Angels stacked with deep rotation

Angels stacked with deep rotation

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Five 2s beat an ace, 2, 3, 4 and 5 any time. Any card player can tell you that.

Any baseball player forced to face quality stuff from a succession of high-caliber No. 2 starters will agree wholeheartedly.

Much has been made this winter and spring about the Angels' loss of John Lackey, their acknowledged ace having signed a free-agent deal with the Red Sox. Critics wonder how the three-time American League West champions can replace the big Texan, who held the lead-dog tag for four years.

In Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Scott Kazmir and newcomer Joel Pineiro, the Angels have five established starters in the 26-to-31 age range.

Manager Mike Scioscia is calling it "the deepest rotation in my time here," an 11-year run that began in 2000.

"If you think about it," Saunders, the man from Virginia Tech, said, "talent-wise, you're better off with five twos than a one, two, three, four, five. When the other team has its third, fourth and fifth guys going, you should have the advantage. And you're even or better against their No. 2 guy. As good as our guys are, we'll also be competitive against the No. 1 guys.

"With Kaz, Weaver, Santana, Pineiro and myself, not to brag, but we'll be sending a guy out there every day who can keep you in the game and win. There's not a weak link."

Kazmir, an ace at 21 in Tampa Bay, is hoping in his first full season with the Angels to recapture that dominant form. The lefty shook his head when asked if he's been part of a rotation this deep.

"This group is stacked," he said. "All these guys can deal. You can get through the season without that No. 1 guy, but you'd like to have someone in that role in the postseason."

In the meritocracy managed by Scioscia, the top of the rotation will sort itself out according to performance levels and health.

"It definitely has importance, has significance," Scioscia said when asked about the value of a staff anchor. "As you get into a pennant race and hopefully the playoffs, you'd obviously like to have that guy you can count on to go on the road and win a big game. John was that pitcher.

"We have guys who have that potential. I'm very confident one or more of these guys can pitch at that level, comparable to John. A lot of these guys are at the same stage John was when he became that lead dog."

Lackey was 27 when he assumed the reins in 2006. Kazmir is 26, Weaver and Santana 27, Saunders 28 and Pineiro 31.

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Signed to a two-year, $16 million free-agent deal to fill out the rotation, Pineiro flourished as the No. 3 man in St. Louis last season behind co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Pineiro's 15-12 record with a 3.49 ERA in 32 starts was comparable to his back-to-back 2002 and 2003 seasons in Seattle when he was 14-7 and 16-11, respectively.

"I had a feeling when I came into the clubhouse that this was something that reminded me of 2003," Pineiro said. "That was the season in Seattle when all five of our starters made every start.

"If we can put things together, this can be a great rotation."

Jamie Moyer, Ryan Franklin, Freddy Garcia and Gil Meche formed that '03 Mariners rotation with Pineiro. Moyer, going 21-7 at age 40, was the ace, with all but Meche exceeding 200 innings pitched.

"What I like about this rotation is there are no big egos," Pineiro said. "Nobody thinks he's better than the other guys. We're got five guys who can get it done. How they decide to fit us in is a good problem for the manager to have."

All five have the ability and potential to achieve ace stature when they're physically sound and in a groove.

Kazmir, a two-time All-Star, joined Saunders and Santana on the American League staff at Yankee Stadium in the 2008 Midsummer Classic. Kazmir was the winning pitcher after Saunders and Santana eached worked an inning.

Weaver, the one Angels starter not to miss a turn in '09, delivered a season that merited All-Star consideration. The cross-firing right-hander is the most logical candidate to assume the lead role of his old buddy, Lackey.

"Sure, I'd love to have that role," Weaver said. "But I really don't like to think about it. I just try to improve every year.

"We've got four other guys who can fit that role as well as I can. I'm looking forward to going to work and proving what I can do this spring. It's a learning process, and I'm always trying to figure out [how] to reach my highest level of performance."

Weaver's career numbers after four seasons -- he's 51-27 with a 3.73 ERA -- are better than Lackey's were when he assumed the role of No. 1 starter from Bartolo Colon in '06.

In terms of pure, unadulterated stuff, Santana and Kazmir -- both easily hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun with their heaters -- stand a notch above Weaver, Saunders and Pineiro.

Both Santana (elbow) and Kazmir (strained quadriceps) missed significant time in '09 on the disabled list and struggled to recapture their rhythm and form before finding the right stuff in the final month.

"My goal," Santana said, "is to have a better year than 2008. I think I can do that."

A dominant force that summer, he finished 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA in 32 starts, with career highs in innings (219, fourth in the AL) and strikeouts (214, second in the AL) while walking only 47 men and holding hitters to a .237 batting average.

"Ervin is throwing great," Scioscia said. "The ball is coming out of his hand hotter than at any time last year."

As a group, they clearly have concluded that they're well armed for a run deep into October.

"Every year," Saunders said, "you develop from the competition within a staff. You always want your teammates to do well and win, and you want to be one of those guys keeping it going. You want to hold up your end.

"Friendly competition raises your game."

As the summer develops, it also will reveal a No. 1 from five highly qualified candidates.

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