For a number of years now Angel fans have had to be content with the notion that we have an incredibly talented pitching staff and a mediocre (at best) offense. Once again that is the theme of the LA Angels but Spring Training 2007 brings a couple of huge question marks with the Angels staff. Number one on the concern list is Jered Weaver whose spectacular debut last season only bolstered the respect most baseball critics have for the Angels' hurlers. But the heaviest workload of Weaver's life prompted concern that the young pitcher was poised for a physical breakdown in 2007. Sure enough early in spring workouts Weaver was diagnosed with biceps tendinitis. Former ace Bartolo Colon has not pitched effectively since 2005 due to a ragged rotator cuff. But both pitchers threw 45 minute bullpen sessions this week and team officials are hopeful that both could return to the rotation by late April.
Best case scenario is that Weaver and Colon are both healthy and pitching at the tops of their respective games this season. Worst case is that both get shut-down early and are non-factors for the Halos in 2007. So what can fans count on when the Angels break camp at the end of this month?
1. John Lackey is the ace of this team. While other pitchers win awards and collect accolades Lackey is the #1 pitcher on this team. Lackey has three winning seasons in a row, compiling a record of 41-29 while averaging better than 200 innings per season. He is a work-horse and the most reliable pitcher the Angels have had since Chuck Finley. Lackey has already been named the opening day starter by Manager Mike Scioscia and we can go ahead and pencil him in for at least 14 wins and an ERA around 3.50.
2. Ervin Santana is a solid #2 starter. Santana has progressed through the Angels' system in exactly the manner you would hope for. Strong work in the minors followed by 133 innings for the big club in 2005. His encore was a 16-8 record last season with 204 innings pitched. So much for a 'sophomore slump'. Santana's gradual progress has allowed him to develop the stamina and strength to become a reliable starter. While Weaver only through 123 innings last season it was on top of his minor league work and the combination was a far greater number of innings than the former 49er every threw for Long Beach State.
3. Kelvim Escobar remains an enigma. Maybe it was getting tossed between Toronto's bullpen and starting rotation but you never really know what you are going to get with the K-man. Even the Angels were guilty of plugging Escobar into their bullpen for awhile when he returned from injury in 2005. But with 189 innings of work last season Escobar may finally be back to being a reliable starting arm. 2007 is going to be an important year for Escobar as tries to make the leap from utility pitcher to quality starter. In 2006 Kelvim started April with a solid 3-2 record and 3.61 ERA. But he faltered in May, going 2-3 with a 4.45 ERA before melting down completely in June with an 0-4 record and 4.45 ERA. But a 2-0 July (2.77 ERA) sparked a rebound that helped Escobar finish with a 3.51 ERA and 11-14 mark. A number of those losses were direct results of a lack of offense from the team behind him so maybe KE has inherited the "Hard Luck" nickname from 'Hard Luck' Chuck Finley. With essentially the same offense as last season it will be up to Escobar to win his share of games this year in spite of the team behind him.
4. Joe Saunders is this year's wild-card. Saunders went 7-3 for the Halos last season despite a lofty 4.71 ERA. With Weaver and Colon's status up-in-the-air he could be the x-factor for the Angels this season. If he continues to develop there is no reason not to expect Saunders to excel in 2007 but he likely will get bounced between Anaheim and Triple-A Salt Lake as the stop-gap pitcher Scioscia turns to as injuries dictate.
5. Hector Carrasco will get another chance to start. With neither Weaver or Colon expected to be ready until mid-April at the earliest it looks like Carrasco will get another chance to start. He blew his chances as a starter for the Angels last season and seemed to find a niche as a long reliever. That was the position the team had hoped he would fill this season until injuries forced him back to the rotation. Carrasco has made no secret of his desires to start but has wisely also said he is just happy to play, be it in the bullpen or the rotation. Long-term Hector is a reliever but if he has success early as a starter he could become more viable as a sport starter this season which would likely suit him just fine.
So the long and short of it is this: the Angels with Weaver and Colon pitching to their ability have the best rotation in baseball. Without them they are not nearly as good but still one of the best in the league and the class of the AL West. We will know a lot more by the end of April with regard to Weaver and Colon's status but I like Colon's chances of success this season more than Weaver's. For one Bart is in a contract year and is pitching for next season and beyond. He has had a lot of time to rehab his shoulder and all indications are that he is going to be ready for the rigors of the season by the end of April. Weaver's tendinitis is a trickier kind of injury. He could pitch his way through it and have a great year. But the odds are he will over-pitch, trying to do more than he should this season put his entire season in jeopardy.