The Angels' barely-larger-than-necessary catalog of starters also helps explain some of their success this year. Where that current success ends up this season will be seriously challenged the rest of the way, because in the bottom of the second inning during Wednesday night’s game in Boston, the Angels' rotation suffered a potentially devastating blow. Boston Red Sox third baseman Brock Holt hit a grounder to first baseman Albert Pujols; as Richards ran to cover first base, his left knee buckled. He fell to the ground in pain and had to be carted off the field. The severity of the injury is not yet known, but Angels fans would do well to withhold optimism.
Garrett Richards' knee injury looked ugly from the moment he went down near first base.
The descriptor "ace" is tossed around a lot, and, although coming into the season Richards might not have been considered a major league ace -- or even a staff ace -- he has performed like one this season. Richards leads the Angels with a 2.53 ERA and a 2.59 FIP. He's striking out nearly a batter per inning and is walking fewer than three per nine. In terms of WAR, his 4.5 mark is more than double that of Weaver's second-best 2.0. Richards is also among the best pitchers in the American League. He has the fifth-best ERA in the AL and has pitched 31 percent better than league average.
With Richards hurt and Skaggs out for the year for Tommy John surgery, the four known occupants of the Angels rotation are Weaver, Wilson, Santiago and Shoemaker. Who will fill Richards' spot should he miss a significant amount of time is unclear, but the potential names currently in the organization are uninspiring. In June, the Angels acquired Wade LeBlanc off waivers from the New York Yankees. LeBlanc has pitched only 7⅓ innings in 2014; he pitched 55 last season between the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros for a 5.40 ERA.
Another possibility is Randy Wolf, whom the Angels signed in late July. Wolf is with his fifth organization of 2014, as he was signed and released by the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, Marlins and Baltimore Orioles before signing with the Angels. The 5.26 ERA Wolf posted while with the Marlins resembles his 5.28 ERA from 2012, the last time he pitched in the big leagues before this season.
The final possible in-house replacement for Richards is Chris Volstad. Volstad spent 2013 with the Colorado Rockies, posting a 10.81 ERA in eight innings of major league action. That is, of course, a small sample size. The 4.94 ERA Volstad produced in more than 700 big league innings is a larger sample that's equally frightening in a playoff race.
Looking around the big leagues, there are quality starting pitchers who might be made available through a waiver deal, such as Jorge De La Rosa and Bartolo Colon, assuming the Oakland A's can't block the Angels with their own claim.
Richards' absence will be felt most in the playoff race. The Angels currently sit 1½ games ahead of the A's. It's entirely possible the division will be decided by a single game, and it's also entirely possible that losing Richards for the year will cost the Angels at least a win or two. As things now stand, it looks like second place in the American League West will earn one of the two wild cards, but that will come with an enormous disadvantage. An injury such as this one highlights how important it is to make it to the playoffs via a division title rather than a wild card. If the Angels finish in second place, they very well might be tasked with a one-game playoff against the Detroit Tigers, or maybe the Kansas City Royals, who would trot out James Shields to pitch, or perhaps Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. And the Angels would have to play that game without their own ace to send to the mound in a must-win game.
Richards' injury also forces us to re-evaluate the trades that general manager Jerry Dipoto made at the non-waiver deadline. The contrast between Dipoto's strategy and A's GM Billy Beane's is glaring: Dipoto reinforced the Angels' bullpen by acquiring Joe Thatcher, Jason Grilli and Huston Street, while Beane hoarded many of the available starting pitchers in Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. At the time, Dipoto's moves appeared to shore up a critical piece in preparation for a playoff run. Now, however, the Angels are left with a deep bullpen, four starting pitchers and a stark reminder that good health and good luck are fleeting.