Ask Mike Scioscia if he’s pondering his playoff rotation, and he’ll give you a look he used to reserve for pitchers who threw at his head.
This is a man who simply won’t discuss October baseball until the Angels have reduced their magic number to zero.
That leaves it to those of us in the business of speculation to, well, speculate. If the playoffs were to begin tomorrow – a lovely thought, actually – the Angels would be welcoming the Red Sox to Angel Stadium, a modern facility with all the amenities not found in the creepy-crawly visiting clubhouse at storied Fenway Park.
After careful evaluation of performances from the recent past and very recent past, here is how your correspondent would anticipate the Angels’ starters shaping up for Games 1 and 2: John Lackey and Jered Weaver.
Lackey, the acknowledged ace and staff leader, also has been on a very nice second half roll. He has been the Game 1 starter the past two seasons against Boston, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be matched up against Josh Beckett again, as in 2007, or Jon Lester, as in 2008.
Weaver has earned the Game 2 start as the club’s most durable starter all year, and he has done his best work at home.
As for Game 3, the nod here goes to the new guy, Scott Kazmir. He has pitched effectively in Fenway Park over the years, and there’s just something about the guy that makes you feel he’ll be on top of his game when it counts most. He’s an athlete, an old Texas football player, and his stuff – always good – figures to elevate a notch with October adrenaline.
The big question, then, is deciding between Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana for Game 4 in Boston. Both have had quality games there, but Saunders, overall, has been the more effective of the two in Fenway Park.
Saunders gets the call for that reason, and also because Santana has fared well in October relief assignments. He prefers to start, but he’s also smart enough to know he’s in some high-caliber company here, and it’s no insult to be dispatched to the bullpen in favor of a man with Saunders’ tools and attitude.
So, there you have it. Scioscia will not be happy when he sees this – I’m sure I’ve violated some sort of code of ethics in doing this. But it’s something that is on a lot of fans’ minds at the moment, and a guy trying to make a living in hard times has to do what he can to please the customer.
Justin Speier, the Angels’ veteran right-handed reliever, has been handed his unconditional release to make room on the 25-man roster for Trevor Bell, the 22-year-old right-hander who makes his Major League debut on Wednesday against the Rays.
Speier, signed to a free agent contract with the Angels after the 2006 season, was 4-2 with a 5.18 ERA this season in 41 appearances. He pitched 40 innings, yielding 44 hits and 15 walks while striking out 39 batters. Opponents had a .277 batting average against him.
“It probably caught him off guard,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins said. “It’s emotional. There was nothing but professionalism in the way he took it on short notice. He has sincere passion for this organization, and the feelings are mutual.
“You always hope a player continues his career and gets an opportunity. We know he wants to continue to pitch. He’s going to take a breather.”
Speier, 35, is the son of long-time Major League shortstop Chris Speier, now a coach on manager Dusty Baker’s staff in Cincinnati.
Speier began his Major League career in 1998 after he was taken in the 55th round of the 1995 First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs. He pitched for the Marlins, Braves, Indians, Rockies and Blue Jays before joining the Angels.
He’s 35-33 in his career in 613 Major League appearances.
“We felt from a baseball standpoint this decision at this time was the right decision to make,” Reagins said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for several days. It’s always a difficult decision when you have to go this route.
“From a baseball standpoint, it was something we felt that had to be done to allow us to do some other things.”
Bell gives the Angels two rookie starting pitchers, joining Sean O’Sullivan, with Joe Saunders on the disabled list. Middle relievers Matt Palmer and Shane Loux also are candidates to join the rotation, having had some success in that role.
The Angels never rush into decisions, or announcing them, but it appears that right-hander Trevor Bell is the choice to fill Joe Saunders’ hole in the rotation first time around on Wednesday against the Rays at Angel Stadium.
It would be Bell’s Major League debut. He was lifted after two innings in his start on Saturday for Triple-A Salt Lake against Memphis, having allowed two hits but no runs. He’s 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 11 starts after going 4-3 with a 2.23 ERA to start the season at Double-A Arkansas.
“We shortened him yesterday in his start just to make him a candidate,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’ll see how he’s doing in the next couple of days, but he’s certainly a guy we’re looking at. He threw two innings yesterday. We’ll see where we are.”
Matt Palmer and Shane Loux are in-house candidates to take the start. Both right-handers have been pitching in middle relief.
Palmer is 9-1 with a 4.52 ERA and has made 12 starts in 25 appearances. Loux is 2-3 with a 4.82 ERA, with six starts and 15 appearances.
Bell, 22, was a 2005 first-round compensation pick in the First-Year Player Draft, No. 37 overall, out of Crescenta Valley High School in Southern California. He had not pitched above Class A until this season.
“I think he has jumped on our depth chart from where he was a couple of years ago, where he was searching to find where his best stuff was,” Scioscia said. “Not unlike a lot of young pitchers in pro ball.
“Experience will teach you what works and what doesn’t work and what you need to do. He’s starting to figure it out. We feel he has the makeup to come up here and compete right now.
That’s why he’s a candidate and he’s on our depth chart. He’s shown terrific fastball command with good life and he really spins the ball well. We’ll see how it moves forward.”
General manager Tony Reagins said the Angels came up empty in their efforts to make a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal when they were unable to match up with other clubs.
Reagins was not specific about which clubs he was talking with, but reports indicated that the Angels made concerted efforts to acquire Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays and Heath Bell from the Padres.
“It really came down to not being the best fit for either party,” Reagins said. “We had a comfort level that we could go in certain situations and were willing to be aggressive. [Owner] Arte Moreno gave us no restraints. We went in with the idea of improving the club. A lot of effort was put into the process. From that standpoint, you move forward. We have business to take care of. Our focus is on Minnesota tonight. Our 25 guys have a comfort level they are going to be here for the rest of the year.”
There was one report that the Angels were close to a last-minute deal for Halladay, but Reagins would not confirm that. The Jays reportedly wanted shortstop Erick Aybar, infielder Brandon Wood, starter Joe Saunders and a prime prospect.
“Utimately, you have to find a match,” Reagins said. “You may offer talented players, but if the deal doesn’t fit for both parties . . . that’s the situation we were in. From a personnel standpoint, we made proposals that were very competitive and made sense. But the other side has to feel they made sense as well.”
The word is out that the Blue Jays are listening to proposals for Roy Halladay, who has few peers among starting pitchers. No team values starters more highly than the Angels. They have made inquiries, knowing how much Halladay’s talent and endurance would mean in a rotation that has been patched together all season as a result of injuries and tragedy in the form of the death of Nick Adenhart.
The obvious question is this: How high can, or would, they go to import a dominant starter at the top of his game, signed through next season? He’s making $14.25 million this season, $15.75 next year.
The Blue Jays reportedly would want a quality shortstop — the Angels are loaded there — and young pitching talent in exchange for a man who gives you seven to nine innings of high-level work every fifth day.
Probably the only commodity the Angels value as highly as starting pitching is young talent, and therein lines the rub.
Staying healthy for the first time, Erick Aybar has established himself this season as one of the premier young shortstops in the game. He could be featured in an attractive package. If the Blue Jays prefer power, Brandon Wood is one of the elite young mashers in the game, just waiting for his opportunity in Triple-A Salt Lake to show he’s the real deal.
The Angels are rich in young talent. They have youthful pitching (Sean O’Sullivan, Jordan Walden, Trevor Reckling, among others) that would have to appeal to Toronto. It’s conceivable but unlikely they would consider moving one of their established starters — Ervin Santana or Joe Saunders, most likely — in a Halladay deal.
The Jays are in a position of strength and don’t have to do anything. But they’re in a top-heavy division, chasing the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays in the AL East, and as great as Halladay is, it’s highly doubtful Toronto can put together a surge to catch them.
The Phillies are seen as the leading candidates to land Halladay, if he is moved. They have the youthful talent to get it done and clearly are in need of a front-line starter. The level of the Angels’ need is not as high as Philadelphia’s, but as they showed last July with Mark Teixeira, they’re not averse to making the big, bold move.
The Angels have a lot of decisions to make this winter, with Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu, Kelvim Escobar, Robb Quinlan and Darren Oliver all eligible for free agency. Taking on Halladay’s contract would be no issue with so much payroll potentially coming off the books.
When the Padres’ Jake Peavy was available over the winter, the Angels gave it serious consideration but never made a big pitch. There were concerns about how his shoulder and elbow would hold up over the long haul. With Halladay, who has been as durable as they come with superior mechanics, that is not an issue.
This is about as tempting as it gets. For Halladay, who has made it clear he wants to pitch for a winner if he leaves Toronto, the interest would have to be mutual. The Angels offer pretty much everything a player can want. Just ask Torii Hunter. He’ll talk all day about that.
If the Angels and Mariners are getting a little tired of seeing each other, you can’t really blame them. When they’re done this weekend, they will have faced off 13 times — more than 25 percent of each other’s schedule.
This is a trifle strange, given that the Angels haven’t even seen two American League teams — the Rays and Indians — and have encountered AL West leader Texas for only three games, while playing AL East power Boston six games, all in Anaheim.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia has been pleading for a more balanced schedule for a long time. All he can do is shake his head and, as he put it, “play the team they put in front of us.”
The Angels and Mariners have split their 10 games. After dominating the division last season, the reigning champions are 8-10 within the AL West.
“I think we’re beating a dead horse,” Scioscia said when the subject came up on Friday night. “But trying to get a little balance to the schedule and keeping Interleague Play is a daunting task.
“You should definitely see your division [rivals] early, middle and late. It doesn’t seem to work that way. When you’re playing your division in April, the middle of the season and at the end, no team can get too far ahead. You’ve got to earn it.”
The Angels will face reinging AL champion Tampa Bay on the upcoming road trip, the final leg of a nine-game journey that starts in Toronto and moves on to Detroit, where Kelvim Escobar figures to make his long-awaited comeback start next weekend.
Potentially, if all five remain sound, the Angels could have the deepest rotation in the game. John Lackey, Escobar, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver would be hard to match.
Escobar means more to this team beyond what he provides every fifth day. He’s a clubhouse force with his engaging personality and mental toughness. Santana, in particular, has benefited immensely from lockering next to the man from Venezuela.
There will be no immediate relief for Angels ace John Lackey after his two-pitch nightmare on Saturday. The only thing manager Mike Scioscia was sure about on Sunday was his big ace wouldn’t be in the bullpen before he makes his next start.
When that start will be is the question Scioscia refrained from answering, mainly because he doesn’t know yet how quickly and how well Lackey’s arm will respond.
“We’ll probably fold him in earlier [than scheduled on Thursday in Seattle],” Scioscia said “It could tomorrow, the next day. We’ll see how he feels.”
Matt Palmer is scheduled to start the first of four games against the Mariners on Monday night. If Lackey gets the call, Palmer, Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders each would be pushed back a day.
Lackey on Saturday said he’d volunteer to go to the bullpen if asked, but Scioscia doesn’t feel his relief staff is taxed to that point. Lackey has made one relief appearance in his career, in 2004.
Lackey said he was “shocked” when he got ejected after two pitches to Rangers leadoff man Ian Kinsler, the first behind his back, the second in his left side. Lackey said he was having trouble getting his two-seam fastball to reach the inside part of home plate after missing six weeks with his right forearm strain.
Even though Angels skipper Mike Scioscia has left a distinct impression that he doesn’t want his pitchers swinging the bat this spring in National League parks, Joe Saunders apparently couldn’t resist.
Following a triple to the left-center gap by fleet Peter Bourjos with two outs in the second inning Saturday, Saunders went the other way on an Aaron Heilman delivery and slapped it into left field for an RBI single.
Saunders, an exceptional golfer from the right side, swings the bat left-handed, as he does everything else. Joe got more exercise than he bargained for when Chone Figgins followed with his second double of the day, to the same left-center gap Bourjos hit. Third-base coach Dino Ebel wisely held Saunders at third, and he stayed there when Reggie Willits fouled out to left.
Figgins also had a hand in a textbook relay in the second inning, cutting down Milton Bradley at third. Terry Evans ran down Bradley’s drive into the right-field corner and hit cutoff man Sean Rodriguez, who threw a one-hop bullet from shallow right that Figgins snagged on one hop, applying the tag on Bradley.
Rodriguez demonstrated his exceptional range later in the inning when he went behind second to backhand a grounder by Esteban German and nail him at first with an off-balance throw.
In his second at-bat leading off the fourth inning, Saunders was clearly back with the program. He didn’t take a swing, looking at a third strike.