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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

MOVING FORWARD
So, we lead the division by five games. Now what? What needs does the team have?

There was talk earlier in the year of pursuing a DH. Jeff DaVanon and Juan Rivera beginning to show signs of life has curtailed that talk somewhat. Though I think it's clear that a healthy Mike Sweeney or a returned-to-form Aubrey Huff would probably be better offensively, it's becoming increasingly difficult to say the improvement would be worth the cost (in prospects and in dollars). And lesser DH possibilities -- guys like Shea Hillenbrand or something -- are hardly improvements at all, if they were available.

So, for now, let's say that talk of acquiring a real DH is out.

This brings us to Ervin Santana.

Santana has great stuff, and when he's on, he's electric. He's dealt with adversity and shown an ability to pitch competently when he's at less than his best, a skill recent Angel system products like Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey have struggled to master.

But his command is inconsistent for all of his pitches, and that lack of consistency just doesn't cut it at the major league level. His 6.20 ERA, 1.72 WHIP, and 34:20 SO:BB ratio speak for themselves. As bright as his future is, I just don't think he's ready right now. He's only 22; he deserves a chance to hone his craft out of the pressure of a pennant race rotation.

Of course, Kelvim Escobar is not due back until September. That leaves about seven weeks of crucial season, and if Santana is not capable of taking one-fifth of those starts, the Angels must find a replacement.

First, the internal possibilities: others with starting experience on the major league roster are Scot Shields and Kevin Gregg. Though I have long advocated Shields being a starter, the time is not now. He is currently one of two relievers we have who is, for all intents and purposes, 100% reliable, and we need him there. Also, trying to build up his arm strength on the fly in the middle of the season is less than ideal. So no Shields.

Kevin Gregg started in his AAA stint, and pitched fairly well, but there is just about no reasonable expectation that he's going to outperform Santana. No to Gregg.

Jake Woods
started in the minors as recently as last year, but he's been relieving for awhile now and has notched less than 30 innings this season. Maybe he'll start in Salt Lake, I don't know, but it seems a longshot for him to get a month plus in the major league rotation.

Are there any minor leaguers ready to make the jump? Santana was the jewel of the system, and the organizational pitcher having the best year before his call-up, so that should give you a clue. Prospects like Steven Shell and Daniel Davidson have struggled at AA, and though Joe Saunders has pitched well (3.49 ERA) there, he hasn't been dominant in a way that makes you think he's ready for Los Angeles of Anaheim.

And no starter at AAA Salt Lake has impressed.

So it seems clear that the Angels would have to go outside the organization to fill the rotation spot, should they decide something has to be done. Which why I was not surprised or disappointed to learn today (via a sceptical Rob) that the Angels might be in the AJ Burnett business.

Burnett is, of course, a very good pitcher -- when he's healthy. He's not an ace: his ERA the last two seasons (roughly 230 IP) is 3.50 in a pitcher's park in the pitcher's league, which is good but not mindblowing. But he has good control, strikes out guys, and keeps the ball in the park.

Burnett is a free agent at the end of this year, which is why Florida's looking to move him. What would it gain for the Angels to get a guy about to leave? Well, it might give them a head start in re-signing him, were they so inclined, and were they to bid adieu to Jarrod Washburn. Or they could let Burnett go, take the draft pick, and re-sign Washburn, if so inclined.

The main problem is that all the Burnett trade rumors are full of crazy-talk. The Marlins are allegedly seeking a late-inning reliever, which the Angels don't really have to spare (Donnelly?) along with a young pitcher (Santana shouldn't be touchable, I don't think). So what do the Angels have to give?

Well, Casey Kotchman's mediocre 265/340/355 first half doesn't engender confidence, though I would assume he's still well-regarded. Erick Aybar and/or Albert Callaspo, both at AA, might be expendable, inasmuch as Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick have made the California League their own personal Playstation. And does Mike Napoli have a future with Jeff Mathis blocking his path? And Nick Gorneault has no future in this organization. The Angels have position players to give.

Would Florida want those guys? Well, Florida has a pretty good first baseman on the major league level, and they have him wrapped up for a few years. Plus they have Jeremy Hermida, who's a big guy and might get moved to first. So Kotch wouldn't do much for them.

Would you trade Burnett for Donnelly, Aybar, and Napoli? Donnelly, Saunders, and Gorneault? Should Jeff Mathis be thrown in, just so the Fish get one Grade A prospect?

I just don't know if the Angels and Marlins are a good match for a trade.

Who else might be available? Roger Clemens is likely a pipe dream. Jason Schmidt has been fighting arm fatigue all season, and might finally have broken down. Kip Wells might be available, and for cheap, but the downside is that all you're getting is Kip Wells.

Another question is: say we get one of these guys; what happens when Kelvim returns? Mike Scioscia has publicly dismissed the notion of Escobar returning to the bullpen as "extremely remote", but if there are five credible starters when he returns in September, and he's coming off elbow surgery, doesn't it seem like putting him in the pen for a month might make sense? Especially in light of the fact that Scot Shields' right arm will likely have fallen off at that point, making him a left-hander. It doesn't mean Kelvim wouldn't return to the rotation when healthy in 2006; there will be at least one open spot no matter what. But it might be a good way to make it through 2005.

Still, all Halosphere speculation on such matters comes back to the fact that the GM is the close-to-the-vest Bill Stoneman. Stoneman is known for caution and keeping his prospects; he is not about the flashy moves. But if the Halo brass agrees with me that Santana might not be ready, it would seem that something must be done. The question is whether or not Santana will get enough chances to make this race even closer, or if he'll get enough chances to put it together and put some distance between us and our competitors.

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