- Injured Angels relievers Huston Street, Mike Morin and Cam Bedrosian are all making good progress in their recoveries, writes Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. And while Morin has minor league options remaining and isn’t a lock to return to the big league club right away, the returns of Street and Bedrosian will give manager Mike Scioscia some interesting decisions when it comes to late-inning bullpen usage. Bud Norris has been outstanding in a ninth-inning role, but Bedrosian has been the team’s best reliever for a year, and Street is has the track record and salary of a veteran closer. Fletcher notes that the Angels only have two relievers with minor league options at present, one being left-hander Jose Alvarez, who won’t be going anywhere. As such, it seems that another 40-man move could be necessary. Bedrosian is set to start a rehab assignment within the next week or so.
There’s no more fickle existence in Major League Baseball than that of a relief pitcher. Teams are generally more willing to tinker with their bullpens than their benches, and often need to make changes to account for overworked staffs.
But the tumult also brings opportunity. Relievers who are throwing well at the right moment can find themselves right back in the majors. And there are often wide-open Spring Training battles to be joined and won.
Plenty of relievers signed minor-league deals last winter. And a solid number of them ended up on MLB rosters within the first two months of the season. Despite failing to receive MLB guarantees on the free-agent market, these ten hurlers have provided quite a bit of value in the early going:
Matt Albers, Nationals: With the Nats’ pen struggling badly, Albers has been a desperately need source of reliable frames: 16 2/3 innings of 1.62 ERA ball. A strong 57.8% groundball rate and meager 1.6 BB/9 walk rate tend to support the results, though Albers isn’t getting enough whiffs (7.6 K/9) to keep up quite this level of pitching.
Craig Breslow, Twins: The lefty specialist has been everything the Minnesota front office hoped for when it bought into his new-look delivery over the winter. Like Albers, a minimal BABIP (.217 in this case) helps explain the sub-2.00 ERA, though in both cases the solid early work is enough to entrench these pitchers in their respective pens for the time being.
Jorge De La Rosa, Diamondbacks: A long-time starter, De La Rosa has averaged less than one inning per relief appearance in Arizona. But the results of that change in focus have been quite promising. It’s good enough that De La Rosa carries a 50% groundball rate with 8.8 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9, supporting a 2.35 ERA through 15 1/3 frames. But there could be more in the tank, as he’s also averaging a career-high 94.1 mph with his fastball and generating a huge 19.5% swinging-strike rate.
David Hernandez, Angels: Though he has completed just 11 innings thus far, after making his debut later than most of the names on this list, Hernandez has impressed. He’s showing the same kind of velocity and swinging-strike rates that made him a buy-low option last year for the Phillies, but the real question is whether he can continue to avoid the long balls that have plagued him in recent years.
J.J. Hoover, Diamondbacks: It was anyone’s guess whether the former Reds’ late-inning stalwart would rebound, but he’s showing well through fifteen frames in Arizona. Hoover is walking more than five batters per nine, but has also racked up 12.6 K/9 (on a career-high 12.6% swinging-strike rate) and owns a 3.00 ERA. So far, a new pitch mix (more two-seamers and sliders) seems to be working.
Jason Motte, Braves: After beating out Hernandez to become the next veteran reclamation project in Atlanta, Motte has ascended to the majors and helped stabilize the pen. His peripherals aren’t terribly inspiring — 6.4 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 53.1% groundball rate — but the results (1.59 ERA) have been there through 11 1/3 innings.
Bud Norris, Angels: The crown jewel of the Halos’ impressive slate of finds, Norris has thrived in the closer’s role that he took over out of necessity. Through 23 2/3 innings, he carries a 2.66 ERA with 11.8 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, and a 44.2% groundball rate. Norris is bringing more velocity (94.1 mph fastball) and swinging strikes (13.2%) than ever before.
Yusmeiro Petit, Angels: The veteran long man has been stellar, delivering 28 1/3 staff-preserving innings of 2.54 ERA ball through 16 appearances. Petit is carrying 9.5 K/9 against 3.2 BB/9 on the year. (As if the trio of arms on this list weren’t enough, the Halos have also benefited from the strong work of Blake Parker, who had been outrighted off the 40-man roster over the winter.)
Anthony Swarzak, White Sox: There are some very strong performers on this list, but perhaps none has been quite as impressive as Swarzak. He has given the South Siders 19 2/3 breakout innings of 1.37 ERA ball, with 10.1 K/9 and just 0.9 BB/9 in that span. At present, he’s working at a 19.8% swinging-strike rate — about double what he carried over the prior two campaigns — making him quite an interesting potential trade candidate this summer.
Jacob Turner, Nationals: Though he isn’t carrying sparkly numbers, Turner has been an important contributor in D.C. He’s functioning in the swingman role that Petit occupied last year, providing 21 2/3 innings (over two starts and six relief appearances) of 3.74 ERA pitching thus far. While Turner is averaging only 5.8 strikeouts and 3.3 walks per nine, he is continuing to carry the velocity boost he showed last year. Interestingly, he is now working in the zone far more than ever before (50.2% versus 42.1% career average) — though it’s also important to note that his swings and misses are way down (4.8%).
Entering the season, Cron was a popular trade candidate once the Angels signed Luis Valbuena, as it was reported that Valbuena would spend quite a bit of time at first base. The 27-year-old Cron, though, injured his left foot late in Spring Training and has hit poorly in 90 plate appearances since being activated: .232/.281/.305 with just one homer (a grand slam in yesterday’s game).
[Related: Updated Los Angeles Angels depth chart]
Slow start notwithstanding, Cron’s demotion comes as a mild surprise. He spent the entire 2016 season on the Angels’ Major League roster and hasn’t been optioned to the minors since early June of the 2015 campaign. And from the time of his recall from that most recent Triple-A stint through the end of the 2016 season, Cron slashed an impressive .281/.325/.481 with 31 long balls over the life of 735 Major League plate appearances. While that’s not quite elite production, it’s considerably better than the league average (121 wRC+).
From a service time vantage point, however, the move isn’t likely to impact Cron one way or another. He entered the year with two years, 110 days of Major League service time, meaning he needed just 62 days in the Majors to reach his third full year of service, thereby keeping him on track to reach free agency following the 2020 season. While he hasn’t quite reached the requisite 62 days, he needs just 12 more days of service time in order to do so. Even if Cron were to spend the bulk of the season in Triple-A, he’d still accrue those final 12 days as a September call-up, so the only real way this would delay his free agency would be if he were to incur a season-ending injury in the minors and finish out the year on the disabled list.
With Cron in the minors and Yunel Escobar on the disabled list, it seems likely that Valbuena will spend a considerable amount of time at third base, with Jefry Marte handling duties at first base. Albert Pujols could see a bit of action at first as well, though he’s played in the field just twice in 40 games this season, so the team doesn’t appear to view him as a regular option there.
12:15pm: Fletcher reports that Fister also has an out clause in his contract and will be released if he’s not in the Majors by June 21 (Twitter link). Cotillo noted that the contract has up to $1.2MM worth of incentives available, and as the Associated Press reports, $1MM of those incentives are tied to starting, while $200K are tied to relief work. According to the AP, Fister will earn $100K for making each of his eighth, 10th and 12th starts as an Angel. He’d also earn $150K apiece for reaching 14, 16 and 18 starts, plus another $250K if he starts a 20th game. The deal also has $200K worth of relief incentives — $50K for his 25th and 30th appearances plus $100K for his 35th.
MAY 20: The Angels have made the signing official, with Fister inking a one-year deal (hat tip to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register). He will be assigned to Class-A ball in order to get himself ready for big league action. In a corresponding move to create 40-man roster space, Andrew Bailey was shifted to the 60-day DL.
As of last week, the 33-year-old Fister was said to be close to signing, and Cotillo listed the Angels as one of five clubs in the mix for him at that time. Presumably, though his contract is of the Major League variety, the veteran Fister has consented to be optioned to the minors in order to ramp up to the point where he’s big league ready. Due to the fact that he didn’t sign a contract this past offseason, Fister hasn’t been pitching competitively anywhere and isn’t likely to be ready to step right onto a big league pitching staff.
Pitching depth is a clear area of need for the Halos, who entered the season with Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano mending from Tommy John surgery and have since lost Garrett Richards (biceps strain) and Tyler Skaggs (oblique strain) to long-term injuries. (Skaggs, who is expected to miss more than two months, could be moved to the 60-day DL to create room for Fister on the 40-man roster).
With those four arms on the shelf, the Halos have been utilizing Ricky Nolasco, Matt Shoemaker, J.C. Ramirez, Jesse Chavez and Alex Meyer in the starting rotation. Fister could conceivably step into the spot of either Chavez or Meyer, though he could also begin the year in a long relief role if the Halos’ incumbent starters are performing well by the time he’s ready to join the staff.
It came as something of a surprise when Fister went unsigned this winter. Perhaps the veteran was holding out in hopes of securing a MLB roster spot, as he has now done. Whatever the reason, there ere plenty of organizations that surely would’ve liked to bring him in to compete in camp. After all, he was a high-quality starter as recently as 2014, when he gave the Nationals 164 innings of 2.41 ERA pitching.
That’s not to say that Fister had entered the open market on a high note. He inked a one-year, make-good deal with the Astros last year after struggling (and losing velocity) in 2015. Things did not go as hoped, as Fister ended with a 4.64 ERA with 5.7 K/9 against an uncharacteristically high 3.1 BB/9.
Looking underneath the hood a bit, that 2016 effort doesn’t look a whole lot better. Fister worked out of the zone less than ever (46.1% versus 52.3% career) even as he drew less chases than he had previously (28.9% versus 32.0% career). His typically strong groundball rates have fallen somewhat over the past two years, with Fister also allowing more dingers (over 1.2 per nine) than he had during his peak years.
If there was a positive to be found in Fister’s 2016 campaign, it was definitely in the health department. He made it through 32 starts for the first time since 2013 and did rebound a bit in the velocity department — though he still averaged about a tick less with the fastball than he did in 2014. If Fister can build on that, with an extra-long winter rest under his belt, then perhaps there’s a resurgence still to be found for the respected veteran.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
- The Angels may be charting a whole new course with their pitching staff, Rick Souddress of SB Nation observes. Numerous Halso pitchers are utilizing their four-seam fastballs at career-low levels, Souddress points out. Matt Shoemaker, David Hernandez, J.C. Ramirez, Bud Norris, Yusmeiro Petit and Cam Bedrosian (prior to his injury) are among Angels hurlers that have moved away from their four-seamers, and each has experienced success since doing so. The change is not unique to 2017, either; the 2016 season saw Shoemaker drop his ERA from 9.00 to 3.88 upon making that type of switch, while Bedrosian had a breakout year and Ramirez found success late in the campaign. It’s not clear whether the move away from four-seamers is a strategy implemented by GM Billy Eppler, pitching coach Charles Nagy or others in the organization, though Souddress rightly notes that the decrease correlates with Eppler’s arrival as general manager. Last year’s collective fastball usage of 52.3 percent was the Halos’ lowest rate since 2002, and this year’s 47.9 percent usage rate is their lowest (and fourth-lowest in all of baseball, per Fangraphs).
The Angels will place third baseman Yunel Escobar on the 10-day DL with a left hamstring strain, as per a team announcement. Escobar is expected to miss between 2-4 weeks of action with the Grade 1 strain, which is the least-serious type of such hamstring injuries.
Escobar has delivered a solid .272/.324/.411 slash line over 170 plate appearances for the Halos, buoyed by a strong first week of the season and a red-hot May. The veteran already has five homers this season, tying his total from all of last season. Escobar’s early power surge is reflected in his .139 Isolated Slugging mark, which would be the highest of his 11-year career (his previous single-season high of .136 came in 2009, when he hit a career-best 14 home runs for the Braves).
The loss of such a productive bat is a significant blow to the Angels, who already rank in the bottom-third of most major offensive categories. Mike Trout is having another incredible season and Luis Valbuena has hit well since returning from the DL, though the Halos have gotten little from regulars like Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, Cameron Maybin and Danny Espinosa. Despite this lack of offense and an injury-ravaged rotation, however, the Angels are staying afloat with a 19-21 record, good enough to keep pace in the tightly-packed American League.
A corresponding move will be made once Los Angeles officially puts Escobar on the DL, though it seems like the Angels will simply keep Jefry Marte on the active roster, according to Pedro Moura of the L.A. Times. Marte had just been optioned to Triple-A earlier today, though if he’s sticking around in Anaheim, he and backup infielder Cliff Pennington are the logical candidates to handle third base while Escobar is sidelined.
Angels right-hander Garrett Richards is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list sometime in June, but that’s not going to happen. Richards, who hasn’t pitched since April 5 because of an irritated cutaneous nerve in his right biceps, isn’t healing particularly quickly and probably won’t return to action until at least August.
“Looking at the schedule right now, I think that’s realistic,” he told Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times. “I think that’s all going to depend on when I start throwing again. But with the past cases, this was like a one-time thing for these guys. So I’m hopeful on that, too, that this might just be a fluke thing and I just continue on.”
Pitchers who have dealt with Richards’ injury in the past include then-Dodger Brad Penny in 2004 and former Cardinal Chris Carpenter in the same year, as Moura writes. Penny missed two months, and Carpenter sat out the final two weeks of the regular season and the Cardinals’ World Series-winning playoff run. Angels doctors told Richards that his injury isn’t as severe as theirs were, leading to hope that he’ll pitch again this year. And while Richards doesn’t feel any pain in his biceps, the 28-year-old noted that “if it isn’t strong, the elbow is just gonna be shredded, especially with my velocity and my arm speed.”
Richards, of course, missed most of last season with an elbow issue, though he was able to avoid Tommy John surgery by successfully undergoing stem-cell therapy treatment. Unlike last year, though, the Angels haven’t found an alternative recovery method for Richards, whose only hope is to wait for his biceps strength to return to normal. Fortunately, if Richards is able to throw again this season, the Angels are optimistic he won’t need to embark on a long program before returning to the mound.
“Once he’s 100%, he’s probably already gotten some of the legwork and questions out of the way, compared to where he was in the spring,” manager Mike Scioscia told Moura. “Hopefully that build-up will happen in a more timely fashion than our seven-or-eight week spring training.”
As was the case during a 74-win campaign last year, the Angels have stumbled this season without Richards, having posted an 18-21 record to fall 8.5 games behind the AL West-leading Astros. The Halos’ rotation, which is also without the injured Tyler Skaggs – who, like Richards, missed the bulk of 2016 – has been a mixed bag, ranking 11th in the majors in ERA (4.16) but only 23rd in FIP (4.56).
- In his latest Angels mailbag, Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times tackles a number of topics, ranging from Yunel Escobar’s trade candidacy to the dearth of production the Halos have received in left field. On right-hander J.C. Ramirez, Moura notes that pitching coach Charles Nagy urged Ramirez to ditch his erratic four-seam fastball for a two-seamer late last season, and the results have somewhat quietly been excellent. The hard-throwing 28-year-old has a 3.21 ERA with 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 46.6 percent ground-ball rate in 47 2/3 innings dating back to last September. Moura notes that scouts to whom he’s spoken still don’t know what to make of Ramirez in the long run, but his early work as a starter in 2017 has been a bright spot for the Halos — especially as they deal with injuries elsewhere in the rotation.
The Athletics announced on Thursday that right-hander Jharel Cotton has been optioned to Triple-A Nashville. While Cotton has been impressive at times, he’s also allowed five or more runs in three of his starts, including a seven-run drubbing at the hands of the Angels on Tuesday. As Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, GM David Forst suggested that Cotton merely needs to improve his consistency and may not be long for the minors. ““Jharel has pitched better than what his overall line shows,” said the GM. “…[H]e just needs some more consistency with his performance. The bottom line is that we currently have six starters who are probably deserving of being in the big leagues; Jharel needs to continue to improve in Nashville so he’s ready when the next opportunity arises.” Cotton’s demotion will clear a spot in the rotation for lefty Sean Manaea, who is returning from shoulder troubles early next week. Manaea will be joined by Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman, Andrew Triggs and Jesse Hahn in the starting five.
The Padres announced that they have claimed right-hander Jose Valdez off waivers from the Angels and optioned him to Triple-A El Paso. In order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, San Diego transferred left-hander Christian Friedrich from the 10-day disabled list to the 60-day DL.
The 27-year-old Valdez threw just one inning with the Halos this season but logged 23 1/3 frames out of their bullpen in 2016. In 33 Major League innings between Detroit and Anaheim, Valdez has a 4.59 ERA with an unsightly 27-to-21 K/BB ratio and a 37.5 percent ground-ball rate. However, Valdez does boast a fastball that has averaged 95.5 mph in his big league career, and he’s logged an even 3.00 ERA in 105 Triple-A innings (albeit with similar control issues).