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Angels camp stunned by Butcher's surgery

Angels camp stunned by Butcher's surgery

Angels camp stunned by Butcher's surgery
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Early arrivals at Angels camp on Sunday were jolted by the news that popular pitching coach Mike Butcher underwent surgery on Thursday for the removal of a cancerous nodule on his thyroid gland.

Butcher, the Angels' pitching coach for the past four seasons, is expected to resume his duties this spring, manager Mike Scioscia said. It is not known if Butcher, who attended a staff meeting on Sunday morning, will be on hand on Monday when pitchers, catchers and players coming off injuries stage the season's first workout at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Butcher, 45, lives in Chandler, Ariz. He went to a doctor after experiencing some neck discomfort, and a biopsy revealed the cancer.

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"Early camp is an important time on the pitching side," Scioscia said. "He'll be able to do everything he can moving forward. It's more important for him that this issue is settled and he's recovered enough to do what he needs to do.

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"I anticipate he'll be part of what we need to do in the next day or two. He was here for the pitching part of our meeting for an hour. He might not be on the field tomorrow, but we anticipate that it will be short term."

Butcher assumed the pitching coach responsibilities when Bud Black departed following the 2006 season to become the Padres' new manager.

Butcher has been active over the winter, working with Scott Kazmir and other Angels pitchers with homes in the Phoenix area.

Butcher will have several new arms -- free agent acquisitions Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi -- to blend into the bullpen, with Takahashi also on the depth chart as a starter along with Matt Palmer and Trevor Bell behind the projected starting five.

The big question last spring was the departure of staff ace John Lackey and the need to replace him. Jered Weaver provided the emphatic response with a brilliant season as the new lead dog.

This time around, with Weaver and Dan Haren firmly established at the top of another strong rotation, the focus is on identifying a No. 1 catcher and closer.

Looking to return to the top of the American League West after plunging to third place with an 80-82 record in 2010, the Angels have some pressing questions to answer, notably at third base and in the leadoff spot.

While the offense captured most of the attention over the winter, culminating in the acquisition of outfielder Vernon Wells from Toronto, Downs and Takahashi arrive to provide bullpen balance that was missing in recent years.

The early favorites to emerge as the starting catcher and closer are Jeff Mathis and Fernando Rodney, respectively, based on experience and past performances. But there is no rush to judgment in either case.

Scioscia and his coaching staff are prepared to study, evaluate and weigh camp developments and Cactus League play -- starting on Feb. 26 at home against the Dodgers -- before making their decisions.

Competition for jobs, Scioscia believes, can be a healthy thing.

"We have guys we're comfortable with behind the plate," Scioscia said, alluding to Mathis, Bobby Wilson and Hank Conger. "We know what Jeff can do, and Bobby did a terrific job last year. Hank also really showed us some good things in September. We're confident we'll get the job done."

Mike Napoli's departure in the Wells deal, with Toronto rerouting him to Texas, eliminated one candidate for the regular catching job.

Wilson showed up at camp having dropped 33 pounds, down to 210, after a winter of extensive workouts and improved diet. He did a solid job in a backup role last year and figures to claim more playing time in support of Mathis. Conger's bat and improving defensive skills have caught Scioscia's attention. The only question is whether the switch-hitting Conger has played enough games to claim the job.

Mathis is rebounding from a fractured right wrist suffered two weeks into the 2010 season that came at a time when he was playing at the highest level of his career. He struggled offensively when he returned and is determined to show that he's a better offensive player than he has shown.

As for the back end of the bullpen, Rodney has the most ninth-inning experience in a group that will include some young power arms and Downs. Takahashi will be an all-purpose reliever and spot starter.

"We feel we've got more depth in our bullpen and balance this year than we've had," Scioscia said. "We've got some guys who can get the job done at the back end of games."

Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden are the most likely young hurlers to bid for the closer's role should Rodney falter. Both right-handers bring serious heat -- Walden throws as hard as anyone in the game -- and have the mentality a manger looks for in a ninth-inning artist.

The rotation is set, assuming Kazmir holds down the No. 5 spot behind Weaver, Haren, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro.

Kazmir has gone through a new winter workout program under the club's supervision, and Scioscia is encouraged by reports. The two-time All-Star left-hander is coming off a disappointing 2010 season but, at 27, should be in his physical prime.

"Our starting pitching has been our foundation since we've been here," said Scioscia, embarking on his 12th season as manager in Anaheim. "Every club looks to have five guys who will keep you in the game on a consistent basis, and that's what we think we have."

Position players are due to arrive on Friday and work out for the first time on Saturday.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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