The Angels, like so many other teams, will enter spring training searching — for a shutdown relief corps, a third-base solution, a lineup configuration that can feature both Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols without compromising the younger player’s development.
And again they’ll look for a viable rotation, one they’ll hope this time won’t spontaneously combust.
They’ve already found a legitimate candidate in right-hander Felix Peña, whose first season with steady turns in a major-league rotation ended this week in a no-decision in the Angels’ extra-innings win over the Rangers on Monday. Peña, 28, will not get another start despite falling in line for the season finale. The Angels will go with Matt Shoemaker on Sunday instead.
Just as well. Peña will still arrive in Arizona for spring training to audition for a permanent role in the rotation, Angels general manager Billy Eppler said.
“We like what we’ve seen and we’re encouraged that he can build upon this season and take it into 2019,” Eppler said.
Peña, acquired from the Cubs last October, has shown the Angels enough in his 90 innings as a starter and the total 126 innings he’s thrown between stints in Anaheim and triple-A Salt Lake.
Of late, he’s been especially dominant. Toss out a six-run performance Sept. 19 against the playoff-bound Athletics, whom the Angels defeated 8-5 at Angel Stadium on Friday night to extend a late-season surge for a .500 record, and Pena’s numbers for September are encouraging: In his first three starts this month, he allowed four runs (three earned) over 20 innings. He allowed just three earned runs on five hits over seven innings Monday. Opponents batted just .221 in those four outings.
This time a year ago, Peña was languishing in the Cubs’ bullpen with a 5.24 ERA compiled over 25 appearances. He was headed back to his native Dominican Republic, unsure what his career held. He’d once been a starter toiling in the Cubs farm system, which he joined as a 19-year-old in 2009, but he hadn’t pitched in a rotation since his 2015 season. He made his major-league debut as a reliever in August 2016 and spent last season shuttling between Chicago’s bullpen and the Cubs’ triple-A affiliate.
When the Angels acquired him on Oct. 9, 2017, Peña felt rejuvenated.
“I thank the Cubs for giving me a chance to play in the big leagues but I don’t think they gave me a chance to show everything I had,” Peña said in Spanish. “Thanks to God [the Angels] have given me a chance to show what I can do.”
He was invited to Angels spring training in February as a reliever, but by the end of camp had inspired Eppler and his staff to send Peña to work as a starter in Salt Lake. Injuries that forced the Angels to use 16 starting pitchers this season opened a path for Peña to ditch being a long reliever in the big leagues.
Maybe now he will ditch it for the long haul.
“I reminisced with him [this week] about the conversation in Dodger Stadium at the end of spring training where we told him he wasn’t making the team and told him we wanted him to go down to triple A to start,” Eppler said. “The look on his face was something I’ll always remember. It was bright-eyed. He almost asked to repeat what we just said. … He deserves all the credit for being open minded and embracing it.”
Although he wields an arsenal with a mid-90s fastball and secondary pitches that help him control tempo, confidence in his sinker has helped propel Peña. He learned the pitch in the offseason, when he worked with a local pitching coach in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. He hesitated to adopt the sinker at first. He often fumbled throwing it during spring training. But when he was sent to Salt Lake to start the season, he brought it back.
“It was in some game situations, I would try it and see if I could get a ground ball,” Peña said. “I saw that it was working. I thought, well, I think this is gonna be the pitch that’s going to make me a better pitcher.”
Peña, of course, doesn’t have it all figured out. He still posted a 4.18 ERA and allowed opponents to hit .247 in 19 games with the Angels. When he turns 29 in February, he’ll have to prove his worth at Angels camp in Tempe, Ariz., all over again.
But he thinks he’s earned a chance to be taken seriously as a starter, the role he most commonly played in the minor leagues before the Cubs decided his arsenal was better suited to the bullpen. So too does Eppler.