Meet the 2021 Angels bullpen with both new and familiar faces hoping to plug leaks
The Angels held a dubious distinction last season.
The starting rotation had the second-highest ERA (5.52) in baseball, yet the bullpen blew more save opportunities (14) than any other team.
It was a dual-pronged dilemma they’ve tried to address this spring. They’ve found some clarity in the former, having settled on a six-man rotation that have all mostly pitched well this spring.
But in the bullpen, questions remain. While the Angels brought in a proven closer, a new left-handed specialist and several experienced veterans, they’ve also seen their depth diminish. This week’s developments that right-hander Félix Peña will miss two to four weeks with a Grade 1 hamstring strain, and right-hander Aaron Slegers is battling a flare up of back spasms that leave his opening day availability in doubt, are the latest blows.
“There’s some good bedrock there,” manager Joe Maddon said, “that we have to fill in around.”
In the wake of Peña’s injury, Maddon and general manager Perry Minasian said it’s possible the team could look outside the organization to bolster the bullpen before the season.
New Angels general manager Perry Minasian bolstered the roster during the offseason, but did not add a high-priced free agent or make a blockbuster trade.
Two weeks from opening day though, the core of the group looks set. Here’s a primer on the pitchers they’ll be relying upon most, and how they hope to rectify some of last season’s issues:
Closer Raisel Iglesias: During an appearance on the team’s TV broadcast last week, Minasian said, “the ninth inning was very important for us as a baseball operation staff.” Given last year’s results, it’s no secret why.
Despite ranking only 21st in bullpen ERA in 2020, some of the Angels underlying reliever statistics were decent. They were top 10 in MLB in opponents’ batting average, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk rate. According to Fangraphs, their relievers compiled the 12th-most wins above replacement.
Their struggles were centralized in critical moments. In the ninth inning, they had a team ERA over 5.00. In high leverage situations, as tracked by Fangraphs, their bullpen ERA shot up to over 10.00.
The addition of Iglesias, a hard-throwing right-hander who has more than 100 career saves and posted a sub 3.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons, should help.
“It’s premium closer stuff, and on top of that, it’s a very durable arm,” Maddon of Iglesias, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Cincinnati Reds. “He’s a craftsman and he’s really into this. He is into his bullpen. He wants to be the guy that’s in charge down there. And he wants to be able to set an example for and be a mentor to the rest of the group.”
Primarily a fastball, slider, changeup pitcher who broke into the big leagues as a starter, Iglesias has also been occasionally used for multiple innings. It’s his performances in the ninth, however, where the Angels are hoping he can provide the biggest boost.
“[I] take pride in going in there for those last three outs,” Iglesias said, “with [my] main focus on closing that game.”
Angels newcomer Alex Cobb and holdover Patrick Sandoval each pitched three strong innings in a 4-2 spring victory over the Cleveland Indians.
Left-handed specialist Álex Claudio: Last season, the Angels’ left-handed relievers (Hoby Milner, Ryan Buchter, José Quijada and, in three relief appearances, Patrick Sandoval) combined for a 7.08 ERA, the fourth-worst mark in MLB.
Signed to a one-year contract this offseason, Claudio comes to the Angels with plenty of experience. In seven seasons, he has a 3.44 ERA. And since the start of 2019, no other MLB left-hander tops his 103 regular-season appearances.
Though he hasn’t posted a sub-4.00 ERA the past three seasons, Claudio can cause problems with his unique pitching profile. A sidearm pitcher with a sinking fastball that only sits in the mid-80 mph range and a wicked changeup and slider, he’s among the best in the sport at avoiding hard contact.
“There’s not one left-hander in baseball who says, ‘Oh, I hope Claudio gets in the game,” and even righties don’t like it because it can throw you into a funk,” Maddon said.
Shohei Ohtani is looking confident, the Angels still don’t know where to hit Mike Trout, and more from the first half of spring training.
Returning relievers Mike Mayers, Ty Buttrey and Peña: The Angels’ top two pitchers in appearances last season, Mayers and Buttrey have been on opposite trajectories in recent years.
After failing to earn a full-time MLB role in four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Mayers was claimed by the Angels before the 2020 season and became their most effective reliever, leading the team with a 2.10 ERA. The key, he said, is replicating the aggressiveness he pitched with last year, when he added a cutter to his arsenal and averaged 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Buttrey, on the other hand, suffered his worst MLB campaign in 2020. He posted a career-high 5.81 ERA and was responsible for four blown saves. For him, this offseason has been about improving his consistency and learning how to better utilize his high-velocity arsenal.
“I’ve been a victim of trying to be stubborn,” Buttrey said. “The odds sometimes, with certain pitches, are stacked against you. It’s like, ‘Why go down that path? Why not stick to the odds that are in our favor?’”
Peña made the third-most appearances out of the Angels bullpen last season, posting a 4.05 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 26⅔ innings. He is capable of a multi-inning role, too.
New Angels reliever Mike Mayers was effective for the Cardinals two years ago but struggled in 2019. He’s now a front-runner for a spot in the bullpen.
Junior Guerra and Aaron Slegers add depth: Having been praised by Maddon since before Cactus League play began, Guerra all but locked up his opening day spot by being added to the 40-man roster Tuesday. In six career seasons, the 30-year-old has a 3.77 ERA and matched his career-best with a 152 ERA+ (an advanced metric in which 100 is considered league average) last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Slegers has battled back spasms this spring, but was able return to the mound this week in a B game. Maddon has been intrigued by Sleger’s 6-foot-10 frame, and the right-hander is coming off a solid 2020 with the Tampa Bay Rays in which he posted a 3.46 regular-season ERA and allowed just one run in five postseason innings. Given the team’s other injury issues in the bullpen, Slegers now looks like a safe bet for the opening day roster.
The rest: If the Angels are to make late-spring additions to the roster, filling out the back of what should be an eight-man bullpen is where they might need the most short-term help.
Currently, Jaime Barria looks likely to fill a slot as a long reliever/swingman, though the Angels are waiting to find out if he will qualify for another minor league option that could give them the choice of sending him to the minor leagues to begin the season, where he could continue to be stretched out as a starter.
Dylan Bundy, who recorded a career-best 3.29 ERA and 6-3 record in his first season with the Angels last year, will start opening day against the White Sox.
Beyond that, the list of other in-house bullpen candidates has shrunk, with Gerardo Reyes and Brendan McCurry needing Tommy John surgery and Quijada dealing with visa issues that have prevented him from reporting to camp.
Veteran Jesse Chavez was signed late last month, but has given up seven runs in 2⅓ spring innings. Kyle Keller and Luke Bard both have MLB experience, but have struggled in Cactus League play (Bard is battling a hip injury, too). Rule 5 draft pick Jose Alberto Rivera has appeared in only one game.
Jake Faria, a former starter who spent last year at the Brewers’ alternate training site, has been impressive in six spring outings. Jake Reed and Ben Rowen are also still in big league camp. And on Thursday, Maddon also left open the possibility of Sandoval being used as a reliever.
“I like the way it’s shaping up, I like the unity of the group,” Maddon said of the bullpen. “We could get [Peña] back relatively fast. And in the meantime, this gives an opportunity for somebody else.”
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