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What has ailed the Angels? Call it a staff infection

Before a weekend mini-revival, the Angels were off to a 4-10 start, and pitching was the main culprit—particularly the rotation, where struggles spread like contagion.

April 20, 2013|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson has been solid if not spectacular in three starts, going 18 innings with a 1-0 record a 4.00 earned-run average.
Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson has been solid if not spectacular in… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )

Remember those pitching-rich but offensively impaired Angels teams from last decade that were presumably "one big bat" away from being World Series-caliber?

Up until this weekend, they were looking pretty good, weren't they?

Those teams made the playoffs five times from 2004-2009. This year's club is loaded with big bats, including four -- Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo -- who hit 30 homers or more in 2012.

Yet, even after a two-game, 18-run, 30-hit explosion against Detroit, these Angels might be farther away from playoff contention than any of those limp-lumbered lineups of yore.

The game in the post-steroid era is more about run prevention than run production -- just look at the lineups of the 2010 and 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

The Angels, with a $148-million payroll, have a potentially high-scoring lineup, as they showed against the Tigers.

But the outburst may mask a fundamental flaw, that the Angels don't appear to have the pitching to contend for a championship. That was evident in a month that, until Friday, put the jobs of General Manager Jerry Dipoto, Manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher in jeopardy.

Even after back-to-back strong starts, the rotation, which includes the underwhelming Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson and the underachieving C.J. Wilson, has a 4-7 record and 5.18 earned-run average, which ranks 27th among major league teams.

The bullpen lost one of its best pitchers when Garrett Richards replaced injured Jered Weaver in the rotation, leaving Ernesto Frieri and Sean Burnett as the only relievers Scioscia can truly rely on.

Solid starting pitching, stout relief and airtight defense were the trademarks of most of Scioscia's playoff teams. Then owner Arte Moreno's infatuation with marquee names led to the signings of Pujols to a 10-year, $240-million deal and Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million deal.

Those long-term commitments will likely put a drag on team payroll in coming years, and they signaled a philosophical shift away from pitching and toward offense.

One winter after orchestrating the Pujols deal, Moreno flew to Texas to close the deal with Hamilton, using resources many felt should have gone to retain pitcher Zack Greinke, whom the Angels acquired last July from Milwaukee for three prospects, including shortstop Jean Segura, who was batting .377 for the Brewers before Saturday.

It was Moreno, with Dipoto's blessing, who made little effort to retain right fielder and team leader Torii Hunter, who leads the American League with a .400 average for Detroit while Hamilton is hitting .190 with 21 strikeouts.

Dipoto is no front-runner for executive of the year, either. He rebuilt the rotation on the cheap, and Blanton, Vargas and Hanson are 2-6 with a 6.41 ERA so far.

Surely there were better free-agent options than Blanton, and Dipoto traded a promising reliever in Jordan Walden for Hanson, whose ERA jumped considerably in his last two injury-ridden years in Atlanta.

Ryan Madson, still trying to return from Tommy John surgery, was no sure bet when he was signed to close. And it was Dipoto who drove negotiations on the five-year, $77.5-million deal the erratic Wilson signed before the 2012 season.

But Dipoto made a smart trade last May for closer Frieri, and he landed Greinke for last season's stretch run without giving up center fielder Peter Bourjos or Richards. Unlike his predecessors, he is proactive and understands the art of the deal.

Though Dipoto could be handcuffed by a minor league system that, because of trades and free-agent signings, has been reduced to the worst in the game, according to Baseball America, the bet here is he pulls off a move to address the pitching.

Could Dipoto take the fall if the Angels fail to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year? Certainly. But Dipoto has spent a year and half rebuilding the front office, scouting and player development staffs, hiring more than 35 people. Does Moreno want to bring in a new GM to start over?

Firing Scioscia, baseball's longest-tenured manager, would be costly and an admission by Moreno that the 10-year, $50-million extension he gave the manager before the 2009 season was a mistake. Unless the pitching staff stretches its two-day run of success into an extended streak, Butcher could be vulnerable. The Angels' 4.81 ERA ranks 28th.

What the team needs most is for Weaver to make a full recovery from a broken left elbow, setup man Kevin Jepsen to bounce back from a shoulder strain and Madson to return and regain his 2011 form, when he closed for Philadelphia.

Madson and Jepsen would bolster the bullpen, and the Angels could keep Richards, their ace right now, in the rotation. Like they did the past two days, the starters need to pitch better and deeper to alleviate pressure on the bullpen.

If not, all those big bats could go to waste.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

twitter.com/MikeDiGiovanna

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