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The old “pitching wins championships” adage is tired, but for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, pitching did carry home the AL West crown. Now that the staff has emerged as a legit force to be reckoned with, it’s already facing some significant changes.

The rotation was tops in the league according to our SNLVAR metric. The top two horses, Bartolo Colon and John Lackey, will stay put. Which raises an interesting question: was Colon actually the best pitcher on his own team?

Colon   222.7  .237  .029   .047   .173    1.27    6.7   51.1
Lackey  209.0  .233  .015   .080   .223    1.63    5.5   50.3

It’s pretty close. Lackey, of course, did not appear on any ballot, while Colon took home the hardware. But there’s some turbulence after these two. Paul Byrd (37.3 VORP, 20th in AL) signed with Cleveland on Sunday, and if Jarrod Washburn (48.8 VORP, eighth in AL) follows suit and leaves, the Angels are left a bit short-handed. The good news is that they’re better poised to absorb the losses than most teams would be. The promotion of Ervin Santana–originally to replace the injured Kelvim Escobar–turned into much more than a cup of coffee. Santana stuck for the rest of the year, starting 23 games. When Colon went down in October, Santana stepped up to start Game 4 of the ALCS. It didn’t go well. However, Santana’s emergence afforded the Angels the luxury of slotting Escobar and his touchy arm in the pen–where he was not only unhittable, but was also desperately needed as the suddenly human arms of Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez began to tire down the stretch and in the playoffs, respectively. As reported by, Escobar will rejoin the rotation in 2006 to help compensate for the free agent departures. So long as Santana isn’t dealt away for Manny Ramirez, he’ll stay in the rotation.

Just last week the Angels flew under the radar by signing Hector Carrasco away from Washington. The two-year deal guarantees $6.1 million and includes an optional third year at $3 million (when he will be 38). The Carrasco situation is loaded with subplots. He spent 2004 as the swingman for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. There he pitched 76 innings with 74 hits, 12 home runs, 37 walks and 70 strikeouts–and a 5.57 ERA (thanks to for the stats). That was all the Hector Carrasco the Buffaloes could stomach, so they released him after the season.

The mediocrity dates back much further. He was a so-so stopgap for the Orioles in 2003, missed all of 2002 with rotator cuff surgery, and posted VORPs between 7.8 and 13.5 every year between 1995 and 2001. Not since 1994 had Carrasco done anything noteworthy, and even that year was mostly the creation of a somewhat fluky 2.24 ERA. Over the span of his career, he did show consistent groundball tendencies and avoided home runs. But poor command always plagued Carrasco (482/299 K/BB in 605 innings entering 2005).

It’s doubtful the Nats expected much of their 35-year-old non-roster invitee. If he couldn’t cut it for a moribund Japanese team, he’d probably be lucky to pitch anywhere, at any level, in 2005. But Carrasco had a secret weapon–a new cutter. He lasted through Spring Training and reported to Triple-A Ottawa, where he started with eight spotless innings. The Nationals needed help when T.J. Tucker got hurt, and promoted Carrasco in late April. Chad Cordero got all the attention in the pen, but Carrasco’s VORP was 10 points higher. He stuck in the bullpen until September, having thrown 61 2/3 innings at a 2.04 clip–when the Nationals caved in to Carrasco’s desire to start. He blanked his opponents in three of his five starts, posting an even better 2.02 ERA.

Also interesting, his groundball/flyball ratio of 1.05 was a career low. A .236 average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests he was quite hit-lucky, but 2005 was still Carrasco’s career year. This establishes the high points of his career curve at 1994 (age 24, 18.3 VORP as a rookie) and 2005 (35, 31.3)–not exactly the typical career progression. In fact, James Click informs us that only two other pitchers since 1972 have pitched zero innings one year and enjoyed their career-high VORP the next, at the age of 35 or older (minimum 500 innings before career year). Oddly, they did it the same year for the same team, as pupils of Leo Mazzone:

2002  ATL   Chris Hammond    36   30.4  842.7
2002  ATL   Darren Holmes    36   20.7  583.3
2005  WAS   Hector Carrasco  35   31.3  605.3

The Angels plan to give Carrasco a fair shake as a starter, although he will compete with several younger pitchers this spring. At the very least, Carrasco should provide some flexibility if Escobar’s arm flares up again. With those two plus Chris Bootcheck and Kevin Gregg, the Angels have plenty of swingman types. That’s not enough to withstand the losses of Byrd and Washburn and still be the league’s best rotation. But GM Bill Stoneman has a wealth of options this winter, and deep pockets to boot, so he can definitely improve the team in other areas. Angels rumors will keep flying for many weeks to come.

Dave Haller

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  • Anothercloserholenyohead: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Tigers are busy looking for a closer. New manager Jim Leyland has declared that he’s looking for a “veteran” reliever at the helm of his bullpen, which we suppose means that plain old Fernando Rodney won’t do. Accordingly, Detroit has made a point of courting the various pitchers on the market with the magical “closer” label–B.J. Ryan was a target prior to joining the Blue Jays, so was Kyle Farnsworth before he became a Yankee, Tom Gordon prior to joining the Phillies, and Bobby Howry before he became a Cub.

    The Tigers are treading in dangerous water here. After Trevor Hoffman, who resigned with San Diego, the closer quality falls off a cliff. That’s where you have your Bob Wickmans, Jose Mesas and Braden Loopers, or guys like Roberto Hernandez or former Tiger closer Todd Jones, who might be considered rehabilitated one short year after being waiver bait. Given the unusually large numbers of teams looking for “closers” on the free agent market, and the inflation in value that’s been prevalent this off-season–journeymen like Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry receiving multi-year deals, relievers like Farnsworth and Gordon vaulting into the $6 million price range–the threat of overpaying for a one-inning, ninth-inning reliever is palpable.

    If the Tigers’ “need” for a veteran closer has a ring of déjà vu to it, you only need to flip the calendars back to last November. That’s when Detroit signed Troy Percival to what was then regarded as an absurd two-year $12 million contract. The reality of that contract turned out far worse than any of the criticism. Percival gave Detroit 25 ugly innings before his season–and, most likely, his Tiger career–were over. One would think that between Percival and Magglio Ordonez–to whom the Tigers are on the hook for, at best, $69 million over the next four years–Dan Dombrowski would be too busy writing “I will not sign injury-prone free agents” on the blackboard to run around courting closers.

    While the Tigers bullpen wasn’t outstanding last year, the relievers did make a decent showing, finishing 11th in the majors in ARP (52.6) and 12th in WXRL 7.560. These figures are both despite the contributions of Percival, who chipped in a -3.8 ARP and a -.731 WXRL; to be fair, it should also be noted that they also include Farnsworth’s positive contributions up until he was traded to Atlanta (14.2 and 2.225 as a Tiger, respectively). Still, the 2005 Tigers got good performances from Chris Spurling (17.0 ARP, in the same neighborhood as Brad Lidge) and Rodney (12.4 ARP, comparable to Arthur Rhodes).

    In comparison to the bullpen’s performance, Detroit’s offense was 17th in the majors in Equivalent Runs, and its starting pitching ranked 25th in SNLVAR. Adherents can point to Detroit’s underperformance on offense (they scored 21 runs fewer than would be expected based upon their offensive components) and the imminent arrival of Justin Verlander (11-2, 1.29 ERA in 118.7 IP between AA and the Florida State League this season) as reasons to remain hopeful in these areas for 2006. Nonetheless, working to find a free agent closer for the Motor City this off-season is like slapping a spoiler on your 1986 Plymouth Reliant…station wagon–at best, a cosmetic change, at worst, a waste of money.

  • Arbitrary Decisions: By the time you read this, the Tigers may have already decided whether to offer their outgoing free agents arbitration. Let’s take a look:
                      Age   VORP    WARP    2005 Salary
    Jason Johnson     32    18.9     3.8     4.0MM
    Bobby Higginson   35    -5.3    -0.5     8.9MM
    Fernando Vina     36     N/A     N/A     3.0MM
    Rondell White     33    30.0     3.1     3.0MM

    Offering Bobby Higginson arbitration would be a sick joke, considering the joyous celebration that accompanied his four-year, $35.4MM contract finally being over. Over those four seasons, Higginson played 390 games, and amassed 32.6 VORP, total, and spent most of 2005 on the DL. Fernando Vina is done, after having spent all of 2005 on the DL with patellar tendonitis.

    That leaves the team with two big decisions–offering Rondell White arbitration involves weighing the left fielder’s excellent performance (.297 EqA) against his subpar health (218 games played in two years as a Tiger). We’d expect for health to win out in this case, given the dislocated left shoulder that ended his season, and the concern that even if White makes a full recovery, he would only be one more body in the growing pileup at DH (Dmitri Young, and one of Chris Shelton or Carlos Pena have dibs).

    On the other hand, Jason Johnson has settled in as a (roughly) league-average (0.92 RA+) innings-eater in Detroit. While this makes him valuable to the Tigers, it also makes him a risk to actually accept arbitration, rather than be signed by another club and provide the Tigers draft picks. Given the current market for starting pitching–Esteban Loaiza and Paul Byrd have set the bar for slightly above-average starters at $7 million per year–an arbitration award could wind up netting Johnson more than the Tigers want to pay. This would seem the ideal situation for one of those much-discussed, seldom-seen “we agree to offer arbitration if you agree to refuse, so we can continue negotiating” deals.

Derek Jacques