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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Plenty of Work, Little Progress for Lackey

September 05, 2004|Ross Newhan

John Lackey takes the mound for the Angels today in Cleveland, but the logistical equation is far more complicated than that.

Where is Lackey, really, now that the promise and consistency of his impressive debut for the 2002 World Series winner are less certain?

Where are the Angels, really, as they try to revive their playoff hopes after the Boston massacre left the Oakland A's preparing to send another September postcard from the American League's low-rent neighborhood, emphasizing the importance of consistent starting pitching?

The Angels finally seemed to have most of their expensive components in working order during a 19-8 August, but the Fenway dismantling -- the Red Sox scored 26 runs and had 28 hits in the three-game sweep -- reopened rotation wounds and pushed Angel backs to the playoff wall.

Now, every game is virtually a must game, and if the Angels didn't know what to expect as Jarrod Washburn came off the disabled list to start against the Indians on Saturday night, there is no more certainty about what to expect from Lackey today.

At 25, concluding his second full season, the Angels still consider him a work in progress, which might be OK if he were surrounded by rotation reliability, but that hasn't been the case with Bartolo Colon at the front end and Aaron Sele at the back end.

As it is, Lackey is vital to the Angels, but his progress keeps getting inexplicably stalled.

He lasted only 3 1/3 innings Tuesday at Boston and has permitted 27 earned runs and 47 hits, including eight home runs, in the 32 2/3 innings of his last six starts, wiping out some solid performances in midseason.

Since going 9-4 with a 3.66 earned-run average as the second-half replacement for the bullpen-demoted Scott Schoeneweis in 2002, and capping his debut by becoming the first rookie to win Game 7 of the World Series, Lackey is 21-27 with a 4.85 ERA, having given up 402 hits in 364 challenging innings.

An American League scout who has seen most of Lackey's Anaheim starts said, "All of us [scouts] feel the potential is still there because we've seen him pitch some impressive games, but you have to wonder when he's going to put it together and do it with consistency."

"Right now," he added, "I wouldn't project him more than a No. 4 or 5 starter and I can't see him fitting into a playoff or World Series role if the Angels get that far.

"They have to hope Washburn comes back and that they would have enough in the playoffs with Washburn, Colon and [Kelvim] Escobar."

Who knows about the playoffs? The Angels need Lackey in Cleveland today.

Pitching coach Bud Black said, "First of all, John came up in the second half of the 2002 season pitching with a lot of confidence from his minor league season [8-2 with a 2.57 ERA in triple A]. He came along when the team was on a roll, and he rode the wave with a lot of the guys on that club. We played well, he pitched well, and he had a little bit of an advantage in that the league hadn't seen him.

"Realistically, we all knew there were things he would have to learn once the league adjusted."

Readjusting and basically still learning to pitch -- he played mostly first base before being drafted by the Angels in 1999 -- has been a challenge.

Lackey is still developing a changeup as a third pitch to go with his low-90s fastball and curve, and is still learning to temper his aggressiveness in difficult situations and avoid the big inning.

Location, location, location.

"If you look at his numbers, you can see that John is a strike thrower," Black said. "His walks-to-innings-pitched ratio is very good and above average on any scouting scale. It's just that within that [strike-throwing approach], his command can vary at times and that gets him in trouble.

"He's a very confident guy who trusts his stuff, so he goes after hitters with strikes. There's absolutely no tentativeness to his game, but if he's not locating his fastball, that confidence and aggressiveness can be a double-edged sword."

The hitters, in turn, have been doing the saber rattling.

Lackey was 10-16 with a 4.63 ERA last year and is 11-11 with a 5.12 ERA this year, when Colon has been pretty much a $51-million bust as the alleged ace and only Escobar has been consistent and at times dominant among the starters.

The Angels have 27 games left, but 2005 is already looming for the rotation.

The club is contractually committed to Colon and Escobar, but Sele certainly won't be re-signed, and the unhappy Ramon Ortiz probably has verbally blasted his way into a change of venue.

The commitment to third baseman Dallas McPherson, first baseman Casey Kotchman and catcher Jeff Mathis may have played into the futile negotiations for Randy Johnson before the trade deadline, but the farm system is otherwise devoid of imminent pitching help. The touted Ervin Santana and Bobby Jenks were derailed by injuries this season, and the once-promising Chris Bootcheck is off the radar.

How Arte Moreno intends to lower his payroll and avoid another free-agent investment or two, given the potential holes in the rotation, isn't clear, but Lackey would seem safe despite his inconsistency. He is still financially attractive, being a year away from arbitration eligibility -- a work in progress in more ways than one.

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