Monday, March 29, 2010
Bullpen could be intimidating
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was early in spring training and Torii Hunter was one of the few position players in the room. As he surveyed the Los Angeles Angels clubhouse, he noticed a group of pitchers clustered in one corner reclining after their workout.
"We have a nice bullpen going, I'm going to be honest with you," Hunter said.
Fernando Rodney has been among the hardest throwers in the league since he arrived in 2002.
If Hunter is right -- and early indications suggest he could be -- the Angels will return to the formula that has been central to their success in the Mike Scioscia era: stifling, hard-throwing relief. A year ago, the Angels hardly looked like themselves for most of the season, their bullpen fumbling away game after game.
The Angels' 4.49 bullpen earned-run average was worse than all but three teams in the American League (Cleveland, Baltimore and Kansas City) and the other three each lost at least 97 games. The Angels won 97, but largely in spite of their bullpen.
An infusion of owner Arte Moreno's cash -- the Angels signed Fernando Rodney to a two-year, $11 million deal -- and the skill of a surgeon's tools have the Angels feeling relieved once again.
Rodney and Scot Shields, nine months removed from knee surgery, could team with hard thrower Kevin Jepsen to form an intimidating triangle setting up closer Brian Fuentes. Each of the three set-up relievers is capable of throwing the ball harder than 93 mph and both Rodney and Jepsen can touch 98. Each has an effective secondary pitch that can make the fastball look even faster.
It could be the perfect lead-in to Fuentes, who relies on deception rather than power.
"We're excited to see how it's going to play out," catcher Jeff Mathis said. "Knock on wood, it's nice to have everyone healthy this year and, hopefully, we can carry that right on through."
The Angels have long been enamored with velocity, so it's not surprising they offered Rodney more money than any other team this winter. He has been among the hardest throwers in the league since he arrived in 2002, but his softest pitch has given him staying power.
Rodney was a two-pitch guy in the Detroit Tigers' low minor leagues. Then, one day, the slider simply wasn't there.
"I lost it," Rodney said.
Even though he brushed triple digits, he couldn't get by on one pitch alone. Eventually, even the hitters of the Florida State League were going to time it. Its velocity was only going to help it travel farther off the bat.
Desperate, Rodney grabbed the ball one day and tried something new. He closed his index finger and thumb together, forming a circle. His middle and ring fingers held the other half of the ball.
He went through his normal motion and let the ball go. The lighter grip slowed down its progress by a good 10-14 mph, but his arm motion was virtually identical. Ten years later, the changeup has made him one of the most difficult relievers to hit. He also sprinkles in a mid-90s sinking fastball.
When Hunter was with the Minnesota Twins, he used to face Rodney routinely.
"He'll be down at 92, 93 trying to throw strikes, then blow one by you at 99," Hunter said. "I think he'll help our bullpen out a lot. A whole lot."
Since 2003, Rodney has saved 70 games, more than half of them coming last year. In his career, major leaguers are hitting .241 against him.
As long as Fuentes pitches well, the Angels plan on using Shields, Jepsen and Rodney leading up to the ninth inning. But all three of those guys have pitched in save situations, so the team has options if Fuentes struggles. Rodney said he's content to take a step down the bullpen ladder with a new team, but that he's ready if the Angels need him to close games.
"I'm comfortable," he said. "I just want to be in the game, no matter what."
The Angels got Rodney as a finished product. The Tigers had to search far and wide for an arm as strong as his. He's from a small town in the Dominican Republic called Samana. It's located on a peninsula in the northeast tip of the island, an area known more for its quiet beaches than its teeming baseball talent. The vast majority of Dominican major leaguers are from the southern half of the island.
Since the Tigers found Rodney in 1997, scouts have beaten a path to Samana more frequently. National League batting champ Hanley Ramirez is from there, as is Tigers pitcher Alfredo Figaro.
"One guy signed with Kansas City and I said, 'Oh, maybe I've got a chance. I'm a good ballplayer, too,'" Rodney said. "I just kept practicing and working to get strong for the future and I got it. They took us to Santo Domingo. Not too many of us made it."
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.