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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

ANGELS SEASON PREVIEW CONTINUED: PITCHING STAFF

STARTERS
: Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn, Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Sele

Angel starters were a complete disaster in 2003. The team ranked 5th in the league in run prevention, but that is entirely due to their defense and bullpen. Jarrod Washburn, the reigning ace, led the starters with a 4.43 ERA. John Lackey, fresh off his World Series Game 7 victory, got hammered in April but recovered to a 4.63 ERA.

Meanwhile, Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Sele, and the now-departed Kevin Appier all notched ERAs above 5.00. In 2002, none of the Angel starters had an ERA above Sele's 4.89, and the other four all had ERAs below 4.00. What precipitated this decline?

In 2003, Angel starters gave up a boatload of home runs. Washburn, a flyball pitcher, only coughed up 19 taters in 2002, but 34 in 2003. Lackey went from 0.83 HR per 9 innings to 1.37. Ortiz actually lowered his HR allowed from 40 to 28, but his non-HR baserunners per inning exploded from 1.02 to 1.42, meaning that those homers came with more men on base.

In 2002, the Angels had the best Defensive Efficiency Record in the majors: .7314 of balls put into play were turned into outs. In 2003, they dropped to .7171, good for only 5th in the league. Injuries to Erstad, Glaus, and Eckstein were key factors in this decline, as players like Scott Spiezio and Chone Figgins were forced to play out of position. This clearly had an adverse affect on Angel pitchers. A healthy team defense in 2004 should lead to better performances from Washburn and Lackey in particular. Washburn was pitching with an injured left shoulder for much of the year, and his velocity was down. His strikeout rate plummeted and, as mentioned above, his home runs went up. Given health, Washburn could return to levels similar to 2002, though probably not quite as good.

Lackey, in contrast, improved upon both his strikeout ratios and his strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2003. Lackey should benefit immensely from a superior defense behind him, and could be a potential breakout pitcher this season.

Even though he cut his homeruns, Ortiz hit rock-bottom last season. He struck out a ridiculously low 4.7 men per 9 innings, while his walk rate went up. He'll be 31 years old this season, and we've likely seen the peak of his powers. Both Ortiz and Washburn get mentioned in trade talks, and Ortiz is the guy the Angels should look to dispatch.

Aaron Sele is done. He wasn't good in 2002, and he wasn't good in 2003 trying to overcome injury, walking more men than he struck out. Another flyball pitcher, he suffered from the outfield attrition, but Sele demonstrated no ability to get anyone out on his own. The Angels hope that he's recovered from injury, but his chances of finishing the season with the club are rather slim.

Given this uncertainty, the Angels picked up two starters in the off-season: Colon and Escobar. Escobar has been a lot of potential with little payoff throughout his career, but it is worth noting that he has only pitched a one full season with a consistent role, having been bounced from bullpen to rotation like a yo-yo. He's got a good stuff and good ratios, and the Angels hope that Bud Black can nurture him into a productive starter. He may be a bit overpaid, but he's a solid middle of the rotation guy with a better upside than most number 3 guys.

Colon instantly became the ace. He can eat a lot of innings, and even though his strikeout rate has gone down in the last two seasons, he has been effective. He's probably not the savior that the Angels and their fans are expecting, but 230 innings of 120 ERA+ work would be a boon to the ballclub.

BULLPEN: Troy Percival, Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Derrick Turnbow

The bullpen have been the true stars in Anaheim the last two seasons, and their success is a testament to the acumen of Mike Scoscia and Bud Black. Each of these guys throws hard and has a lot of movement on their pitches; and, most of these guys have been pulled out of scrap heaps. Percival, a top-notch closer, is possibly the least valuable of any of the late-inning guys (Donnelly, Weber, and K-Rod). Donnelly has a career 1.82 ERA, which is just sick. Each of these guys can decline a little bit and still have value.

Shields is the swingman, and could see some time in the rotation. A groundball pitcher with a fair number of strikeouts, Shields is a far better starting alternative than Sele or Ortiz.

Another note on the Angel bullpen: they currently have no plans to insert a lefthander. Scoscia and Bill Stoneman rightly see that the goal is to have good pitchers; it's better to have a good righthander than a mediocre lefthander.

The Angels have assembled good depth in the pitching staff. They can assemble a bullpen at will, so no one injury there should prove fatal. The existence of Shields and Kevin Gregg provides support for the rotation.

The Lads allowed 743 runs last year, and 644 in 2002. I don't think they'll be quite as good as they were in 2002, but having a consistent defense, as well as the additions of solid contributors like Colon and Escobar should go a long way. But when you look at the 2002 numbers, you notice that even if Escobar pans out, you can't really expect him to be better than Kevin Appier that year. Washburn likely won't be as good, though the addition of Colon will help. I'll peg the Angels to allow 680 runs.

I guesstimated the Angels at 820 runs scored yesterday in part one of the preview. That would put them on pace for a .593 winning percentage, good for a 96-66 season. Will that be enough in the AL? Competition for the wild card should be tough, as both Boston and New York seem likely to win 100 games in the AL East. That means the Angels will have to top out Seattle and Oakland to enter the postseason. Oakland won the division with 96 games last season, but that was their lowest win total since 2000. The Angels will be in the thick of it, but good fortune, health, and midseason acquisitions will determine how far they can go. There is plenty of reason for optimism for Angel fans this year.

Later this week, I'll get to some of the Angel prospects.


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