But he’ll take the opening-day start the Angels awarded him this week.
“I’ve worked really hard to put myself in that position,” he said Sunday after the Angels announced he would start the March 26 season opener in Houston.
The naming of a team’s opening-day starter is widely regarded as a ceremonial gesture. The season schedule does not usually allow for teams to adhere to a rotational order that clearly appoints a No. 1 pitcher on the staff.
But the assignment holds significance for the 28-year-old Heaney. Should he complete spring training without incident, it will mark only the second time that he has been on the active roster for MLB’s opening day.
He ascended to the major leagues for good in June 2015 but has spent parts of the last four seasons battling injury. Elbow inflammation delayed his 2019 debut until late May. Not two months later, he was sidelined because of a shoulder issue. He pitched only 95 1/3 innings, about half as many as the career-high 180 innings he threw a year earlier. He didn’t make it out of spring training healthy in that break-through season either.
The last time Heaney had a clean bill of health on opening day was 2016 — but that was short-lived. He got hurt in his first start. He eventually succumbed to Tommy John surgery. The procedure kept him out of the major leagues until late 2017.
Heaney was dealing with elbow discomfort this time last spring. He has encountered no such issues this year, an encouraging sign for a rotation that stands to benefit from Heaney’s presence.
Heaney is a talented left-hander. He is aggressive in the strike zone, a tenacity that yielded a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of 11.14, the 12th-highest rate among starters who threw at least 90 innings last season. He throws an above-average sinking fastball and curveball.
When healthy, he has proven capable of being effective. He had a 3.49 earned-run average over 18 starts in his first extended major league stint in 2015, and a 4.15 ERA over 30 starts in 2018.
“I know how good I can be when I go out and pitch for a long stretch,” Heaney said. “To myself, I’ve proven that I know how good I can be whenever I have long stretches where I’m healthy and am able to take the ball every five or six days. I definitely have all the confidence in the world in myself.”
Longevity also played a role in the Angels’ decision to open the season with Heaney. Heaney, the Miami Marlins’ first-round pick of the 2012 draft, has been with the Angels since 2015. Fellow starters Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran joined the Angels in December.
“I think that Andrew has earned the right by being an Angel as long as he has,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I thought it was the right thing to do this year. Plus, he’s very capable. I wanted Andrew to know that I thought that he has earned the right to be that guy right now, watching him here.
“He’s at that age right now where I think he’s ready to blossom.”
Maddon believes Heaney can set an example for the rest of the rotation, which is likely to include at least one starter with less than three years of MLB experience. Maddon was not ready to reveal who will form that group, but it’s safe to presume that at a minimum Jaime Barria, Patrick Sandoval, Jose Suarez or Dillon Peters will get an early chance to fill one of the two remaining spots while promising second-year starter Griffin Canning recovers from an elbow injury.
Maddon is confident that whichever group is selected to join the Angels for the season opener will outperform expectation. He has said multiple times this spring that the Angels’ pitching staff has not been given enough credit.
“In the past, we haven’t been able to really have sustained stretches of being able to see what we can do,” he said. “I feel like there’s always just been an interruption one way or another.
“Not to slight [the media], but I think that there is a narrative. And sometimes if that narrative, if it doesn’t fit, it’s not interesting to write about. It’s not interesting to say like, ‘Oh, we’ve got good young guys that could be really good.’ It’s more interesting to say who we’re going to trade for or who do we need. … I know I take it personally. I hope these guys do too. I think that that’s something that we need to go out there and prove.”