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ANGELS SPRING REPORT

Angels' Justin Speier looks to get his groove back

Coming off perhaps the worst season of his career, the right-handed reliever says he worked harder this winter, with the aim of reclaiming a prominent role in Angels' bullpen.

February 25, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Whatever frustration Justin Speier felt after suffering though his worst season in nine years, a 2-8 disaster in which he had a 5.03 earned-run average, gave up 15 home runs and was left off the Angels' playoff roster, the reliever tried to internalize.

"I definitely worked out this winter with a little chip on my shoulder, because I had eight good years in the big leagues, I ran into a bad year last year, and it wasn't fun," Speier said.

"I have a lot of pride, and I feel like I was one of the better setup guys in the game. Then, to not be able to do that was very disappointing. I want to get back to being the kind of pitcher I've always been."

That would be the right-hander who had a 3.40 career ERA before 2008, and whose fastball-slider combination and late-inning experience earned him a four-year, $18-million contract from the Angels two winters ago.

Not the erratic veteran who led the Angels with eight wild pitches, hit six batters, walked 27 in 68 innings and allowed opponents to hit .261 last season, his highest mark since 1998.

"My stuff and velocity didn't change, just my location," Speier said. "Control has always been the biggest part of my game. I need to get back to being aggressive and attacking the zone."

Even if he does, there is no guarantee Speier, 35, will earn his setup job back. Veteran Scot Shields is expected to set up new closer Brian Fuentes, and hard-throwing Jose Arredondo emerged as a late-inning force in 2008, going 10-2 with a 1.62 ERA.

But if Speier regains his pre-2008 form, he would combine with veteran left-hander Darren Oliver and another hard-throwing youngster, Kevin Jepsen, to give the Angels a formidable front end to their bullpen.

And that would give them an even deeper, more versatile relief corps than last season, when record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez handled the ninth inning.

"My goal is for us to have one of best bullpens in baseball," Speier said. "With the arms we have, and me getting back to who I normally am, it's going to be another great year. We all know that pitching really carries a team, so we're going to be OK."

The Angels don't need Speier to dominate, but if he is to solidify his job -- and avoid becoming a mop-up man, as he was for large chunks of 2008 -- he needs to be better than OK.

"We're very confident he's going to perform better," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's focusing on some adjustments, on what is really his bread and butter. We expect him to be more productive, and that's certainly depth we're going to need."

Alterations

The Angels open Cactus League play today against the Chicago White Sox at Tempe Diablo Stadium, and already Scioscia has had to alter his pitching plans.

Scheduled starter Nick Adenhart, a candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation, was scratched because of flu-like symptoms and replaced by Matt Palmer.

Fuentes, who will pitch in the World Baseball Classic, was also scheduled to appear but returned home to Merced, Calif., to tend to a family matter. The left-hander should be back in time to pitch Thursday.

WBC-bound relievers Shields and Arredondo are also scheduled to pitch today. Shields has been icing his left knee for several days, but Scioscia said he hasn't missed any workouts.

"He gets bouts of shin splints every spring," Scioscia said. "He's moving fine, throwing the ball very well, so it's not a concern."

Short hops

Results of an MRI exam on Kelvim Escobar's injured left calf were not available Tuesday, but the right-hander, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, was able to play catch and said he was feeling better. . . . Center fielder Torii Hunter will be profiled along with athletes such as LeBron James and Terrell Owens on a CNBC special called "America's new multimillionaires: Black stars of sports, entertainment and media," which will air Thursday at 9 p.m.

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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