Is the bullpen still the weak link?

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
10:07
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Things have gone so smoothly this spring for Albert Pujols, Kendrys Morales and the Angels’ four aces, fans’ angst has to drift somewhere and it has landed on the bullpen. Is it this team’s Achilles heel?

Evidence this spring has suggested it might be, and the Angels’ front office apparently shares the fans’ concern. Already, general manager Jerry Dipoto has signed a couple of free agents with major league experience, Jason Isringhausen and David Pauley, to minor league deals.

And his search for arms hasn’t ended. Dipoto has been working the phones fairly aggressively, a source said, to try to dig up pitchers that can secure leads for Angels starters and make the rebuilt offense’s work stand up.

“If you said, ‘Would you want to add bullpen depth? Well, of course,’ “ manager Mike Scioscia said, “but if we don’t, I think we’re in a position where we’re going to be very comfortable if guys just pitch to their potential.”

It’s not that the bullpen has looked bad, just unsteady. And with the money owner Arte Moreno has spent to improve other areas, it’s a major, maybe fatal, gamble to enter a season with uncertainty in such a key area.

Some signs are positive -- the Angels clocked closer Jordan Walden throwing more than 100 mph this spring and Kevin Jepsen, whose velocity was diminished by a knee injury last year, at 98 mph. Lefty Hisanori Takahashi had pitched nine scoreless innings before a wobbly outing at Dodger Stadium Tuesday.

Even Isringhausen’s struggles may not be as dire as they appear. Monday night, he threw practically all sinkers, a pitch he doesn’t throw during the regular season, simply to see if he could get a feel.

But Isringhausen (12.86 ERA), LaTroy Hawkins (5.14 ERA) and Walden (6.75) have all given up copious base runners and plenty of runs this spring. Is it alarming? No, but it’s also not reassuring considering relief was an area that had major question marks going into the spring. The Angels led the league in blown saves a year ago.

The second-year closer, Walden, says he thinks things are close to coming together. For the first time this spring, he had an effective slider in Monday night’s game against the Dodgers -- a crucial secondary pitch -- and he feels a sense of camaraderie among the relievers that was absent last season.

“We’re really close down there,” Walden said. “I mean, last year I really didn’t see that. Adding Hawkins and Izzy, I have three guys I can talk to. It’s going to be a good bullpen.”

In an ideal world, Walden would turn his brilliant stuff into brilliant results and the two veterans, Hawkins and Isringhausen, would give the Angels the right-handed setup options they lacked when Fernando Rodney and the young relievers stumbled. But the Angels have too much invested this year to hope for a perfect world.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Jered Weaver
WINS ERA SO IP
11 3.62 114 144
OTHER LEADERS
BAM. Trout .300
HRM. Trout 24
RBIM. Trout 76
RM. Trout 74
OPSM. Trout .969
ERAG. Richards 2.74
SOG. Richards 143