it. He knows it. The American people know it.

Weaver's fastball averaged 86.3 mph in 2014, nearly 6 mph slower than the major league average of 92.1 mph. He averaged 86.5 mph in 2013 and 87.8 mph in 2012. He was a combined 49-22 with a 3.24 earned-run average in those three seasons.

"I don't really pay attention to velocity," Weaver, 32, said. "A big part of my game has been keeping guys off-balance with my curve and changeup, trying to miss barrels, making pitches when I need to and trying to out-think the other guy."

Scouts believe less velocity leaves less margin for error. Weaver's mistakes can be hit hard, as the career-high 27 home runs he gave up last season show. But Weaver doesn't make many mistakes, and hitters often look silly flailing at his off-speed pitches.

Weaver also competes. He has the stuff of a craftsman and mentality of a pitbull, a combination that continues to make him one of baseball's best pitchers, even if his name rarely comes up in that conversation.

"That really baffles me, because I think the velocity he pitched with when he won 20 games a couple years ago was probably a little less than what he ended up with last year," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Weav is a legitimate No. 1, even with the attrition of pitching for as long as he has."

C.J. Wilson has better pure stuff than Weaver, a lively 91-mph fastball, slider, curve, changeup and cut-fastball. But the left-hander is coming off his worst season as a starter, when he was 13-10 with a 4.51 ERA.

Wilson's control problems — he walked 85 in 175 2/3 innings last season — left him susceptible to big innings. But he worked hard over the off-season to smooth out his delivery, he pitched well this spring, and Scioscia believes he'll bounce back.

"I think he's throwing the ball as well as I've seen him throw," Scioscia said. "I think a lot of the second-half issues from health to consistency to release point have been resolved. I look for a big year from C.J."

The question for Matt Shoemaker: Can he replicate a superb season in which he seemingly came out of nowhere to finish 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA and end up second in AL rookie-of-the-year voting?

Catcher Chris Iannetta doesn't see why not. Shoemaker, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, has a track record of durability, averaging 181 innings over the last four seasons, even if three were in the minor leagues.

And he didn't change from 2013 to 2014. His stuff — a 91-mph fastball, slider, curve and an often devastating split-fingered fastball — just played better in major league parks at sea level than it did in high-altitude Salt Lake.

"What Shoe does is pretty simple," Iannetta said. "He throws strikes and gets ahead. The only way he'll have any type of regression is if he loses command."

Added Scioscia: "It's not like he made any adjustments or stepped up, he just got the opportunity and proved he can do it. He doesn't have to throw 2 mph harder because all of a sudden people know who Matt Shoemaker is. He's going to pitch his game and hopefully have similar results."

Hector Santiago will open as the No. 4 starter, but the return of Garrett Richards from left-knee surgery will push Santiago to the fifth spot, often the weak link of a rotation.

But Santiago, who throws a fastball, slider, cut-fastball, changeup and screwball, showed last season he can be an asset, rebounding from an 0-7, 4.44 ERA start with a 6-2 record and 3.32 ERA in 19 games after June 22.

"That fifth spot is big," Iannetta said. "You don't need them to throw a shutout every game, but if you can be consistent, eat up some innings and give us a chance to win every night, then we'll be in a good spot."

The Angels could be in a very good spot if the hard-throwing Richards, who emerged as one of baseball's best pitchers in 2014, returns fully from surgery for a ruptured patellar tendon. The 18 scoreless innings he has thrown in three minor league and intrasquad games is an indication he could.

Richards will pitch again in Arizona on Thursday and should begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment April 14. He is expected back by late April.

"We're excited about where he is," Scioscia said. "The stuff is there. His arm looks great."

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