Angels ready for new ace to emerge

Angels ready for new ace to emerge

Lead dog John Lackey has taken his bark and the bite on his big curveball to Boston, enriched by a five-year, $82.5 million free-agent contract.

The Angels hated to see him go, but they will forge on with a quality rotation that finds its strength in numbers.

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In Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir and newcomer Joel Pineiro, manager Mike Scioscia is convinced he has a quintet that will deliver innings and wins.

The only questions involve health and how the five veterans will line up. Scioscia might have a full house in his hand, but does he have an ace?

Kazmir, Saunders and Santana have been All-Stars, and Weaver's performance in 2009 as the only starter not to miss a turn in a turbulent season warranted a ticket to the Midsummer Classic.

In St. Louis, Pineiro reestablished himself as a front-line starter in '09, and the Angels signed the free agent for two years and $16 million to complete their rotation.

All five have the tools and the makeup to seize the reins and lead a staff.

Scioscia always has maintained that his goal is to have five starters who are capable of leading a staff, and he felt he had that after Kazmir arrived on Aug. 28 from Tampa Bay in exchange for three excellent prospects.

"Our starting pitching has been our foundation since we've been here," said Scioscia, embarking on his 11th season at the wheel 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."

Through September and into October, Scioscia had what he called "the best and deepest rotation we've had in my 10 years here." When the postseason arrived, Lackey was his choice for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Boston, followed by Weaver.

Both pitched brilliantly, keying a three-game sweep of the dreaded Red Sox, but the magic of a remarkable season expired in six games at the hands of the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.

Lackey and Santana opened the season on the disabled list, both missing almost six weeks with arm issues. Weaver took the challenge and delivered top-shelf work, fulfilling the promise he showed in 2006, when he won his first nine decisions and looked like a future ace.

Weaver carried a heavy heart to the mound throughout the season. He had grown close with gifted Nick Adenhart, another potential ace in the making. When Adenhart was killed in a car wreck on April 9, it left the organization and community in profound sorrow.

Weaver dug deep in going 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA, pitching through arm weariness and illness around midseason. His 211 innings and 174 strikeouts were career highs along with four complete games and two shutouts.

"It was a long season, with a lot of ups and downs," Weaver said. "I think I learned a lot and made some strides, and I'm looking forward to next season. It's a process."

At 27, the age Lackey was when he became the ace, Weaver is just as qualified statistically to assume the responsibility as his mentor was in 2006.

Weaver followed Lackey's brilliant Game 1 ALDS performance with a carbon-copy, outdueling Josh Beckett with 7 1/3 innings.

Weaver yielded one earned run on two hits and two walks, striking out seven. In the ALCS, he 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 didn't get the ball.

Self-effacing by nature, Weaver doesn't show his emotions, but he cares just as deeply as Lackey -- or anybody else.

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. He held opponents to a .200 batting average in those situations and was the third toughest pitcher to hit for right-handers, who managed a mere .208 mark.

In his four seasons, Weaver is 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA in six postseason games, three as a starter. He has struck out 22 men in 20 2/3 innings with a superb 1.065 WHIP.

Lackey was 3-4 in postseason play with a 3.12 ERA in 14 games, 12 starts. He struck out 53 in 78 innings with a 1.33 WHIP.

Saunders, a 2008 AL All-Star along with Santana and Kazmir, matched Weaver for the club lead with 16 wins, but there were physical reasons his ERA was inflated by more than a full run per nine innings to 4.60.

Saunders kept quiet about left shoulder irritation that flared periodically, knowing the club was shorthanded in the rotation. But he was visibly relieved to see how it responded after a 19-day break in August. With seven consecutive wins down the stretch, the Virginian recaptured his form from 2008, when he was 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA.

Saunders has the confidence and swagger of an ace and would welcome the opportunity to lead a staff. At 28, he 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.

An easy-going athlete from the Dominican Republic, Santana clearly demonstrated No. 1 stuff in 2008 en route to a 16-7 record and a 3.49 ERA.

When he's sound, Santana 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. He also owns a wicked slider and quality changeup.

Set back by a strained right elbow sustained in Spring Training, Santana labored to find his best stuff last season. It was there in flashes -- as in complete-game shutouts against the Rays in August and the Rangers in his season finale -- but he struggled to command his high-octane stuff with consistency.

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 Cy Young Award discussions.

Joining the club for the stretch run, 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 five, having turned 26 on Jan. 24, Kazmir clearly has the right stuff to emerge as a No. 1 starter, a distinction he owned with the Rays.

With a fastball that blazes in the 94-96 range, the challenge for the Houston-bred athlete is regaining command of his slider. When he's making it bend in the right spots, he can be dominant.

Kazmir fought his control at times in his two postseason starts. But making it through six innings in Fenway Park in Game 3 of the ALDS enabled Scioscia to set up his bullpen as the offense pulled off its memorable ninth-inning rally 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, who lost his rhythm in '09 with the Rays because of a quadriceps strain, spent the winter going through a new workout regimen focused on strengthening his core. He feels it will make a difference, enabling him to sustain his velocity and command deeper in games.

The Angels are familiar with Pineiro from his days in Seattle, where he was a combined 30-18 during the 2002 and '03 campaigns with ERAs of 3.24 and 3.78 while working 194 1/3 and 211 2/3 innings, respectively.

Injuries derailed him in 2004, and he struggled to find his former rhythm, command and confidence before it all came together in '09 with the Cardinals.

Pounding the strike zone with his sinker, he led the Majors last season in fewest walks per nine innings (1.1) and most grounders induced (64.1 percent) while going 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA. His 214 innings represented a career high.

Pineiro, the rotation's elder statesman at 31, is 87-79 in his career with a 4.39 ERA.

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