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AL West preview: Angels hope improved pitching makes them a contender

Noah Syndergaard pitches for the Angels in a spring training game against the Oakland Athletics on March 28 in Tempe, Ariz.
Noah Syndergaard pitches for the Angels in a spring training game against the Oakland Athletics on March 28 in Tempe, Ariz. Will the Angels’ offseason pitching moves make them a contender in the AL West?
(Matt York / Associated Press)
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Archie Bradley played 5½ seasons in Arizona, the final month of 2020 in Cincinnati and 2021 in Philadelphia, but the reliever has faced the Angels enough and followed them enough from afar to know their recent history all too well.

“From the outside looking in, you always wondered, ‘Man, if the Angels just had some pitching … ’ ” said Bradley, who signed a one-year, $3.75-million deal with the Angels in March. “I don’t mean that as any disrespect at all.

“I’ve been around a little bit and have a feel for how the game works, and that’s always been my thought coming into Anaheim: ‘All right, you’re gonna have to pitch well, but as long as we hit, we’re gonna be OK.’

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“Pitching consistently, pitching deep into games and turning the game over to the bullpen are areas I felt they needed to address, and they’ve done that. You look at what they’ve added, and you really start to turn your head and get excited.”

Shohei Ohtani and many in the Angels organization believe the two-way sensation can improve on his historic 2021 season.

Bradley was part of a $93-million bullpen splurge that netted closer Raisel Iglesias for another four years and $58 million, dominant left-hander Aaron Loup for two years and $17 million, and right-hander Ryan Tepera for two years and $14 million.

The group should be much deeper and more effective than last year’s relief corps, which ranked 24th in baseball with a 4.59 ERA, 25th in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and converted only 39 of 65 save opportunities.

“The bullpen is kind of taking shape with names in it,” Bradley said, “not just kind of question marks or hoping a guy steps up and performs.”

There are some big-name additions to the rotation, as well, but those come with question marks.

Noah Syndergaard (one-year, $21 million) is returning from Tommy John surgery that limited him to two innings for the New York Mets in 2020 and 2021. Michael Lorenzen (one-year, $6.75 million) is transitioning to the rotation after six seasons as a Reds reliever.

But these are right-handers with high-octane stuff — Syndergaard’s fastball has averaged 97.6 mph and Lorenzen’s 95.5 mph — and a far greater chance to impact a rotation that for six years had tapped into such mostly cheaper, low-ceiling arms as Ricky Nolasco, Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana.

“I faced them a lot in the National League, and neither is a comfortable at-bat,” Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “Syndergaard looks like a giant on the mound and throws 100 mph, and Lorenzen, you don’t know if he’s going to throw 90 mph or 100 mph because he has both in his repertoire.

Seattle Mariners pitcher Robbie Ray works against the Texas Rangers on Monday in Peoria, Ariz.
Robbie Ray, pitching for the Seattle Mariners in a spring training game Monday, won the AL Cy Young Award with the Toronto Blue Jays last season.
(Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

“We got Loup in the bullpen and brought back Iggy to solidify that back end. I think if everyone stays healthy — obviously, knock on wood — and if we do what we’re capable of, we’ll make some noise.”

Ah, there’s that pesky conjunction that accompanies every Angels season preview. If the Angels stay healthy, and if their stars play up to expectations, and if everything goes right, they’ll contend for their first American League West Division title since 2014.

That would be a lot to ask of any team, but there are some encouraging signs.

Mike Trout, the three-time AL most valuable player, and Rendon appear healthy after missing most of 2021 because of injuries. Two-way star Shohei Ohtani, a unanimous choice for AL MVP in 2021, is primed for another big season. Jared Walsh has established himself as a 25-homer, 100-RBI threat.

Syndergaard, one of baseball’s most dominant starters from 2015-2018, and Lorenzen have looked sharp this spring. Young left-handers Patrick Sandoval and Jose Suarez solidified rotation spots last season. The bullpen should be vastly improved.

Two-way star Shohei Ohtani can be a free agent in two years, and Angels owner Arte Moreno must show him the organization can build a contender.

The Houston Astros, despite the loss of star shortstop Carlos Correa, are still favored to win their fifth division title in six years, and the Seattle Mariners bolstered a 90-win team by signing 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray.

But with the postseason expanded from 10 to 12 teams — six in each league — the Angels have a good chance of snapping their seven-year playoff drought. They’re hungry, eager to shed their label as underachievers and their new pitchers have infused them with a little edge.

“I’m itching to get back out there, to showcase that I’m healthy and can compete,” Syndergaard said. “The goal for this year is to win at all costs. It’s as simple as that.”

Team outlooks and predicted finish order

1 | Astros

2021 — 95-67, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs — 2021

Carlos Correa’s departure to the Twins leaves gaping holes in the middle of the infield and batting order, but top prospect Jeremy Pena should be a capable defender at shortstop, and there is still plenty of pop with Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, who combined for 94 homers and 279 RBIs last season. Justin Verlander, the AL Cy Young Award winner in his last healthy season in 2019, returns from Tommy John surgery, but the rotation is a little thin with No. 2 starter Lance McCullers opening on the injured list because of a flexor tendon strain. Right-hander Hector Neris adds bullpen depth.

2 | Mariners

2021 — 90-72, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs — 2001

The signing of Robbie Ray, a left-hander who went 13-7 with a 2.84 ERA and 248 strikeouts for Toronto last season, to a five-year, $115-million deal and the trade for slugger Jesse Winker should give the Mariners the firepower they need to end baseball’s longest current playoff drought at 20 years. Winker feasts on right-handed pitchers, with a .313 average, .960 OPS and 59 of his 66 career homers against them. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, acquired with Winker from Cincinnati, should be a capable replacement for the retired Kyle Seager. And most of the top arms from one of baseball’s better bullpens return.

3 | Angels

2021 — 77-85, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs — 2014

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon played only 17 games together last season, but with Trout back from a right-calf strain and Rendon back from right-hip surgery, the top of the order should pack a punch and give cleanup man Jared Walsh plenty of RBI opportunities. The Angels will need consistent production from the bottom half of the order to keep pace with AL contenders, but a deeper rotation—headed by Ohtani and Noah Syndergaard—and a much deeper and potentially dominant bullpen, which includes newcomers Aaron Loup, Archie Bradley and Ryan Tepera, should keep them in more games.

4 | Rangers

2021 — 60-102, 5th in West
Last year in playoffs — 2016

The Rangers spent $556 million on three free agents, shortstop Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million, second baseman Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million) and pitcher Jon Gray (four years, $56 million). That will give them a powerful middle-infield tandem—Semien hit 45 homers and drove in 102 runs for Toronto last season and Seager, the 2020 NLCS and World Series MVP, had a .943 OPS in 2020 and a .915 OPS in 2021 for the Dodgers—and a solid veteran at the top of the rotation, but it probably won’t push the Rangers, who are extremely thin in the rotation and bullpen, into playoff contention.

5 | Athletics

2021 — 86-76, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs — 2020

Another winter payroll purge resulted in the trades of franchise cornerstones Matt Olson and Matt Chapman and ace Chris Bassitt and the departures of outfielder Mark Canha and long-time manager Bob Melvin. What’s left after the Sean Manaea trade to San Diego is one solid starting pitcher (Frankie Montas) who will likely be traded by the All-Star break, an inexperienced bullpen and an extremely thin lineup that will be without Ramon Laureano for 27 games while the center fielder completes an 80-game PED suspension and is far too thin to pose much of a threat.

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