Baseball changes very quickly. This time two years ago, the Angels were coming off a 98 win season and had the building blocks in place to assemble one of the best rotations in Major League Baseball. Garrett Richards was an ace and Cy Young candidate, Andrew Heaney was a young lefty that projected into the top of the rotation, Nick Tropeano was a steady mid-rotation starter in his mid-20’s and had yet to post an ERA above 4.00. Tyler Skaggs was on the med but still bore some of the shine from just a year earlier when he was a consensus top 20 prospect in all of baseball.
And then baseball changed.
Now the Angels have question marks everywhere you look. This really has become a “make or break” year for the starting rotation.
Garrett Richards – Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Richards chose not to go under the knife a year ago, and instead chose a stem cell approach toward healing his elbow. Everything looked fine last fall, everything looked better than fine this Spring. Everything looked perfect in his first start, when he was touching 98 on the radar gun and hadn’t given up a single hit. Then his fastball dipped to 94 and he started grabbing at his bicep. Apparently, he’s experiencing some bicep weakness, which sounds just about as weird as the dehydration from last year and or hurting his knee jogging to first base the year before. Richards not only has to stay healthy this year, but he has topnotch well. Otherwise, we might see him go under the knife for some kind of arm surgery, miss another season and be th most oft-injured pitcher the Angels have had since Kelvin Escobar (or Ryan Madson or Sean Burnett, take you pick).
Matt Shoemaker – Will the real Matt Shoemaker please stand up? Is it the undrafted career minor leaguer from 2013? Is it the ace and Cy Young candidate from 2014? Is it the terrible fifth starter from 2015? Is it the steady mid-rotation starter from 2016? Something has to give here.
Tyler Skaggs – Drafted by the Angels in their epic 2009 draft, Skaggs was later traded to Arizona for ace Dan Haren. While with Arizona, Skaggs developed into the premier LHP prospect in all of baseball, dazzling scouts with his 95 mph fastball, big bending curve, and a heavy change up that he could spot wherever he wanted. This was what led Arizona to promote him to the major leagues by his 20th birthday, a very rare feat. But from that point, things started to go awry. Skaggs velocity dipped down to 89 mph, the D-Backs brass started tinkering with his delivery, he lost the ability to spot his curve ball and had abandoned the change up altogether. By the time he was 22, Skaggs was trade bait, who consequently ended up back with the Angels in the Mark Trumbo deal. To their credit, the Angels told Skaggs to go back to his old release and just do what got him there. Suddenly his fastball was back up to 94, his curve ball as dominant as ever and the change up returned. Skaggs pitched half the year with the Angels, and posted “ok” umbers with “good” peripherals. Then he got injured and needed Tommy John surgery. Unlike most who only take year to recover, Skaggs basically took a full two years. Upon coming back to the Angels, Skaggs again showed glimpses of what could be, with an ERA at 4.17 but 50 K’s in only 49 innings and a 3.95 FIP. This year, Skaggs needs to finally put it all together. Otherwise that staff ace label he used to have will be long gone. In fact, Skaggs just needs to stay healthy for a full season to avoid being tagged with the “injury prone” label.
Ricky Nolasco – Nolasco is about as established as you can be in major league baseball. He isn’t some elite pitcher that should start opening day, he isn’t a Cy Young candidate. But he also isn’t garbage to be tossed aside without a second glance. Nolasco is a rock solid, steady back-end starting pitcher. His numbers will neither be good or bad, but he’ll eat a lot of innings and give your team the chance to win. Nolasco has had considerable success whenever pitching at home in So Cal with the Dodgers and Angels, and entering his contract year, this is Nolasco’s final opportunity to show the rest of major league baseball that at age 34, he’s still a valuable asset. If Nolasco can’t pitch well for the Angels this year, he won’t get more than a minor league deal next year. But if he does pitch well, the Angels can pick up his option (or it can be automatic if he goes over 205 innings). Either way, Nolasco has a make or break year this year in Anaheim.
Jesse Chavez – This is a guy that’s had to fight for a rotation spot ever since he got into the big leagues. To date, the only team that’s ever given Chavez a look in the rotation was the Oakland A’s, and Chavez made them look very smart by putting up a 3.45 ERA. The Blue Jays and Dodgers weren’t convinced apparently, as both teams wanted to use Chavez in the bullpen or as a spot starter, and Jesse floundered in these roles. But Billy Eppler still though Chavez could be a good major league starter, and so he signed the local product to a 1 year, 5.75 million dollar “show me” deal. If Chavez pitches like he did in Oakland, not only is Eppler a genius, but Chavez is rich from his contract next year. If Chavez doesn’t get it done with the Angels, this will likely be his final season in a major league uniform. No pressure, right?
Alex Meyer – Even the Angels top pitching prospect and #6 starter on the depth chart alex Meyer kids himself in a make or break year. Much like Skaggs, Meyer is a former top prospect that put up video game numbers in the minor leagues but has struggled with injuries and inconsistent in the majors. Most thought Meyer would enter 2017 with a clear cut opportunity as the Angels 5th starter, but Eppler had other plans. In the mean time, the Angels feel they’ve identified what has hurt Meyer’s arm and prevented him from throwing strikes. It’s the way he throws the baseball. No joke. And if you’re keeping score at home, that’s pretty much the biggest slap in the face you can give a pitcher. At any rate, Meyer went along with the Angels plans to revamp his throwing motion by speeding up his windup and changing his arm slot in the delivery itself. The early results are what you’d expect. One minute, he’s unhittable and throwing 97 mph bullets in the strike zone, the next he’s walked four straight batters and is only throwing 93. Meyer has looked pretty freakin’ awesome in AAA so far this year, but he’ll need to do that at the major league level, or at least some of that. If Meyer has the breakout year he’s capable of, he’ll sit atop the Angels rotation (hopefully with a healthy Garrett Richards). But if Meyer can’t put it together, he’ll have a really hard time finding starts with the Angels next year once Heaney and Tropeano return from their surgeries. In fact, Meyer would likely end up in the bullpen, which is a pretty nice fall back option. Still, definitely a make or break year for him as a starter.