Angels' deep rotation leads best of the best selections
The Los Angeles Angels boast five quality starters in their projected rotation
The Yankees have the best infield depth, the Phillies the most balanced lineup
Mike Scioscia is the best manager in the game, Theo Epstein the best GM
TEMPE, Ariz. -- One of the most impressive facets of any team this spring is the depth of the Angels' rotation. For the position of No. 5 starter, which for the vast majority of teams is manned by a journeyman, an unproven kid or worse, the Angels will choose between Scott Kazmir, a former ace with the Rays, and Joel Pineiro, maybe the second best free-agent starter signed this winter.
Despite the loss of John Lackey to Boston, the Angels still possess the deepest, most balanced rotation in baseball. (The rest of the best, from best infield to best bullpen to best depth, is listed below.)
The Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox rotations probably have stronger cases to be cited as the best overall starting staffs based on their top-heavy strengths. But it's hard to make a case any team has a rotation as solid as the Angels from top to bottom
"One through five, we're as dependable as any team I've seen in a long time,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "And that's important when you get into the grind of the season. Some teams have a good one-two look and some even have a good one-two-three look. But they can't get past that.''
Some teams can't get past the idea that the Angels will have a solid or better starter going every day and night, barring injury. The plan is for Jered Weaver, who overcame the death of his good friend Nick Adenhart to post the best year of any Angels pitcher last year (and at 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA, that includes Lackey), to get the Opening Day start, with Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders manning the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, depending on matchups. Kazmir and Pineiro, who resurrected his career with the Cardinals and came to Los Angeles for a very reasonable two-year, $18-million deal, will form baseball's best rotation bottom, maybe the best in years. Competing GMs see no great weaknesses, but one said if there is one he could see it as Saunders, who slipped a bit last year. His record (16-7) was nearly identical compared to 2008 (17-7) but his ERA was more than one run higher (4.60 from 3.41).
"We have some very good interchangeable parts,'' Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "Our guys match up with anybody.''
Last year the Angels carried the potential to have similar depth, but things didn't turn out quite that way. They suffered from the great tragedy of Adenhart being killed by a drunk driver and more usual pitching problems, including a season-ending injury to Kelvim Escobar and a late start for Lackey, who had early elbow problems.
The Red Sox dived in on Lackey with an five-year, $82.5 million deal while other teams appear to have followed the lead of the Angels, who are only known to have offered a three-year extension for close to $40 million to Lackey sometime before last season. The Angels do have their limits. Yet their rotation, taken as a whole, seems fairly limitless.
The Angels generally aren't a break-the-bank team in free agency. In the past two offseasons, they've lost Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez and Chone Figgins as well as Lackey so maybe too much was read by other teams into their middling offer to their one-time ace. "There really wasn't a concern medically,'' Angels GM Tony Reagins said about Lackey. "Our advantage with Lackey was, we knew that player really well. If we didn't have a comfort level, we wouldn't have gone as far as we did.''
The Angels tried hard for pitching superstar Roy Halladay as a Lackey replacement and made what appears to have been a very good offer (shortstop Erick Aybar, Saunders and outfield prospect Peter Bourjos is believed to have been the bid, as first reported by the Toronto Sun). But talks never got going. That could be because the Jays preferred Kyle Drabek but might also be because Halladay, who had a no-trade clause, preferred to stay on the East Coast and train in Florida; he is known to have rejected Texas and Seattle outright before landing in Philadelphia.
Pineiro eventually got the spot vacated by Lackey when he signed for $18 million over two years, a very reasonable deal considering the year he had in St. Louis. "Lackey was a bulldog, but we picked up Joel Pineiro, who had better numbers. I know it was the National League, but he still had better numbers,'' said Angels star Torii Hunter. Pineiro was 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA to Lackey's 11-8 mark and 3.83 ERA.
The depth of their rotation was supposed to be the Angels' big advantage last October, but scheduled off days and rainouts conspired to diminish that alleged edge as they were eliminated in the ALCS by the Yankees in six games. The Angels wound up playing nine games over 24 days, rendering the depth virtually meaningless, as the Yankees, a team with only three dependable starters, and the Phillies, with only two by the end, advanced to the World Series.
The powers at Major League Baseball promised to tighten up the postseason schedule this year, which should play into the Angels' hands. A lot of folks are wondering whether the Angels get that far this year after losing Figgins, and many are making the Mariners, who have co-aces after acquiring Cliff Lee to pair with Felix Hernandez, this year's chic pick. But it might be a mistake to bet against the Angels. As Scioscia said of his five studs, "They give us a chance to win every night.''
The rest of the best of baseball ...
Best Infield (including catcher): Yankees
Both World Series teams from last year have superb infields. But when one team is spending $93 million on these five positions alone (counting catcher), you have to hope they're the best. And they are. That figure represents a slightly higher than average payroll for one entire team. But you still can't quibble with how this money was spent. This is the heart of the best team in baseball. Comprising the fabulous five are two legends (third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter) and three others who are multiple All-Stars with at least some chance of making the Hall of Fame someday (catcher Jorge Posada, first baseman Mark Teixeira and second baseman Robinson Cano). The Phillies' infield is crazy good, too, with Ryan Howard at first, Chase Utley at second, Jimmy Rollins at short and Placido Polanco at third, plus Carlos Ruiz catching. But someone has to be the best, and that's the Yankees.
Best Outfield: Dodgers
Even though Manny Ramirez showed signed of slowing down last year, and apparently still can't decide whether he's playing no more years with the Dodgers, or five, I'll take the Dodgers trio. Matt Kemp is an underappreciated star who can do it all, and Andre Ethier had more walk-off hits than anyone in baseball. The Dodgers were wise to lock up Kemp and Ethier for two years each, avoiding a potentially acrimonious arbitration battle in consecutive years with a pair of youngsters who might not be able to handle it.
Best Lineup Balance: Phillies
The Phillies' lineup is ridiculously good, and was only enhanced by the addition of Polanco, who fits perfectly into the No. 2 hole between Jimmy Rollins and all their big-time bashers, starting with Utley, Howard and Jayson Werth, who may be the most underrated player in baseball. "He's one of the best 15 players in the game,'' one competing GM said. Raul Ibanez doesn't appear to be slowing down, Shane Victorino embodies the "good country hardball player'' manager Charlie Manuel prefers, and eve Ruiz is dangerous in important moments. One Dodgers person said that team identified Pedro Feliz as the only out in the lineup, and he's now in Houston. Judging by all the screaming and hand-wringing going on in Red Sox Nation, this is going to come as a surprise. But while the Red Sox no longer have Manny Ramirez in his prime or David Ortiz in his prime, either, for that matter, they also have very good balance. The Yankees have a great lineup but lost a bit of their balance by letting Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui leave as free agents. Nick Johnson can get on base when he plays.