When are the Angels going to take care of the bullpen? Bet you never thought you'd say that seven years ago.
The relief pitching for the Halos has been on the decline since 2009, ever since they lost K-Rod. Both General Managers Tony Reagins and Jerry Dipoto have made moves to try and bolster the bullpen, but those moves always seem to be for unpredictable pitchers, over-the-hill veterans, or for arms that are riddled with injuries. The Angels organization has slowed down in their development of pitching. The John Lackeys, the K-Rods, and the Jered Weavers, after being brought up year after year for the better part of a decade, are now all in the Big Leagues, and either pitching for the Angels or haves moved on. So, what will it take to bring the Angels' bullpen back to the elite status it was from 2002 through 2008?
There is one thing to consider before analyzing the Angels' bullpen: they may have been lucky. The club cashed in on a jackpot of dominant relievers around 2001 through 2004. Ben Weber arrived, and then Brendan Donnelly resurrected his career, and the K-Rod broke into the scene and made the bullpen unstoppable. To add salt to opposing teams' wounds, Scot Shields emerged. Troy Percival was still the Angels' closer.
Relievers are a crap shoot. Having Shields, K-Rod, and Percival at the back end of the bullpen stabilized things for a number of seasons, but that is not a core that any team can just grab on the free agent market or via trade. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time with your prospects, and it's possible Major League Baseball won't see the same kind of success out of the Angels' bullpen year and year for some time.
Putting that aside, however, what can the Angels do to have a better bullpen? They are performing well right now. The entire pitching staff for the Angels has improved dramatically since May.
Fans may also be surprised to know that the Angels' bullpen performed very well for much of last season, but their overall numbers were distorted by a bad April, and a miserable first half of August. In fact, Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jason Isringhausen all had ERA's below 2.00 going into July last season. Hawkins' season was overshadowed by a terrible streak in August, and Izzy just got caught up in the wear and tear of age. The Angels' bullpen jumped back on it's horse in September, to help the team finish 27-13 in their final 40 games.
In 2013, the overall numbers of several Angels relievers, the regulars like Frieri, Downs, Richards, Kohn, etc., are pretty good. I'd say they are better than last season overall. And that's without the two additions, Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson. Burnett does have some innings logged, but has missed almost all of this season so far. Madson, of course, has yet to pitch in a Major League game. The ballooned over ERA of the bullpen, and the pitching staff in general, has a lot to do with terrible performances by veterans like Barry Enright and Mark Lowe, who are probably close to either hanging it up, staying in the minors, or pitching independent baseball. Then, there's rookies like Michael Roth who were forced onto the big club because of injuries to the regulars. So if you took out Enright, Lowe, and Roth, the staff ERA goes down tremendously.
One can argue that the improvement of the Angels' pitching over the last couple of months is a big reason they are 28-19 in their last 47 games. That's with starters Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson spending a chunk of that time on the disabled list. And that's without Burnett or Madson. So for starters, improvements can be made automatically with the returns of Vargas and Hanson, which, knowing manager Mike Scioscia's game plan, will force Jerome Williams back into the bullpen, where he's been lights out as a long reliever. Burnett will likely return from the DL, and will likely bring dominance to the back end of a bullpen that has surprisingly put teams away pretty well in the last two months.
We can't really talk about Madson coming back because there's no real timetable.
That brings us to actual outside improvements. There are prospects in the Angels' farm system who can be dealt, but they are almost all at AAA. This is why the Angels' farm system was ranked 30th by Baseball America. It's not like they don't have any good top prospects, they are just all at AAA, and have nowhere to go afterwards since much of the team, including the entire starting lineup, is locked through 2015.
Keep in mind too, those prospects at AAA needed some Major League experience to show the rest of the league if they had any value at that level. Players like Luis Jiminez, Hank Conger, and Michael Kohn are the types of players we're talking about. No one cared one bit about Michael Kohn, yet he's pitching like Jeff Nelson. Remember him? That's the point regarding the value of what the Angels have to trade.
The first question is though: Do other teams want a Luis JIminez in their future? Maybe. No one thought much of Jean Segura before he was dealt to the Brewers for Zack Greinke. The words: "The Angels don't have the prospects to get Zack Greinke" were said in many places. But Jerry Dipoto pulled it off because the Brewers "needed" a Major League-ready middle infield prospect, and they got him for Greinke. So perhaps, Jiminez, Conger, CJ Cron, whoever, can get a reliever or two.
The other question, however, is: What is the market? Simple answer there is that there is almost no market for relievers right now. One reason is they're just not available, another is that they're not valuable enough to the buyers, and the last reason is a fairly new one, which is that the second Wild Card brings more teams into contention, which means less sellers and more buyers. Bidding wars then become prevalent all around Major League Baseball, or teams just say no more often.
At this point, there is much to be proud of when it comes to the performance of the Angels' bullpen. However, this is still not the most talented bullpen since the days of Shields, K-Rod, and Percival, so while it's nice that they have been doing their job over the past eight weeks, April showed us why Dipoto signed Burnett and Madson, and why -- no matter tries to say -- he will be in the hunt for a good reliever. He may even try for a starting pitcher, but that's another story to be written about. In any case, whether it be to make a rather improbable playoff run, or for 2013, as Reagins did when he acquired Dan Haren for 2012, the Angels need to establish a solid core in their bullpen like they had from 2002 through 2008 if they want that long-term success they plan on having while building the team around Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Jered Weaver. That's the number one reason they made the playoffs 6 times in 8 seasons, and is the number one reason they missed the playoffs in the last 3 seasons. It's also the number one reason the Yankees won 4 championships in 5 years in the 1990s.
So there's the key. Hopefully the Angels will recognize this, and bring dominance back to the bullpen.