If Zack Greinke’s price tag soars out of the Angels’ range — and there are some indications it already has — General Manager Jerry Dipoto could shift his focus away from acquiring a high-end free-agent starting pitcher and toward adding another top-flight reliever such as Japanese right-hander Kyuji Fujikawa.
The reason, according to a person familiar with the team’s thinking but not authorized to speak publicly, is that if Greinke commands a deal in the six-year, $150-million range, it will drive up the price for second-tier starters such as Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson to the $65-million to $90-million range.
Instead of drastically overpaying for such pitchers, the Angels could sign a reliever such as Fujikawa, Japan’s top closer for the last six years, for much less and build a deep and dominant bullpen that would ease the burden on a rotation that today consists of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams.
“You’re always looking to get better,” Dipoto said after Wednesday’s signing of potential closer Ryan Madson to a one-year, $3.5-million deal. “We want to have a championship-caliber bullpen and rotation. We’re not done by any stretch.”
If Madson, who missed 2012 because of elbow surgery, can regain his 2011 form, when he went 4-2 with a 2.37 earned-run average and 32 saves for Philadelphia, he would provide a reliable back-of-the-bullpen hammer for a team that led the American League with 47 blown saves the last two seasons.
Hard-throwing right-hander Ernesto Frieri, who went 4-2 with a 2.32 ERA, 23 saves and 80 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings last season, could move back to an eighth-inning role, for which he is probably better suited.
Two right-handers with 97-mph fastballs — Kevin Jepsen, who had a bounce-back 2012, going 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA in 44 2/3 innings, and former closer Jordan Walden, who went 3-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 39 innings — could handle the sixth and seventh, innings that fading veterans LaTroy Hawkins, Jason Isringhausen and Hisanori Takahashi often fumbled last season.
Veteran left-hander Scott Downs could float like a bullpen wild card, pitching full innings in the seventh or eighth or facing one batter in a key situation.
“Anything that gives you a chance to dominate in a given area, whether it’s the rotation, the bullpen or the offense, you always want to keep an eye toward that,” Dipoto said. “You want to be adjustable, to put yourself in a position to create the best-balanced team you can.”
Signing Fujikawa, a free agent who is believed to have narrowed his decision down to the Angels, Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks, would add another potentially dominant right-hander, one with a 94-mph fastball and sharp split-fingered fastball.
If the Angels added Fujikawa — or an established reliever such as Mike Adams, Joakim Soria, Randy Choate or Koji Uehara — they would go six-deep in a bullpen that could be their best since 2002, when closer Troy Percival and set-up men Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez keyed their World Series run.
They could also extend the bullpen with a seventh quality arm by adding left-hander Nick Maronde, who showed great promise after a September call-up, compiling a 1.50 ERA in six innings over 12 games.
Adding Madson “allows us the flexibility to move other guys around and trouble-shoot,” Dipoto said. “Having an anchorman like that gives you so much more depth.”
The Angels still would need to add at least one, and probably two, starting pitchers, but instead of paying top dollar for pitchers who aren’t even close to Greinke in ability, they could pursue third-tier, less costly starters such as Joe Saunders and Ryan Dempster.
By building from the back of the staff, starters wouldn’t have to worry so much about pitching into the seventh and eighth innings. And the Angels, who had a record $159-million payroll last season and aren’t likely to top that in 2013, would save a bundle of money.
“If you put together a great seven-man bullpen, you can let the starters go all out for five innings,” the person familiar with the team’s thinking said. “Jerry is looking at every possible way to make the team better, and to do that, he has to improve the pitching staff.”