Way back at the start of the offseason, the Angels signed starter/reliever Jesse Chavez, a swingman with middling success in both roles. At the time, it looked like Billy Eppler was securing the versatile righty to add depth to the pitching staff. Little did we know that this innocuous signing was just the tip of the iceberg, setting the tone for his rather unique approach to building a pitching staff.
While most teams have gone the traditional route of filling out a staff of one-inning relievers and five dependable starters, the Angels mostly bypassed the traditional reliever market and were never even connected to any of the free-agent starting pitchers, despite an obvious need.
In Tempe there will be a clear and defined top-four to lead the starting rotation, each with their own set of question marks. The eyes of the baseball world will be watching Garrett Richards with curiosity to see how he responds to electing stem cell injections over Tommy John surgery. Expect the team to handle him with kid gloves, limiting his innings. Tyler Skaggs finally returned last season to make ten starts, so expect his workload to be handled just as delicately. Matt Shoemaker is returning from a different kind of injury all together, after sandwiching two great seasons and one mediocre one. Just as big of a wild card is Ricky Nolasco, who gave the Angels 11 decent starts after coming over from the Twins. The story goes that he came here and started throwing sinkers, tranforming him into a groundball machine. In reality, his groundball rate only increased 2%, while his BAbip went way down and his strand rate went way up with the Halos. A much-improved team defense will certainly help, but we should be careful not to let two decent months convince us Nolasco will be anything more than an innings-eater.
While they have not come out and said it, the Angels appear to be building a staff based on depth and flexibility. The aforementioned Chavez appears to be the front-runner for the fifth spot in the rotation, though expect that spot to be a fluid one. With the exception of recent acquisition Austin Adams and the resurrecting of Andrew Bailey, every other pitching acquisition has fit the Jesse Chavez-swingman mold. Brooks Pounders, Alex Meyer, Vicente Campos and Yusmeiro Petit all have experience both starting and relieving, to varying degrees of success.
Having at least two of these pitchers in the pen would allow Mike Scioscia to not only limit the innings of his healing starters, but maximize their effectiveness by pulling them earlier in the game, limiting the times-through-the-order effect. While a few of these guys could win a spot in the rotation out-right, due to injury or otherwise, they still have plenty of other options to fill the fifth starter/swingman role, such as rookie Nate Smith, the returning Daniel Wright, and non-roster invitees John Lamb and Bud Norris.
Sandbagging long relievers could also have residual effects on the rest of the roster, lessening the need to carry the now-customary twelve pitchers. If Bailey, Cam Bedrosian and Huston Street are the lone one-inning guys, non-platoon lefty Jose Alvarez and two other long relievers can absorb the rest of the relief innings, allowing the team to carry one extra bat on the bench — thinking specifically of the deserving Jefry Marte, along with camp invitee Dustin Ackley— giving the team a significant advantage in late-inning match-ups, pinch-running and defensive substitutions.
There are other considerations, of course. Fire-ballers Austin Adams and J.C. Ramirez are both out of options and would likely be claimed if the club attempted to assign them to AAA. Keynan Middleton might have the most electric stuff on the staff and could force his way onto the roster with an impressive spring showing. Obviously, injuries are always a factor and the roles for this vast collection of arms could get sorted out organically. After last year’s staff was completely decimated by injuries, the team appears better equipped to go to war this year. If everything breaks right and the key players stay relatively healthy, Eppler and co. can really separate the wheat from the chaff and give this squad a fighting chance.
In an era where every team carries 12-13 pitchers on their staff, has Billy Eppler discovered a market inefficiency by building a roster of multi-inning pitchers and a deep, utilitarian bench? I, for one, can’t wait to see.