In the no-stress stage of the baseball season that is spring training, the Angels’ Huston Street and Joe Smith sometimes seem like co-stars in a buddy comedy.
They complete each other’s sentences and high-five when they do: “See, that’s why we get along.”
They creep up on each other’s interviews. They wind down with card games.
Street, the 32-year-old closer, and Smith, the 31-year-old setup man, are the two men the Angels will rely on to finish games in 2016. They are known quantities: Between them, they’ve pitched 20 big league seasons and never recorded a single-season earned-run average above 3.86.
The relative unknown remains Mike Morin, the 24-year-old right-hander who entered the spring as the preferred seventh-inning setup man. That makes him, by some measures, the most important man in their bullpen.
“I feel like almost everybody has two guys in the back end, if it’s gonna be a successful team,” Smith said. “If you get that third guy in a bullpen that you can just hand the ball off to and not worry about righty-lefty, it makes the end of the game just go so smooth. You know what’s coming, and it’s so nice to have.”
The Angels had that third guy for the second half of 2014, and even a fourth, when they paired right-handers Kevin Jepsen and Jason Grilli with Street and Smith. Both left in the winter, to be replaced by Morin and rookie right-hander Trevor Gott.
Presented with a surplus of sorts this off-season and lacking infielders, the Angels chose Morin over Gott. They dealt Gott to the Washington Nationals for Yunel Escobar, whom they plan to play at third base this season. Gott throws harder and halved his ERA in 2015, but Morin offers better peripheral statistics and a true-plus pitch in his darting changeup.
Asked how good the pitch was this spring, Smith asked back: “Have you seen how people swing at it?”
“He throws it to the best hitters in the world and they just look stupid,” Smith said. “It’s what, 70 miles an hour? And then he’ll rip a 95-mph fastball right behind it.”
Scott Radinsky, a former big league reliever and the Angels’ new bullpen coach, quickly offered a comparison.
“Trevor Hoffman,” Radinsky said. “That ability to slow it down makes everything else that much better. It’s a big-time equalizer. If you describe pitching, it’s disrupting timing. What better way to disrupt timing than slowing it down dramatically with command, action and arm speed?”
Radinsky said the rest of the bullpen will also need to contribute if the Angels are to be successful. Some combination of Fernando Salas, Cam Bedrosian and Al Alburquerque must provide additional right-handed depth.
“It doesn’t have to be the depth that the Yankees have, or Kansas City,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “That’s mega-depth. But you need more than three guys who will hold leads.”
Morin said he was unhappy with the 6.37 ERA he finished with last year. His teammates said he didn’t need to be.
“I wasn’t happy with my year either,” Smith said. “Obviously, he wants to get better, which is good, but his stuff is there. It was just bad luck.”
This winter, Street lent Morin his in-season home in Sunset Beach, steps away from the Pacific. Morin stayed there for more than a month, along with ex-Angel Mark Sappington, his longtime best friend from his Kansas City home who now pitches for Tampa Bay.
They took advantage of the weather to throw outside often and took up yoga, building up core strength. An oblique strain cost Morin more than a month in 2015. He cannot afford that in 2016.
Over the off-season, utility infielder Cliff Pennington drew interest from multiple teams that wanted to make him a hybrid reliever and utility position player. He considered those opportunities, including one with the Dodgers, but opted to sign with the Angels when they offered two years and a chance to compete for the starting second-base job. Pennington appeared on the mound for Toronto during an AL Championship Series blowout last season and wowed with a 91-mph fastball and an actual changeup. … First baseman Albert Pujols is unrestricted in his defensive drill work, although the Angels are monitoring his progress more than others. Pujols is recovering from November foot surgery and wants to be ready for opening day.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura