- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Three days into the 2011 season, the Angels' bullpen had set a tone the team would scramble for six months to change. It never quite did.
It's not often a team comes together for an impromptu, players-only meeting so close to Opening Day. But after that Saturday game in Kansas City, several Angels veterans -- including Scott Downs and Torii Hunter -- huddled in the trainers room with a couple of the team's young relievers for a pep talk.
Kevin Jepsen and Michael Kohn got their seasons off to awful starts and they eventually would be demoted to Triple-A, yanking two key relievers from the Angels' bullpen and forcing management to scramble for solutions, a process that would go on for months.
Given the rocky start, things actually came together pretty well by mid-season. The Angels' bullpen ERA (3.52) was second only to the New York Yankees' in the American League and rookie Jordan Walden used a 96-to-100 mph fastball to cement himself in the closer's role Fernando Rodney couldn't hold.
But Angels relievers also blew 25 saves, most in the majors, and walked 185 batters, middle-of-the-pack command. It was a far cry from the typically stifling bullpens Mike Scioscia had relied on.
Faced with uncertainty in the bullpen, new general manager Jerry Dipoto did very little. He signed 39-year old LaTroy Hawkins to a $3-million, one-year deal early in free agency, but he let several proven closers sign elsewhere on reasonable contracts. It seemed to be a matter of priorities. Dipoto had already jumped in heavily to improve the Angels' offense and rotation by signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, maxing out his budget.
It seems like an entirely reasonable gamble. Walden wasn't automatic, but how many closers are? Relievers under 25 with triple-digit fastballs and All-Star credentials aren't easy to come by, and the Angels can reasonably expect him to improve with age and an improved off-speed pitch or two.
Downs is among the most underrated pitchers in the major leagues, in part because of his middle-innings role and in part because of his upper-80s fastball. In three of the last four seasons, he has had a sub-3.00 ERA. In two of those seasons, it has been under 2.00. His WHIP the last two seasons has been around 1.000. Right-handed hitters batted .214 off him last year. Lefties hit .179.
Hawkins isn't the intimidating pitcher he was with the Minnesota Twins 10 years ago, but his fastball still averaged 92.6 mph last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, according to Fangraphs.
Beyond those three and lefty specialist Hisanori Takahashi, things get hazy, but Rich Thompson is a serviceable option for the sixth or seventh innings and, as good as the Angels' rotation projects, they probably aren't going to need a deep stable of arms in the bullpen.
You can quibble with the Angels' inaction around their bullpen this winter, but you can't say they haven't thought it through.
Three days into the 2011 season, the Angels' bullpen had set a tone the team would scramble for six months to change. It never quite did.It's not often a team comes together for an impromptu, players-only meeting so close to Opening Day.