Angels season preview: Rotation holds key to success

The Angels will need young right-hander Garrett Richards, currently slotted as the No. 3 starter, to live up to his billing this season.
(Sarah Glenn / Getty Images)

Mike Trout could have another monster season. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton could bounce back from career-worst years. Joe Smith and Sean Burnett could add much-needed depth and reliability to the bullpen.

And it might not matter.

For the Angels to end their four-year playoff drought, they will need six months of consistently strong pitching from a rotation that has little margin for error or injury.

The projected starters should be better than the 2013 group, though inexperience at the back of the rotation is a cause for concern.

Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are proven veterans, young right-hander Garrett Richards “has the best raw stuff” on the staff in the eyes of Wilson, and young left-handers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, acquired in the three-team Mark Trumbo trade, have considerable upsides.

But the quality of depth beyond those five is spotty. The group is currently led by left-hander Wade LeBlanc, 29, who was designated for assignment twice by lowly Houston last season, right-hander Matt Shoemaker, 27, who has thrown five big league innings, and triple-A left-hander Jose Alvarez, 24, who was acquired from Detroit for infielder Andrew Romine on March 21.


“Realistically,” Wilson said, “everything has to go right pitching-wise for us to be there.”

How often does that happen?

Like, never.

Of the 30 major league teams, only Oakland and Detroit did not use more than seven starting pitchers last season. The Angels, who went 78-84 and finished third in the division, used 11.

And a club whose farm system has been rated the worst in the game by Baseball America isn’t ready to help.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that our minor league system isn’t quite as stacked as it used to be,” Weaver said. “They made some trades, and not too many guys are ready to step in. What’s going to help our starting pitching is to stay healthy.”

The offense should benefit from better health. Pujols, hobbled for all of 2013 by a left foot injury that eventually knocked him out for the season in late July, looked like a different player this spring, moving nimbly around the first-base bag and on the basepaths and finding his power stroke.

“We all know what Albert can do when he’s healthy,” Trout said. “He’s swinging the bat great, he’s running good, he feels great, and he’s a great guy to have in the clubhouse.”

Hamilton, who hit .250 with 21 homers and 79 runs batted in last season, gained 28 pounds, and at 240 pounds, he is closer to his playing weight when he won the 2010 American League most-valuable-player award with Texas. The left fielder is also fully recovered from a left calf strain that sidelined him for three weeks in March.

Catcher Chris Iannetta began wearing contact lenses last August and is seeing the ball better — he hit .323 with a .488 on-base percentage in Cactus League play.

Trout, the AL MVP runner-up in 2012 and 2013 who was just given a six-year contract extension worth $144.5 million, batted .412 with five homers and 16 RBIs in Arizona. Howie Kendrick (.396), and shortstop Erick Aybar (.295) had solid springs, and new third baseman David Freese found his stroke in late March.

“Right now, we look good — everybody’s swinging the bats well, we’re scoring runs, and that’s definitely a positive,” Kendrick said. “But who knows what’s going to happen when the season starts?”

That, of course, is the biggest question surrounding the Angels, who killed their playoff hopes by going 8-15 in April of 2012 and 9-17 in April of 2013.

The Angels took several measures to avoid another slow start, sending their strength-and-conditioning coach on home visits to monitor winter workouts, hiring a full-time nutritionist, putting their pitchers on far more aggressive spring throwing programs and playing their regulars in longer blocks of exhibition games.

“I think we have a hungrier work ethic this year than we had the last two years,” Wilson said. “People showed up in better shape.

“Instead of having to lose weight, guys are playing baseball, getting ready to get better instead of back to where they were.”

There are early series against the Houston Astros and struggling New York Mets, but after a three-game series against two-time AL West champion Oakland in mid-April, the Angels embark on a nine-game trip to play AL Central favorite Detroit, National League East favorite Washington and the much-improved New York Yankees.

“Some people get caught up in saying, ‘Oh, we have to have this record by this time.’ You have to try to win every game,” Wilson said. “It comes down to focus. If we have the focus we need, we’ll win in April.”

Burnett, the veteran left-hander who could be a key bullpen component, has been slow to recover from elbow surgery, and reliever Dane De La Rosa is recovering from a minor forearm strain. But the Angels, who went 17-10 in Cactus League play and won their last eight games in Arizona, are in decent shape entering the season compared to several division rivals.

Oakland lost ace Jarrod Parker (elbow surgery) for the season and starter A.J. Griffin (elbow strain) for April. Texas ace Yu Darvish (stiff neck) and starters Derek Holland (torn cartilage in left knee) and Matt Harrison (back injury) will open on the disabled list, and Rangers second baseman Jurickson Profar (shoulder tear) is out for three months.

Seattle starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker also will open the season on the DL.

“If your main guys stay healthy,” Weaver said, “you’re going to have a pretty successful season.”

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna