Tuesday, May 5, 2009

By David Saltzer - Angelswin.com Columnist

The only thing more challenging than writing about the Angels’ bullpen this season is watching its members pitch in a game. It isn’t fun. It isn’t pretty. And it rarely gets the job done.

The sad thing is that the blowpen didn’t have to be this bad—even with all the injuries suffered by the starting rotation. Had management made the right decisions earlier in Spring Training and at the start of the season we wouldn’t be in a tie for last place thanks to all the blown leads and losses it has created. Management needs to recognize this and start making changes now before the blowpen costs us any chance at making a run for October.

While no one could have predicted all the traumatic losses suffered by the starting rotation (when was the last team to lose 4 starters in 3 weeks at the start of the season?), it is management’s job to make sure that the team on the field has the best chance to win it all. Management’s job is to constantly formulate and reformulate new plans based on changing circumstances.

When we started Spring Training, we were down a starter. That wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle as it was figured that one of the in-house options would have been better than any of the remaining FA options at that time.

However, once Lackey and Santana went down, the Angels Front Office blew it by not going out and getting at least 1 veteran starter. Sure, those guys wouldn’t come here cheaply. Sure, they would have taken a couple of weeks to get ready. And yes, some of them might have cost a supplemental pick (of which we still have plenty). But, they would have been ready in early April and would have been around for the season in case we suffered any more injuries.

Can anyone really imagine the Yankees or Boston not immediately going out and getting help under similar circumstances? While we shouldn’t have panicked, but we needed to make a move in Spring Training to address the problems in the rotation. With our payroll being around $115 million, we shouldn’t have even hesitated to sign Pedro for up to $5 million or Byrd to an incentive-laden contract to protect our chances in 2009. Both Byrd and Martinez would have cost a fraction of the team’s payroll and would have still given us a good chance at the AL West. And, when Lackey and Santana returned, we could easily move a pitcher into the pen.

Similarly, shortly after the season began, we needed to make a move. With Moseley on the DL and Adenhart killed, and a bullpen imploding, we needed veteran arms. We never should have moved Oliver into the rotation for a spot start when he was the only person in the pen who could get a crucial out to squash a rally.

Instead, by not getting any veterans, management has put us in a position to play all our rookies as starters. While they have performed admirably as such (the starting rotation is in the top 3 for the AL), they also aren’t pitching overly deep into games. Thus, we are forced to rely on our bullpen every night—regardless of how it performs.

If you ask any major leaguer about the difference between the majors and the minors, he’ll tell you that half of it is 90% mental. One of the biggest mental issues to overcome is confidence. While a good manager knows that putting a struggling pitcher back on the mound after a rough game can build confidence, a good manager also knows that continually putting the same struggling pitcher back on the mound night after night can destroy a pitcher’s confidence. And a pitcher who throws without confidence won’t get many outs.

Unfortunately, Scioscia has no choice but to keep putting the same pitchers back on the mound night after night because he needs arms to throw innings. Instead of having Darren Oliver to help with the pen, he used him up for a spot start. Instead of having Palmer available for the pen (had the Angels signed a veteran), Scioscia has to put him in to face Sabathia in NY (where he pitched an absolute gem).

This lack of options has forced Scioscia to destroy the confidence for several of our struggling pitchers and worsened our problems. You can see the lack of confidence on their faces as they labor through innings. You can see the lack of confidence in their body language as they come in from the pen. You can hear the lack of confidence as you hear Butcher talk to them on the mound. And the opposing hitters can sense it for all of the above reasons, and they feed off of it.

Since management (or mismanagement depending on your point of view) got us into this mess, it will be up to management to get us out of this mess. When Lackey and Santana (and hopefully Escobar) come back, management is going to have to make some difficult decisions. They are going to have to swallow some money to clean up the blowpen. They need to send a strong message and shake things up.

As much as it may hurt financially, the Angels need to cut Speier when Lackey and Santana come back. Having him sit on the roster just ties up a spot on the 25-man roster. More importantly, leaving him on the roster means that he might get into a game and could cost us another win! The Angels will have to pay him regardless of his performance, so at this point it’s better to just pay him and let him perform poorly elsewhere than to cost us wins.

Additionally, Bulger needs to be DFA’d when Lackey and Santana come back. Unfortunately, Bulger just cannot get the mental side of the game down at the Major League level, and a result is the definition of a “AAAA-player”. He can’t throw his pitches past these hitters, and when the ball comes in flat, it gets crushed.

Finally, the Angels need to convert some of their more promising starters into relievers. Players like Trevor Bell and Michael Anton might make more effective relievers than starters. The Angels need to do a systemic reevaluation of their talent to see who can be effectively moved to the pen.

Arte Moreno has guaranteed there will be 3 million fans in the seats this season. The best way to ensure that guarantee comes true is to field a winning team. As we’ve seen over the past month, even with good starting pitching and hitting, we can’t win games without a bullpen. Management needs to fix the problems with the blowpen so that we have reliable guys who will come out throwing strikes and closing out games. That way we can hit Moreno’s goal of 3 million fans and we fans can see some time in October.

Hopefully getting Darren Oliver back on Monday along with the pen pitching scoreless 7th, 8th and 9th frames against the Oakland A's led by Arredondo, Shields and Fuentes who notched his 6th save of the season - a sign of good things are around the corner for the firemen in.
Love to hear what you think!



Brett Battles said...

Couldn't agree with you more, David. I actually find myself turning the TV off when we get to the later innings knowing the bullpen is about to get the ball. I just can't watch and would rather read about the inevitable lost online the next day.

This is a great team with a glaring problem that will torpedo the season if nothing is done.

And to Mr. Moreno's point of getting 3 mill in the seats this year, I'm a hell of a lot less likely to come out now if I don't have confidence we'll be in every game.

Great post.

kyle said...

coral marshall is a great contributor. glad to see her back.

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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