Rotation depth is Angels' biggest question
Star-studded offense hoping for pitching support in tough AL West race
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The lineup of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is like a baseball tourist destination.
The batting order is like a visit to a baseball theme park that contains the best attractions on the North American continent.
Look, there's Albert Pujols, the game's all-around best hitter over the last 12 seasons. Or Josh Hamilton, on a given day the best player in the game. And there is Mike Trout, not yet 22 years old, but already a force. If he wasn't the American League's Most Valuable Player in his rookie season, maybe he still was the best AL player.
You don't generally get a collection of this sort of exceptional talent outside of Cooperstown, N.Y. And there are other Angels who will perform on a splendid level even though they may be overshadowed by the mega-stars. Peter Bourjos, for instance, is already one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Mark Trumbo playing first or being the DH has displayed that he is capable of being a top-shelf run producer.
So let's snap up some Angels paraphernalia and declare that the AL West race is obviously going to be won by the team with the most famous players, right?
We might want to proceed with a bit more caution than is included in that scenario. Two questions naturally arise:
Isn't this the toughest division in baseball? Yes, first place through fourth it will be. The Oakland Athletics shocked the baseball world by winning the division in 2012, and with their pitching, they shouldn't be disappearing this season, either. The Rangers won the AL pennant in 2010-11 and they aren't going to fade away. The Mariners are both underrated and improving. If they were located in another division, they could be seen as genuine contenders.
The other issue arguing against the Angels clinching the division title before Labor Day is the question of their own pitching depth, particularly in the starting rotation. A reminder of the potential fragility in this area occurred Wednesday when Tommy Hanson left a start against the Cleveland Indians after three innings with tightness in his right triceps.
Hanson said there was no real problem, just temporary tightness while warming up for the fourth inning.
"I think they're just taking the cautious route," Hanson said.
"This was the most comfortable I felt on the mound all spring. I think just command-wise, I think my emotions, my adrenaline were a little bit under control. Those first few starts, new team, super amped up, wanting to do good, keeping balls up. Today, I kept my heater down a lot more and overall commanded my pitchers better. It was kind of a bummer I came out after feeling so good."
Hanson gave up two earned runs in three innings. Over four starts this spring, he has an ERA of 8.25.
Elsewhere in this rotation, Jered Weaver, a 20-game winner last year, is a genuine ace. C.J. Wilson would be a suitable No. 2 starter if he pitched the way he pitched in four of six months last season, but not if he pitched the way he did in July and August.
Behind this pair there are Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Hanson. Blanton has a career 4.37 ERA, but he has been above that in each of the last three seasons. Lefty Jason Vargas, obtained in a trade with the Mariners for Kendrys Morales, had his best season in 2012 (14-11, 3.85).
Hanson was once the top prospect in the Atlanta Braves' system, one of the leading prospects in baseball, and he enjoyed early success in the Majors. But over the past three seasons his effectiveness has declined as he has been bothered by a shoulder injury and his diminishing velocity. Atlanta traded him to the Angels for reliever Jordan Walden. Hunter is still only 26 and there is plenty of time left for him to get his career moving in the right direction. But the Braves are not known for making mistakes on pitchers.
With his abbreviated work Wednesday, the question was whether Hanson could build up to enough pitches to start as scheduled in the regular season. Hanson had been targeted for 70 pitches in this start and threw 45.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia was otherwise encouraged by Hanson's work and noted that with two more starts Hanson could reach the necessary pitch count of 90 before he could start in the regular season.
"It's not like it's going to be impossible for him to start the season," Scioscia said. "I thought after the first inning his stuff really came alive. Right now, it's a little bit discouraging, just for the fact that he didn't get to his pitch count. Hopefully, it's nothing that is going to set him back from what he needs to do a couple of weeks from now."
In the bullpen, the hoped-for closer, Ryan Madson, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, will open the regular season on the disabled list. Ernesto Frieri is a capable replacement, but like any other club the Angels would be better off with bullpen Plan A.
It is distinctly possible that the Angels will score so many runs this season, will bludgeon so many teams into submission, that their pitching will need to be merely competent for this club to reach the postseason. That has not been the standard Angels approach over their best seasons. But this star-studded group is a long way from a typical team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.