That’s great news for the Angels’ future. But this is their present: The Angels still lack the starting rotation depth necessary to be a formidable playoff contender. That’s a discouraging sign for a team that has spent three seasons in a row suffering through injuries to starting pitchers.
An argument could be made that general manager Billy Eppler took strides to shore up the weakest part of the Angels’ roster. He signed veterans Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill in hopes they’ll assemble bounce-back campaigns. He also indicated to top pitching prospect Griffin Canning that all he needs to do to get his first major league call-up is perform well at triple-A.
The Angels can go only as far as their starting pitching carries them, though. They’re already behind: Left-hander Andrew Heaney, the only Angels starter to pitch 30 games in 2018, will begin the season on the injured list because of elbow inflammation.
“Make no mistake about it, it's an impact,” first-year manager Brad Ausmus said a few days before the Angels played their final spring-training game at Tempe Diablo Stadium. “I’m comfortable he will be back in short order. But it’s an impact, even losing him for a few weeks.”
The same thing happened to the Angels a year ago. Heaney experienced discomfort in his elbow, which he’d had repaired in 2016, during spring training. He began the season on the disabled list and missed the first two weeks of the regular season.
Although Heaney never missed another start, his injury started a trend for the rest of the rotation. J.C. Ramirez was diagnosed with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow after his second start of the season, leading to replacement surgery. Garrett Richards, who departed as a free agent after the season, underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery in July. Nearly three months later, after the Angels finished two games under .500 and 23 games out of first place in the American League West, two-way star Shohei Ohtani went under the knife to repair his own UCL.
In between those surgeries, a rash of different afflictions claimed other starters. Left-hander Tyler Skaggs had what might have been an All-Star first half derailed by a groin injury sustained in the weight room. Matt Shoemaker, who is now with the Toronto Blue Jays, spent most of the season rehabbing a forearm injury that restricted him to seven starts, all but one of which occurred in September.
The list is longer still. The Angels went through 34 pitchers last year and had 16 different pitchers start a game.
The spate of misfortune ruined their chances.
“I think we lost like five starters last year or something like that — something crazy,” said center fielder Mike Trout, who agreed to a 10-year, $360-million extension that will keep him in Anaheim for the next 12 seasons. “That doesn’t help.”
Instead of signing or trading for dependable help, the Angels took chances on Cahill and Harvey. Both put together encouraging spring campaigns — Cahill threw a little harder than even he expected and Harvey experimented successfully with his pitch mix — but neither is a front-line starter.
The Angels tried to reach higher. They were connected to right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who decided to return to the reigning world champion Boston Red Sox, and the likes of J.A. Happ and Patrick Corbin. None of the conversations bore fruit.
So, for all the hope that sprang when they agreed to sign a generational talent to a lifetime deal, the Angels still have to find a way to build a contending team around Trout. They’ve got pieces in place — Ohtani, outfielder Justin Upton and Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons are among them — but they’re never going to make playing meaningful October baseball in Anaheim the norm until the starting pitching can be relied on.
The Angels enter the season with too many unknowns in the rotation to consider them a favorite for the playoffs. Another middling season might be ahead.
“There are some factors you can’t put a number on, like genetics,” Ausmus said. “Sometimes it’s just those freak injuries on one throw or one move. We’re trying to do everything we can. Hopefully, over the long haul, we can get more and more information to keep our players from injuries.”