Searching for the ace

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Angels' pitchers and catchers hadn't left the clubhouse for their first workout of the spring when somebody asked manager Mike Scioscia if he was ready to name his Opening Day starter.

Nice try.

"You guys are good, man," Scioscia said.

The question figures to come up periodically over the next 43 days of camp, but Scioscia will be deflecting it for a while, possibly until the trucks are packed and heading back to Anaheim. Choosing a No. 1 starter from a deep, veteran group of Angels starters is as difficult as finding a cheap beer at a ballgame nowadays.

Three of the five have been All-Stars. All but one has won at least 16 games in a season. The one who hasn't is a two-time All-Star. And not one of them has the look of a bona fide ace. The Angels are hoping that gets sorted out over the early months of the season, that one of these guys -- Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro or Ervin Santana -- separates himself from the pack.

"I think that, for the regular season, we are all very, very confident in what our rotation is going to bring," Scioscia said. "As you get down to a pennant race and you need that lead dog, we've got candidates."

So they do. Weaver would seem to be the early leader, since he's coming off the best season of the five: a 16-8 record and 3.75 ERA. He also led the Angels with 211 innings. He was close to John Lackey, who left the Angels to sign a five-year, $82.5 million with the Boston Red Sox, and might have picked up a thing or two about anchoring a staff.

The Angels watched Lackey evolve into the role. He won Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie in 2002, but then had to stand in line behind veterans like Jarrod Washburn and Bartolo Colon as they led the Angels' rotation. Scioscia considers Weaver "on the cusp" of being an ace.

Weaver admits he'd like the title some day.

"Obviously I'm not going to say no, because I'd be lying," Weaver said. "It'd be nice to establish yourself as one of those guys, but I just try to get better every year and fit in with the guys. It's a long process to try to figure this thing out."

The Angels' two youngest starters might possess the most raw talent. Santana, 27, and Kazmir, 26, each have shown flashes of brilliance. Not surprisingly, they've also shown maddening inconsistency.

Kazmir has the most experience as a No. 1 starter, since he filled that role for the Tampa Bay Rays as they built toward a 2008 World Series appearance. His career was sliding backward when the Angels acquired him last August. He had struggled with his mechanics and had a 5.92 ERA with the Rays, but apparently he was midway through the process of figuring things out. After the trade, he had a 1.73 ERA in six starts.

Kazmir spent his offseason in grueling workouts in Houston with fellow major leaguers Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn and James Loney. His goal is to build strength in his abdomen and back to help him pitch deeper into games. He has always been a pitcher who can dazzle early and then fall apart without warning late.

Kazmir said he wants the ball when the spotlight is brightest, one attribute a No. 1 starter needs. Scioscia defined an ace as a pitcher who "takes the ball in any environment and brings his game."

"I feed off that, I really do. I want to be that guy. I want to be in that situation," Kazmir said. "When you're a little kid, you always dream of being in the big games, the big situations, making the big pitch."

Pineiro is the Angels' highest-paid starter, but he might be the least likely to emerge as a No. 1. He did his work deep in the shadows of Cy Young contenders Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter in St. Louis last year. Signing him to a $16 million, two-year deal last month gave the Angels arguably the deepest staff in the league, but far from its most defined.

"I'm not going to be mad if I don't get the No. 1. At least that's not the way I am," Pineiro said. "I'm going to go out there and cheer for that guy and then, 'All right, I've got the third game or I've got the second game.' We've all got to work as a team."

The Angels might have the perfect staff for grinding through the 162-game schedule, but matching up with guys like Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee or CC Sabathia might be difficult in September and October. You only need a few good starters in the postseason and it helps if they're better than good. If the Angels are in a hot pennant race this August, Scioscia hopes he has one ace he can pull.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com