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New Angels GM Billy Eppler believes he has an ace in Garrett Richards

Angels pitcher Garrett Richards signs for $6.425 million, avoids arbitration

Angels starter Garrett Richards pitches against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 4.

(LM Otero / Associated Press)

The Angels have strength in numbers when it comes to starting pitching. With Tyler Skaggs expected to return from elbow surgery in 2016, the team has eight major league-caliber arms in Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker, Nick Tropeano and Skaggs.

If there is a criticism of the rotation, it’s that the Angels lack a true ace, a front-of-the-rotation hammer that can match up with the best pitchers in baseball and, perhaps, lead the team on a deep post-season run.

But when asked if he considers top-of-the-rotation pitching an area of need, new Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said, “I guess it depends on the definition of an ace. What is that player and how many exist in baseball? Some might say it’s as few as eight; some might say it’s 16-20. An ace is in the eye of the beholder.”

And Eppler believes he has one in Richards, a 27-year-old right-hander who combines a lively 97-mph fastball with a nasty slider and appeared to be on his way to Cy Young Award consideration before a season-ending knee injury in August 2014.

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“He has the ability to miss bats and to throw strikes with a number of pitches,” Eppler said. “He can dominate a game. He can absolutely take any offensive threats away. He has youth, and with that, he has the arrow pointing up, in the right direction.”

Richards had a solid but not spectacular 2015 season in his return from surgery to repair a ruptured left patellar tendon, going 15-12 with a 3.65 earned-run average, 176 strikeouts and 76 walks in 207 1/3 innings.

His ERA was up from 2014, when he went 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, striking out 164 and walking 51 in 168 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate was down, his walk rate was up, and he gave up 20 homers, four times the number (five) he allowed in 2014.

The grueling seven-month rehabilitation from knee surgery took a toll on Richards, leading to some inconsistency throughout the season and fatigue in the final two months, but with rest and more of a normal winter routine, Eppler believes that Richards will have the makings of an ace again in 2016.

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“I think you’ll continue to see marked improvement,” he said. “That’s what young players do, they improve.”

Eppler said Skaggs, who missed all of 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, recently threw a six-inning, 90-pitch bullpen session in Arizona in which the left-hander “was getting after it.” The plan for Skaggs in spring training, Eppler said, is to “let him roll.”

Eppler also said that Wilson, who underwent season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow last August, “is free and clear -- he’ll be an unrestricted player in spring training.”

If Wilson, a 35-year-old left-hander who is entering the final year of a five-year, $77.5-million contract, shows he is sound in spring training, he could be a valuable trade chip, especially if another team was willing to absorb the bulk of his $20-million salary for 2016.


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