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Bill Shaikin | SUNDAY REPORT

Angels look to bullpen

September 23, 2007|Bill Shaikin

There are articles of faith in baseball.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will appear on your television. Ichiro Suzuki will get 200 hits. The Florida Marlins will play in front of 200 people. The Angels will have an outstanding bullpen.

Not so fast on that last one. Not this year.

The Angels have an average bullpen, at least statistically. In October, that simply will not do.

This is not to say the Angels are doomed, to spoil the party as they celebrate their third division championship in the last four years. That's elite company. The Yankees can make that claim, and the St. Louis Cardinals. So can the San Diego Padres, if they get past the Arizona Diamondbacks.

That's it. Three teams, maybe four. Light up the halo.

When Bill Stoneman and Mike Scioscia took over the Angels eight years ago, they agreed that teams win with pitching, and they built accordingly. The home runs have come and gone, but not the zeros at the end of the game.

Stoneman inherited Troy Percival, the closer, then assembled the rest of the bullpen with smarts, luck and liberal use of the minor league system. He scoffed at the idea of spending millions on setup men.

The Angels' relievers led the American League in earned-run average in 2002, the year of the World Series championship, and again in 2003. Stoneman did not shop for the primary setup men in the free-agent catalog.

Francisco Rodriguez was a sore-armed starter, converted to relief in the minor leagues in 2002. Scot Shields was a 38th-round draft pick. Ben Weber was claimed on waivers. Brendan Donnelly had washed out of six organizations -- and an independent league.

The league catches up to you, and imitates you. In Oakland, Billy Beane demonstrated you could run an economical yet productive offense by looking at on-base percentage, and the league caught on. In Anaheim, Stoneman demonstrated you could run an economical yet productive pitching staff by building backward from the ninth inning, and the league caught on too.

He lost Bobby Jenks and Derrick Turnbow and Joel Peralta, all on waivers. He missed on all three. Jenks emerged as an All-Star with the Chicago White Sox, Turnbow an All-Star with the Milwaukee Brewers, Peralta a useful middle man for the Kansas City Royals.

He flipped spare parts and second-tier prospects for young bullpen arms -- Ramon Ortiz for Dustin Moseley, Scott Schoeneweis for Scott Dunn, Wil Nieves for Bret Prinz, Alberto Callaspo for Jason Bulger, Kevin Gregg for Chris Resop, Donnelly for Phil Seibel. He missed on all except Moseley, at least so far.

He spent modest millions, signing Esteban Yan and Hector Carrasco and picking up J.C. Romero in a salary dump from the Minnesota Twins. He missed on all three, although Carrasco had his moments.

For all the grief Stoneman takes every July for doing nothing, he did plenty to try to develop a new generation of relievers. He did no harm. With Percival, Rodriguez, Shields and Donnelly heading the bullpen, he could afford to experiment with live arms in the sixth inning.

The Angels anointed Rodriguez the closer after the 2004 season, and Percival departed. They slipped to fifth in bullpen earned-run average in 2005 and 2006. As Stoneman shopped Donnelly last winter, the depth had run out. He had Rodriguez and Shields, and nothing more.

So, for the first time in his tenure in Anaheim, Stoneman spent real money on the bullpen. He signed the best reliever available in free agency, Justin Speier, for $18 million over four years. He committed another $18 million to Shields, also for four years. He spent $7 million on Rodriguez, for one year, and another $2 million on Darren Oliver.

And, for the first time in his tenure in Anaheim, the Angels have a below-average bullpen -- at least statistically, with a 4.08 ERA that ranks eighth among the 14 teams.

"We've been performing better than what the ERA might look like," Scioscia said. "The assumption is, we're not performing well in the bullpen. I think the drop-off has been slight, for the important numbers we need. The most important thing in our bullpen is the back-end depth."

That's the weird, and mildly disconcerting, thing. The rise in ERA is largely attributable to the back end -- Rodriguez, up from 1.73 last season to 2.94 this season, and Shields, from 2.87 to 3.77.

But Scioscia says he evaluates his bullpen on saves, on holds, on how well the relievers protect leads. The Angels' conversion rate on save opportunities: 79% last season, 74% this season.

"You can have a couple rough games and it could skew the numbers," Speier said. "I look at how many games the team has won and how many games the team has lost. I think we've got a very good bullpen."

Said Shields: "If you go and ask people around the league, I think they'll feel we have one of the best."

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