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2017 Angels season preview: Once again, it comes down to the pen

Perpetually underwhelming, the Angels take a new approach to building a better bullpen.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

Sabermetricians have long argued that MLB managers have been misguided in their rigid, role-based deployment of relievers. So it should come as no surprise that two of the game’s most progressive managers chose to finally push the limits on what relievers are capable of, during the highest-stakes games of the year.

With Andrew Miller becoming a household name for dominating the sixth inning, the talk of the offseason was whether the rest of baseball would follow suit and use their relievers more liberally.

It is one thing to leverage your bullpen in such a way when games are at peak importance and you can count on regular rest to keep arms fresh. It also helps to have some of the best relievers in the world at your disposal. Applying the same strategy to the rigors of the regular season requires a bit more creativity.

Mike Scioscia is as big a subscriber as any manager when it comes to the pass-the-baton philosophy of one-inning relievers and their specific inning assignments. Is general manager Billy Eppler looking to challenge Mike’s conventional thinking with his rag-tag ensemble of minor league free agents and waiver claims?

Eppler set the tone early on in the offseason with the signing of swingman Jesse Chavez. While it appears Chavez is poised to start the year in the rotation, he could still prove to be a valuable asset in the pen if Alex Meyer, Vicente Campos or Nate Smith develop enough to force the issue. Many of the acquisitions that followed the Chavez signing fit a similar mold.

Despite his dominance against our Halos (4-0 with a 0.43 ERA in his career), Bud Norris has generally been a below average starter, especially so in recent seasons. He found some success pitching in relief last year, particularly when facing right-handed batters. After signing a minor league deal with the Angels, Norris appears to have locked up a spot in the bullpen on the strength of a 2.92 ERA this spring, striking out 17 batters over 12.1 innings.

Doubling down on the minor league free agent pool, Yusmeiro Petit has followed a similar path to a spot in the Angels’ pen, allowing only a single run this spring while striking out a batter per inning. Like Norris, he has been shuttled back-and-forth between starting and relieving throughout his career, finding more success coming out of the pen. Petit makes a living off excellent command of average stuff, making him a reliable (if unspectacular) option for middle relief and the occasional spot start.

Fireballing J.C. Ramirez, a waiver claim from last season, has not started a professional game since he was in AA in 2011. After adding a curveball this offseason to complement his mid-90’s heat, the Angels decided to stretch him out this spring to see if he can find a niche as a starter. He has generally responded well to the workload, punching out more than a batter per inning, though he has shown a penchant for allowing the long ball. He followed up his best spring showing — a one-hit, no walk, six strikeout, five-inning gem against the Reds — by getting shelled by the Royals, allowing 5 runs before getting pulled in the fifth inning.

While none of these guys will be counted upon for high-leverage work, their ability to pitch multiple innings will give Mike Scioscia some options to pull his starters more aggressively, particularly with Garrett Richards on a strict pitch limit and Jesse Chavez not likely to pitch deep into most contests. We would be justifiably skeptical to think that Scioscia would go with such a progressive plan, but Eppler seems determined to convert him. Here are his thoughts on the subject, as told in an interview last month with Fangraphs’ David Laurila:

Eppler appears willing to meet Scioscia halfway on this front, giving him some options to fill the back-end of his pen with more traditional one-inning guys. Cam Bedrosian returns after a breakout 2016 that saw him strike out 51 batters over 40.1 innings pitched, while greatly reducing his walks, hits and home runs allowed. His season ended prematurely with a blood clot in his right arm (it was just that kind of year for the Angels pitching staff), but he appears to be fully recovered, as he has yet to allow a run this spring, poised to handle closer duties to start the season.

One positive to come out of the Angels desperation last season could be the resurgence of former Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey. Devastated by injuries the last five seasons, the Angels scooped him up late in the year after he was discarded by the Phillies. He pitched well enough in Anaheim to earn his first save since 2013 and finished the year as the default closer. Showing appreciation for the Angels’ faith in him last season, he quickly signed a team-friendly deal to return to the Angels and will likely be the primary set-up man for Bedrosian.

Returning for his third full season in Anaheim, Jose Alvarez looks to be the lone lefty in their pen. Though he is capable of throwing multiple innings, Mike Scioscia utilized him as more of a short reliever in 2016. He has generally been effective during his time with the Angels, though does not show the type of dominance against lefties that you would hope to see from the lone southpaw in your bullpen.

If Alvarez does not move the needle in that department, he could see himself squeezed out by fellow lefty Cody Ege, who has shown in his brief major league stints that he is capable of neutralizing left-handed batters. Ege certainly left an impression on the team this spring before being optioned to AAA, allowing no runs over 8.1 innings pitched. If he continues to throw well for the Bees in Salt Lake, expect to see him get another opportunity to show he belongs in the majors.

Rounding out the pen to start the season appears to be yet another waiver wire pick-up. As a matter of fact, it might be a guy they claimed off waivers twice this offseason. The Angels plucked righty Blake Parker from the Yankees way back in October, before waiving him themselves and losing him to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers then placed him on waivers, allowing the Angels to snatch him right back. The Angels once again designated him for assignment to make room for catcher Juan Graterol, though this time he cleared waivers and pitched for the club in Tempe.

Parker apparently used all the shuffling this winter as motivation, as he has been simply dominant this spring. In 10.1 innings pitched, he has punched out 18 batters to go along with an excellent 0.87 WHIP. Is it a mirage? Perhaps not. Parker has always missed bats, with 10.2 K/9 over 423 minor league innings, along with 9.9 K/9 in 90.2 major league innings. While control is not his strength, 4.1 BB/9 in the majors is hardly a death sentence for a reliever.

In his short stint with the Yankees last year, his fastball registered an average of 92.7 MPH, up a few ticks from the 90.5 he averaged with the Cubs in 2014. He also saw his ground-ball rate jump to 48.1%, well above 31.7% he produced in that same season with the Cubs. While he has yet to be added to the roster, Parker looks as if he is going to get an opportunity to start the year on the big league club.

If he can continue to miss bats and induce ground balls, he could be heralded as quite the waiver find for Billy Eppler and the Angels. At the very least, he should be adequate enough to eat some innings as the 7th man in the Angels’ pen.

While this appears to be the group that the Angels will break camp with, there will be plenty of arms stashed away in AAA when needed. Along with the aforementioned Cody Ege, holdover Mike Morin could still earn himself another opportunity to show he belongs in the majors. Austin Adams is a hard-thrower who has had a shaky spring, but could see some time with the big club if he clears waivers. Kirby Yates fits a similar mold as Adams, as does non-roster righty Brooks Pounders.

Finally, veteran closer Huston Street still lurks in the shadows, hoping to show he still has something left in the tank. He will start the year on the disabled list and it is far from a guarantee that he will throw a single pitch this season. If he does manage to return at some point, it seems unlikely that he can wrestle his old closer crown away from the upstart Bedrosian. Of course, with Mike Scioscia at the helm, you never can tell.