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Several potential aces ready to step up

Several potential aces ready to step up

ANAHEIM -- Who's No. 1?

For the first time in six seasons, the Angels could enter Spring Training without a certified ace at the top of their rotation. If John Lackey, who has held that distinction since 2005, departs via free agency and a complicated deal for Toronto's Roy Halladay or another high-end starter isn't completed, the Angels will look in-house for their new top gun.

The cupboard is far from bare for manager Mike Scioscia.

In Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir, Scioscia has three All-Stars and a fourth in Weaver whose performance in 2009 warranted a ticket to the Midsummer Classic.

All four have the tools and the makeup to seize the reins and lead a staff, a point Scioscia stressed late in the season when he called this the "best and deepest rotation we've had in my 10 years here."

A look at the four in-house candidates:

Weaver: His remarkable 2006 rookie season stamped him as a future ace, and he delivered on the promise fully in 2009, going 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA as the only Angels starter not to miss a turn. His 211 innings and 174 strikeouts were career highs along with four complete games and two shutouts.

Lackey has been Weaver's mentor and model in many ways. At 27, Weaver is the age Lackey was when he became the staff ace.

Weaver followed Lackey's brilliant Game 1 ALDS performance against Boston with a carbon-copy start, outdueling Josh Beckett over 7 1/3 innings. Weaver yielded one earned run on two hits and two walks, striking out seven. In the ALCS, Weaver lasted five innings (three earned runs) in Game 3, his only start, which the Angels claimed in extra innings. He was poised to go in Game 7, but the Yankees prevailed in six.

Weaver's deceptive, cross-firing delivery is combined with a wide variety of pitches and excellent fastball command. But what distinguishes the 6-foot-7 light tower from Simi Valley, Calif., is his competitive nature.

Only Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez (both at .199) were harder to hit with runners in scoring position than Weaver, who held opponents to a .200 batting average in those situations. Weaver also was the third toughest pitcher to hit for right-handers at .208, trailing teammate Matt Palmer (.197) and Justin Masterson (.203).

Saunders: Matching Weaver for the club lead with 16 wins, Saunders finished like gangbusters after overcoming shoulder irritation that flared up periodically throughout the season.

He kept it to himself, knowing the club was shorthanded in the rotation most of the year, but was relieved to see how the shoulder responded after a 19-day break in August. With seven consecutive wins down the stretch, the Virginian returned to the form that had made him a 2008 AL All-Star with a 17-7 record and 3.41 ERA.

Saunders, like Weaver, isn't overpowering but has a full assortment of pitches he can command in any count and is at his best when he's getting early-count outs with fastballs. Also like Weaver, Saunders takes a swagger to the mound and thrives in difficult circumstances. At 28, the lefty is in his prime and is determined to show he's a top-shelf starter.

Santana: An easy-going athlete from the Dominican Republic, Santana clearly demonstrated No. 1 stuff in 2008, joining Saunders on the AL All-Star squad en route to a 16-7 record and 3.49 ERA.

Santana, when he's sound, has the best natural stuff on the staff, although Kazmir is close. Santana easily gets his fastball in the 95-97 mph range and holds it late in games, and he has a wicked slider and quality changeup.

Inactive for the season's first six weeks with a strained right elbow, Santana labored to find his best stuff. It was there in flashes -- as in complete-game shutouts against the Rays in August and the Rangers in his season finale -- yet he wasn't able to sustain his high-octane stuff over stretches.

When he's healthy and on his game, Santana has stuff that allows him to be dominant. At 27, he's close to the peak of his physical skills and is capable of putting together a season that would have him in the Cy Young Award discussions.

Kazmir: Acquired from the Rays for three prospects on Aug. 28, Kazmir suffered from lack of run support in his six regular-season starts for the Angels, going 2-2. But his consistency was reflected in a dazzling 1.73 ERA, providing samples of the brand of dominance that had made him a two-time AL All-Star in four full seasons in Tampa Bay.

The youngest of the four -- he'll be 26 on Jan. 24 -- Kazmir clearly has the right stuff to emerge as a No. 1 starter. His fastball is in the 94-96 range when he's sound, and he puts it in excellent locations. The big challenge for the Houston-bred athlete will be regaining command of his slider. When he's standing tall and making it bend in the right spots, he's about as good as it gets.

Kazmir fought his control at times in his two postseason starts, but fighting through six innings in Fenway Park in Game 3 of the ALDS enabled Scioscia to set up his bullpen for a strong finish as the offense pulled off its memorable ninth-inning rally -- the highlight of the season -- to finish the series sweep.

With a career average of 9.31 strikeouts per nine innings -- 900 in 870 1/3 rounds -- Kazmir leads all AL starters. Since the start of the 2006 season, his 9.47 strikeouts per nine innings lead the Majors.

Kazmir missed time in '09 with a quadriceps strain, but he was healthy when he arrived in Anaheim and gave a few previews of coming attractions.

Like Lackey, Kazmir brings that Texas heat. It's the stuff of lead dogs.

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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