Between landing second-tier pitchers, reinforcing a lineup that seemingly required no help, and haggling trades that didn’t pan out, the Angels officially opened spring training Tuesday without the ace their rotation sorely needed.
They never really had the chance. General manager Billy Eppler had a deal worked out with the Dodgers that would have sent infielder Luis Rengifo and a prospect to Los Angeles for outfielder Joc Pederson and pitcher Ross Stripling. It fell apart Sunday. Stripling is a proven serviceable swingman, but he wouldn’t have headed the rotation.
Eppler declined to speak in depth about the failed trade. When asked if there was a chance it could be revived, he said nothing was in the works.
New manager Joe Maddon will not sweat the machinations of the front office. He appears confident the Angels’ young pitchers are talented enough to step up. A recent dinner with Patrick Sandoval, Griffin Canning and Ty Buttrey reassured Maddon that all are prepared to address the challenges they faced as rookies last year.
“Giving these guys opportunities is going to be really important,” Maddon said. “I’m eager. I’ve watched, I’ve listened, I’ve spoken with them, and these kids have been raised properly. It’s just about opportunity and getting them out there and really putting them out there in a fearless manner. … We have some kids that are really on the verge of ascending.”
Among last year’s rookies, left-hander José Suarez might be the biggest beneficiary of new leadership. Like Sandoval, he was rushed to the major leagues because of injuries last summer. But two issues cropped up that hindered Suarez’s development — a failure in his mechanics that caused him to tip pitches, and a breakdown in communication with former pitching coach Doug White.
Suarez, 22, finished his debut season with an unsightly 7.11 ERA over 81 innings. New pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who was praised for his work leading Cleveland’s pitching staff from 2013 to 2017, will work with him and the others to pinpoint what went wrong.
“We’re just expecting guys to continue to grow, evolve and develop,” Eppler said. “Not all of them will, but I do believe in our [coaching] group here and their ability to make players better.”
The addition of durable starters Julio Teherán and Dylan Bundy should help alleviate the stress put on Sandoval, Canning and Suarez, who were asked to pick up the slack for a starting staff that struggled to avoid the injured list and pitch deep into games. A healthy Andrew Heaney would also be a boon to the rotation.
How Sandoval and Suarez, in particular, fit into the picture will become clearer later in the spring. The Angels could choose to give them more time at triple A and rely on one or two of Canning, Jaime Barria and Matt Andriese to fill out the rotation. They have more experience starting at the major league level than the young left-handers.
Canning, who had a 4.58 ERA and struck out 96 in 90 1/3 innings before being shut down because of minor elbow inflammation, is of particular interest to Maddon.
“His name has been bandied about very nicely,” Maddon said. “I watched the video. I’ve seen him. I’ve spoken with him. He’s got a pretty good shot to be a part of that group, but you have to go through camp and really realize that. He’s as far along as any of the young guys.”
The rotation, which Eppler said he was willing to augment if the right opportunity emerges, should get a boost in mid-May. The Angels expect two-way player Shohei Ohtani to return to major league action on the mound about six weeks into the season.
Outfielder Justin Upton spent the winter working with an Angels strength coach in Arizona and did not encounter a setback with his knee. The Angels expect Upton, who received a platelet-rich plasma injection to address patellar tendinitis at the end of last season, to be at full strength during spring training. “I haven’t laid eyes on him yet, but a couple of the coaches said wait till you see him,” Eppler said. “Sounds like he’s almost like a prize fighter or something like that.”
Infielder Tommy La Stella could play some first base this season, but how much time he spends there will depend on the availability of veteran Albert Pujols and the offensive development of young infielders Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward. Pujols, 40, played 98 games at first base last year — his most games in the field since 2015. He made it through the season t without landing on the injured list . The Angels are hopeful he can repeat his durability and production, especially since Ohtani, who is not limited offensively, will take up most of the DH opportunities. “I’ve only heard positive things about Albert and I know he’s fired up for the season,” Eppler said.
Right-hander Félix Peña recently began throwing off the mound, a sign that his rehabilitation from the season-ending ACL tear he had surgically repaired in August is nearing its completion. Eppler had not met with the training staff when he addressed reporters, so he wasn’t sure of Peña’s status.