Angels counting on healthier pitching staff in '18

Angels counting on healthier pitching staff in '18

ANAHEIM -- The Angels' greatest source of optimism heading into 2018 centers around a starting rotation that is projected to be healthier and deeper than it has been over the last two seasons.

Injuries decimated the Angels' rotation in two consecutive years, a major reason why the club posted back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992-93, but the outlook is brighter next year, when Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker, Nick Tropeano, Parker Bridwell and JC Ramirez are all expected to arrive to Spring Training healthy.

"We have a lot of guys in here that have to stay healthy in order for us to get to where we want to get to," Richards said. "You look at our team on paper, and it looks great. But if you're not out there on the field, then it doesn't really matter. I think just speaking for me and maybe a couple of other, younger guys on the team, we've got to really focus on staying healthy, that's it."

Richards, Skaggs and Heaney all missed most of the last two seasons, and Shoemaker underwent season-ending surgery two years in a row after being hit on the head by a line drive in the final month of the 2016 season and experiencing radial nerve compression in 2017. Tropeano did not pitch this year as he continued to rehab from August 2016 Tommy John surgery, and Ramirez spent the final six weeks of this season sidelined with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, though the Angels are optimistic that it will not require a surgical repair.

"When somebody goes down, we are all like, 'Really? This is happening?"' Richards said. "I don't think there's any method to the madness. It's all just sheer bad luck, to be real."

Still, Richards and Skaggs are heading into the offseason healthy, and the Angels believe Heaney is over the shoulder soreness that cost him his last three starts this year. Shoemaker is on a throwing program and plans to work up to bullpen sessions before shutting it down for the winter, and Tropeano is progressing toward pitching in the instructional league in Arizona this fall.

The return of those five arms, combined with the breakout seasons of Bridwell and Ramirez, give the Angels confidence that they can continue to build off their 80-82 finish in 2017.

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"The difference from 80 wins to 90 wins, I don't believe that gap is as big as it was last year," manager Mike Scioscia said Monday. "I'm very, very optimistic and excited."

Despite the injury concerns surrounding many of the club's starters, general manager Billy Eppler said he feels comfortable heading into next season with the depth that he already has, meaning the Angels are unlikely to make any high-profile pitching additions via the free-agent market. Eppler said he hopes to extract 600 innings from his top five starters in 2018, and he included prospect Jaime Barria among the pitchers who could help the rotation next year.

"I don't look at it as some kind of blind optimism, like we're closing our eyes and blowing out candles on a birthday cake, thinking, 'Let's get better,' and we're going to do it," Eppler said. "It's more than that. It's the players here giving us that belief. And again, they've got to be able to take the ball and they've got to be able to contribute. They've got to get up to 150 innings, ideally. It'd be great if it were more than that."

A bigger priority for the Angels will be finding ways to improve their offense, which ranked 11th in the American League in on-base percentage (.315) and runs scored (710) and last in OPS (.712). First, second and third base are the most glaring holes, along with left field, should Justin Upton decide to exercise his opt-out clause and become a free agent.

"I'm going to look to improve anywhere possible, but I want our team on-base percentage to be up at .330 or higher," Eppler said. "It's something I learned from my mentors a long time ago: get that on-base percentage up. Don't make so many outs."

Maria Guardado covers the Angels for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.