A Ticket to Purgatory for The Angels
by Jim Silva
When you have the best baseball player on planet Earth, you’d think that should be enough to propel you to the playoffs every year, but sadly for the Angels from somewhere in southern California, they have only made the playoffs once this decade and actually finished below .500 each of the last two seasons. How is this possible you ask? I mean, don’t they have the best player on planet Earth – that Mike Trout guy? Yes, Mike Trout is both an Angel and the best baseball player alive. They also have Albert Pujols who himself is a former BPOPE (best player on – yeah, you get it), so how on this little blue marble can they ever miss the playoffs, much less finish below .500? As my wife likes to point out, pitching is way too important in baseball and I bet it annoys the Angels too, because their pitching is currently a collection of “Belly itchers”. The 2016 team finished in the bottom third of the American league in most team pitching stats that you might consider important, including ERA (12th of 15), strikeouts (15th of 15), hits and walks allowed (14th and 11th respectively) and home runs allowed (11th). While the entire staff contributed to the Angels pitching woes I am going to focus on their starting rotation which, in spite of the team’s hot start, appears to be in disarray yet again in 2017.
In spite of the nightmare that their rotation was in 2016 they aren’t without talent. Shoemaker’s rookie season of 2014 was essential to the Angels last playoff appearance and almost earned him a Rookie of The Year award. It was an excellent rookie campaign as Shoemaker contributed 136 innings with an ERA of 3.04. So obviously Shoemaker has talent, but the problem is that he just isn’t a prototypical ace capable of dominating for stretches and going deep into starts three times in a seven game series to shut down whatever playoff team the Angels might face. He is a steady number two or three who will give you five or six solid innings and then yield to the bullpen. While Shoemaker hasn’t matched his 2014 season, he did put together a solid season in 2016 where he pitched the most innings of his career making it to 160 and rebounding from a disappointing 2015. Shoemaker is not the ace if Garrett Richards is healthy and in the rotation, but I will get to him later. For the Angels to stay out of the Western Division cellar, Shoemaker will have to repeat his numbers from 2016 or do even better as the rotation goes downhill quite steeply after him.
The current number two is 34 year old Ricky Nolasco which is like saying, “Is it cool if my mom joins us on our date?” There are uses for guys like Nolasco, but he belongs at the back of a rotation, not the front. If he’s healthy Nolasco could be a league average innings eater – last season he hung in there for 197.2 innings contributing just over 1.5 WAR for the Twins and Angels, and that’s about the best the Angels can hope for as Nolasco hasn’t been above 2.0 WAR since he was 25 (in 2008). As the fifth starter for a team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, or Cubs, Nolasco could help to keep the pen from being overused assuming his elbow doesn’t bark at him as it has from time to time. But the Angels need more than that from their second starter and no amount of wish casting will turn Nolasco into a number two starter at this point in his career.
Andrew Heaney is supposed to be here, probably in the three spot, but he made all of one start in 2016 before going on the DL and eventually having Tommy John surgery. That is a bad break for any team, but when you’re the Angels and counting heavily on one guy to hold together an extremely thin rotation, an injury like that is devastating. Based on the trajectory of most TJ participants, Heaney is unlikely to pitch until after the All Star break if he pitches at all this season. If you are a blamer and you need to pin your spleen to one moment in the Angels disappointing season, I highly recommend pinning it on Heaney’s crappy elbow ligament. While you’re at it you might want to hang onto your 2017 pin as well because Heaney’s absence will likely crush the Angels playoff aspirations as well as your fragile halo-encircled heart.
So you’re trying to believe in the Angels good start and get past the whole Heaney travesty, but then you happen to glance at the starting rotation past Shoemaker (ok – he’s good), Nolasco (well at least he’s solid, gulp) and you look at the third spot barely noticing the choking sound escaping your throat as a fleeting image on the headline about an unexplained dip in Heaney’s velocity after his first start of the season and you see the name, “Jesse Chavez” and your hope dissolves just like that. Again, there is nothing wrong with using Jesse Chavez to start some games for your team and maybe do some work out of the pen, but counting on him to be the third guy in your rotation is a recipe for Mike Trout watching the playoffs on television. Chavez last started in 2015 for the A’s and was useful enough to get himself traded to the Blue Jays for Liam Hendriks and then to the Dodgers for Mike Bolsinger. He is now 33 and hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2014 with Oakland. Chavez still throws reasonably hard – mid 90’s out of the pen – but gives up a lot of home runs (career rate of 1.3 per nine). He has never pitched more than 157 innings in the majors so even if the Angels can stretch him out, if they are counting on him to make 32 starts and approach 200 innings, then they are as high as the halo outside their stadium. Chavez as a swing man is useful. Chavez as a back end guy in your rotation surrounded by starters who go deep into games is also useful. Chavez as the third guy in your rotation without a bunch of horses surrounding him is a good way to burn up your bullpen from overuse.
Things don’t get better for the Angels as we move past Chavez to the fourth guy in the rotation, Tyler Skaggs. It isn’t that Skaggs isn’t talented – the talent is there – but he hasn’t been healthy enough to realize his considerable potential. At 25, he is still young enough to blossom and has some peripherals that give fans a reason to hope. Last season saw Skaggs return from Tommy John surgery and although the results weren’t what Angel fans wanted at least his velocity was there. Command seems to come last when pitchers come back from TJ and the control piece of command/control seemed to be an issue for Skaggs as he walked over four men a game. His hits allowed and strikeouts were both up from his career average so watching Skaggs pitch this season will tell the Angels a lot about what they have. If he can leap over Chavez and Nolasco while staying healthy it would hugely improve their chances of doing more than just annoying other teams and their fans. If Skaggs doesn’t find another level then the Angels are in serious trouble because after Skaggs it is hard to find another rotation candidate who is worth buying a ticket to see pitch, unless you really love ballpark dogs and don’t actually care what happens on the field.
Of course Garrett Richards is the ace of the Angels – of course he is! He throws really hard and has experienced success in each of the last three seasons when he has pitched. Ah, you caught that didn’t you? Richards’ problem isn’t a lack of ability, but an inability to stay healthy. He made only six starts last season, albeit six pretty excellent starts, but sat out most of the year trying to avoid surgery on his elbow. It is unclear whether or not he will be able to participate in baseball activities this season as he is already on the DL with some arm woe. When teams say “forearm tightness”, are they being coy about a pitcher’s elbow or is this completely unrelated to the elbow and something Richards can work through and get in his 28 to 30 starts? He made part of a start this season and looked great until he came out pointing at his arm. Looking great and stabilizing a rotation are two different animals. He is currently not throwing at all, so projecting his return is difficult. Sometimes pitchers with elbow injuries can deal with it through rest and avoid surgery, but many times they end up having the surgery eventually anyway. Throwing 98 miles an hour is not easy on your arm – go ahead, get off the couch and do it right now and see how it feels – but if you can throw hard then you will throw hard. In other words, if Richards pitches he will obviously return to his fireballing, ground ball inducing ways until he can’t because he shreds his elbow – unless he doesn’t shred his elbow. If he can avoid the disabled list, assuming he can get off the disabled list, then he is the undisputed ace and the Angels have a semblance of a pitching staff. That’s a lot of ifs but welcome to Los Angeles Anaheim, wherever THAT is.
The guy taking the spot vacated by Richards is J.C. Ramirez, who has been a reliever since he pitched in AA ball at Reading in 2011. Is this a desperation move by the Angels? Well, yeah! It isn’t just that Ramirez is a reliever and has been for a long time, it’s more that Ramirez has had limited success no matter what role he has accepted. Last season was really the first time the 28 year old has experienced even moderate success in the majors in spite of the fact that his fast ball tops out around 100 mph. With a career ERA over 5.00 and WHIP over 1.4, the Angels can’t be expecting anything other than Ramirez standing out there until manager Mike Scioscia gets tired of seeing his pitches plastered all over the yard.
So surely there is help coming from the minors, right? Right? Sadly, if you care about the Angels and plan to still be a fan in the future, your team has one of the worst minor league systems in all of baseball. The Angels traded their top pitching prospect, Victor Alcantara, to the Tigers for Cameron Maybin. The guys close enough to be of use this season barring any huge leaps in development from guys lower in the system are Alex Myer, Greg Mahle, Manny Banuelos, Troy Scribner, and Nate Smith. Smith and Mahle show up on some lists as Angels top prospects but neither of them is likely to be more than a back of the rotation arm. Scribbler has climbed his way through the organization missing bats (and the strike zone) and might be on the verge of figuring it out. Yeah, that’s a lot of dudes, but frankly none of them are particularly exciting. Most of them are organizational depth – guys who will be used to fill spots when one of the big clubs starters has to miss a turn (which for the Angels could be a weekly thing). The point here is that the Angels rotation is in serious trouble and that likely means using their frequent flyer miles to shuttle these five guys from Salt Lake City to Anaheim to get through the season.
The Angels have some talented guys who are starting pitchers, but they have neither health nor depth and that is a bad combination. If absolutely everything breaks right for them they could have enough to compete for a wild card spot coming out of the tough AL West. If they catch even one bad break, the whole season could unravel and honestly that is what is likely to happen because in baseball you have to assume that you’re going to catch a few bad breaks. The teams who survive these days have depth so that when the bad breaks hit they can roll with it and survive until the starter or the closer or the left fielder comes back. When, like the Angels, you are starting the season having already broken the emergency glass – well, your days near the top of the division are numbered.