Angels rely on trio of youngsters to fill out rotation
Richards, Santiago and Skaggs in the running to fill in behind Weaver, Wilson
ANAHEIM -- You can pretty much forget about the Angels signing a starting pitcher on a Major League contract by now. Any rotation help they add prior to Opening Day figures to come via Minor League deals, moves that would add depth without dramatically altering the Major League landscape.
And so, despite efforts to sign Matt Garza and faint hopes that an established veteran would come at a bargain rate, it'll be up to the young, cost-controlled trio of Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to support Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, fortify the rotation and help get the Angels back to the playoffs.
Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, speaking three days before pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, sounds comfortable with that.
"We felt like [Richards] made a very good turn in the second half of the season last year when given an opportunity to start every fifth day, and we're encouraged by where he's headed," Dipoto said in a phone conversation Monday.
"Santiago, because we've never heard of him doesn't mean he's not good. … I know not a lot of people outside of the South Side of Chicago are familiar with him, but he's pretty good. We're excited to see him get the opportunity to go out and sink his teeth into a starting job this spring. And Tyler Skaggs is a guy we are familiar with, both from his past in our organization and from his progression through the Minor Leagues as a prospect. This time a year ago, Tyler was a consensus Top 15 prospect in the industry."
In the wake of the three-team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to the D-backs for Skaggs and Santiago on Dec. 10, Dipoto said the Angels would be "very aggressive with how we fill our pitching needs." But he also indicated throughout the winter that the Angels no longer needed starting pitching at the Major League level and insisted that the club would not be backed into deals it wasn't comfortable with.
Dipoto then proved it by essentially passing on Masahiro Tanaka (seven-year, $155 million deal plus a $20 million posting fee with the Yankees), Bronson Arroyo (two years, $23.5 million with the D-backs), Jason Hammel (one year, $6 million with the Cubs) and Paul Maholm (one year, $1.5 million plus $5 million in incentives with the Dodgers).
"None of the deals made sense for us, whether trying to access veteran starters through trade or free agency," Dipoto said. "And we didn't want to do anything that didn't make sense for us."
Richards, Santiago and Skaggs can all be optioned, but the Angels were hesitant to give guaranteed money to a free agent they weren't certain would be an upgrade over any of them, especially with Joe Blanton owed $8.5 million despite currently having no spot in the rotation.
Garza -- signed to a four-year, $50 million deal by the Brewers -- was a prime target because he could slot in behind Weaver and Wilson and wouldn't cost a Draft pick. But he was the only one for whom they felt comfortable approaching the luxury-tax threshold. The rest were mostly arms they were only interested in if their prices plummeted.
Dipoto would still like to add a veteran or two on a Minor League contract, and there's a strong chance that a lot of starting pitching will come available via trade in-season -- an intriguing route with the Angels still having nearly $15 million in financial wiggle room.
But Dipoto will put most of his trust on a trio of young arms, a sharp contrast to the seasoned trio of Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Blanton that helped make up last year's sluggish staff.
"Our staff this year, I feel like, has upside," Dipoto said. "Last year's staff, I feel like if everything broke right for us last year, it was going to be stable."
The 25-year-old Richards (3.72 ERA in 13 starts down the stretch in 2013) and the 26-year-old Santiago (3.56 ERA while starting 23 of his 34 games) look like locks to join Weaver and Wilson in the rotation.
If the 22-year-old Skaggs (5.43 ERA in 13 Major League starts the last two years, 4.59 ERA in 104 innings in Triple-A in 2013) proves he's ready to be in the big leagues in Spring Training, he'll join them. If not, Blanton or Mark Mulder, or another veteran signed to a Minor League deal, could serve as a stopgap until he is.
Dipoto agrees that Skaggs, ranked by MLB.com as the Majors' 10th-best prospect heading into last season, is an intriguing "wild card" for the 2014 Angels.
"But our season doesn't hinge on whether or not Tyler Skaggs is able to make the staff out of Spring Training and become a star on a dime," he added. "We're going to give him the proper time to adjust."
Blanton will be in camp with the Angels after the worst season of his career, which saw him go 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA and hardly pitch over the last two months. In all likelihood, it looks as if the Angels will either try to get something back in a trade or release him at some point in Spring Training.
But if Skaggs needs some additional Minor League seasoning and Mulder can't complete an improbable comeback after being out of baseball for six years, the Angels may need Blanton -- at least at the outset.
"We have not prejudged," Dipoto said when asked where Blanton stands. "We're not in a position as an organization, nor is there enough pitching in the industry, to prejudge. Joe Blanton has had a solid Major League career; he's coming off a poor year. We have to be open-minded to how he can bounce back. If we find out that he can't, we'll make that judgment at the appropriate time."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.