TEMPE, Ariz. -- One of the most impressive facets of any team this spring is the depth of the Angels' rotation. For the position of No. 5 starter, which for the vast majority of teams is manned by a journeyman, an unproven kid or worse, the Angels will choose between Scott Kazmir, a former ace with the Rays, and Joel Pineiro, maybe the second best free-agent starter signed this winter.
Despite the loss of John Lackey to Boston, the Angels still possess the deepest, most balanced rotation in baseball. (The rest of the best, from best infield to best bullpen to best depth, is listed below.)
The Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox rotations probably have stronger cases to be cited as the best overall starting staffs based on their top-heavy strengths. But it's hard to make a case any team has a rotation as solid as the Angels from top to bottom
"One through five, we're as dependable as any team I've seen in a long time,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "And that's important when you get into the grind of the season. Some teams have a good one-two look and some even have a good one-two-three look. But they can't get past that.''
Some teams can't get past the idea that the Angels will have a solid or better starter going every day and night, barring injury. The plan is for Jered Weaver, who overcame the death of his good friend Nick Adenhart to post the best year of any Angels pitcher last year (and at 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA, that includes Lackey), to get the Opening Day start, with Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders manning the Nos. 2 and 3 spots, depending on matchups. Kazmir and Pineiro, who resurrected his career with the Cardinals and came to Los Angeles for a very reasonable two-year, $18-million deal, will form baseball's best rotation bottom, maybe the best in years. Competing GMs see no great weaknesses, but one said if there is one he could see it as Saunders, who slipped a bit last year. His record (16-7) was nearly identical compared to 2008 (17-7) but his ERA was more than one run higher (4.60 from 3.41).
"We have some very good interchangeable parts,'' Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "Our guys match up with anybody.''
Last year the Angels carried the potential to have similar depth, but things didn't turn out quite that way. They suffered from the great tragedy of Adenhart being killed by a drunk driver and more usual pitching problems, including a season-ending injury to Kelvim Escobar and a late start for Lackey, who had early elbow problems.
The Red Sox dived in on Lackey with an five-year, $82.5 million deal while other teams appear to have followed the lead of the Angels, who are only known to have offered a three-year extension for close to $40 million to Lackey sometime before last season. The Angels do have their limits. Yet their rotation, taken as a whole, seems fairly limitless.
The Angels generally aren't a break-the-bank team in free agency. In the past two offseasons, they've lost Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez and Chone Figgins as well as Lackey so maybe too much was read by other teams into their middling offer to their one-time ace. "There really wasn't a concern medically,'' Angels GM Tony Reagins said about Lackey. "Our advantage with Lackey was, we knew that player really well. If we didn't have a comfort level, we wouldn't have gone as far as we did.''
The Angels tried hard for pitching superstar Roy Halladay as a Lackey replacement and made what appears to have been a very good offer (shortstop Erick Aybar, Saunders and outfield prospect Peter Bourjos is believed to have been the bid, as first reported by the Toronto Sun). But talks never got going. That could be because the Jays preferred Kyle Drabek but might also be because Halladay, who had a no-trade clause, preferred to stay on the East Coast and train in Florida; he is known to have rejected Texas and Seattle outright before landing in Philadelphia.
Pineiro eventually got the spot vacated by Lackey when he signed for $18 million over two years, a very reasonable deal considering the year he had in St. Louis. "Lackey was a bulldog, but we picked up Joel Pineiro, who had better numbers. I know it was the National League, but he still had better numbers,'' said Angels star Torii Hunter. Pineiro was 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA to Lackey's 11-8 mark and 3.83 ERA.
The depth of their rotation was supposed to be the Angels' big advantage last October, but scheduled off days and rainouts conspired to diminish that alleged edge as they were eliminated in the ALCS by the Yankees in six games. The Angels wound up playing nine games over 24 days, rendering the depth virtually meaningless, as the Yankees, a team with only three dependable starters, and the Phillies, with only two by the end, advanced to the World Series.
The powers at Major League Baseball promised to tighten up the postseason schedule this year, which should play into the Angels' hands. A lot of folks are wondering whether the Angels get that far this year after losing Figgins, and many are making the Mariners, who have co-aces after acquiring Cliff Lee to pair with Felix Hernandez, this year's chic pick. But it might be a mistake to bet against the Angels. As Scioscia said of his five studs, "They give us a chance to win every night.''
The rest of the best of baseball ...
Best Infield (including catcher):Yankees
Both World Series teams from last year have superb infields. But when one team is spending $93 million on these five positions alone (counting catcher), you have to hope they're the best. And they are. That figure represents a slightly higher than average payroll for one entire team. But you still can't quibble with how this money was spent. This is the heart of the best team in baseball. Comprising the fabulous five are two legends (third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop Derek Jeter) and three others who are multiple All-Stars with at least some chance of making the Hall of Fame someday (catcher Jorge Posada, first baseman Mark Teixeira and second baseman Robinson Cano). The Phillies' infield is crazy good, too, with Ryan Howard at first, Chase Utley at second, Jimmy Rollins at short and Placido Polanco at third, plus Carlos Ruiz catching. But someone has to be the best, and that's the Yankees.
Best Outfield: Dodgers
Even though Manny Ramirez showed signed of slowing down last year, and apparently still can't decide whether he's playing no more years with the Dodgers, or five, I'll take the Dodgers trio. Matt Kemp is an underappreciated star who can do it all, and Andre Ethier had more walk-off hits than anyone in baseball. The Dodgers were wise to lock up Kemp and Ethier for two years each, avoiding a potentially acrimonious arbitration battle in consecutive years with a pair of youngsters who might not be able to handle it.
Best Lineup Balance: Phillies
The Phillies' lineup is ridiculously good, and was only enhanced by the addition of Polanco, who fits perfectly into the No. 2 hole between Jimmy Rollins and all their big-time bashers, starting with Utley, Howard and Jayson Werth, who may be the most underrated player in baseball. "He's one of the best 15 players in the game,'' one competing GM said. Raul Ibanez doesn't appear to be slowing down, Shane Victorino embodies the "good country hardball player'' manager Charlie Manuel prefers, and eve Ruiz is dangerous in important moments. One Dodgers person said that team identified Pedro Feliz as the only out in the lineup, and he's now in Houston. Judging by all the screaming and hand-wringing going on in Red Sox Nation, this is going to come as a surprise. But while the Red Sox no longer have Manny Ramirez in his prime or David Ortiz in his prime, either, for that matter, they also have very good balance. The Yankees have a great lineup but lost a bit of their balance by letting Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui leave as free agents. Nick Johnson can get on base when he plays.
Best Rotation Top: Mariners/Cardinals
This is a tossup between the Mariners' one-two punch of Hernandez and Lee and the Cardinals' duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, with the Giants (Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain) and Red Sox (take your pick from Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Lackey) just a tick behind. The Hernandez-Lee duo is the best righty-lefty pair, and I'll take that one for balance, though it might only last a year if the Mariners can't re-sign Lee. The Diamondbacks' pair of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren is right up there, as well, assuming Webb eventually returns to full health (he will start the year on the disabled list after a slow start this spring in his comeback efforts). One through three, the Red Sox, with Lackey following Beckett and Lester, are awfully strong, while the Yankees and White Sox may be strongest one through four. The Yankees have CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez, the White Sox Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd.
Best Bullpen: Dodgers
The Dodgers' bullpen is probably the best-balanced, and will get even better if Hong-ChihKuo is healthy. George Sherrill, Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso are talented front man for imposing closer Jonathan Broxton, who still has to show he can close out games in October. Their 2.54 overall ERA was nearly half a run better than anyone else. The A's, Twins, Angels, Red Sox, White Sox and Yankees all should have productive pens, with the Yankees aided by a full year of Joba Chamberlain (or Phil Hughes), the Red Sox by a full year with Daniel Bard, the Angels vastly improved with the Fernando Rodney signing and Scot Shields returning and the White Sox better with J.J. Putz joining Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks. The Twins will be good again if they can figure out how to replace Joe Nathan, who is likely out or the year after suffering an elbow injury.
Best Bench: Rockies
The Rockies are the surprise winner here. Considering their payroll, they have done a superb job putting together a deep roster. Nobody has a pair of backup outfielders like the Rockies' Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs and not many have a better backup catcher than Miguel Olivo. Melvin Mora makes a nice backup, too, as no one's more versatile. Eric Young Jr. brings speed.
Best Manager: Mike Scioscia
For getting the most out of the Angels year in and year out, Scioscia is my choice. No wonder he's locked up through 2018. Scioscia declined comment about himself when informed he might be the choice, but he talked up several others. "The thing about Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and guys like Sparky Anderson, is that their decision-making is so clear.'' Told La Russa was my other top choice, Sciosicia applauded that. "Tony is as good as there is,'' Scioscia said. Well, almost. Following Scioscia and second choice La Russa are Torre, Terry Francona and Joe Girardi. The Mariners' Don Wakamatsu is the choice in the future division.
Best General Manager: Theo Epstein
Red Sox GM Theo Epstein gets the nod here in the big-market division, while the Rockies' Dan O'Dowd is the choice in the small-to-mid-market division. Epstein has won two World Series after 85 straight years without a title in Boston, and O'Dowd has built two playoff teams in three years, despite a payroll that places the Rockies in the bottom half. Colorado combines depth, balance and youth again, and looks like it has a chance to make it back to the postseason. Brian Cashman with four World Series titles is in the argument. Seattle's Jack Zduriencik, who should have been a GM long ago, did the best work this winter, and in the future division, I'll take Jon Daniels, who's building something pretty special in Texas.
• While the Mariners have interest in Jarrod Washburn, they are said to be at their budget. The Twins might still make the most sense, but it could be tied into whether or not Joe Nathan is healthy enough to be their closer this season. For now, Jon Rauch looks like the favorite if Nathan can't go, as manager Ron Gardenhire prefers a strikeout guy to be his closer. Francisco Liriano is pitching well as a starter right now and they seem to lean toward keeping him in that role but one possibility might be to move him to closer. If that happened, there would be an opening in the rotation that could be filled by Washburn, who is from Webster, Wisc., two hours east of the Twins Cities.
• The Mariners offered Russell Branyan more money than he got in Cleveland on a one-year deal, plus a vesting option, but Branyan was hoping for a straight multi-year deal and turned down the Mariners. He eventually signed for $2 million over one year with Cleveland, but the herniated disk in his back that caused him to miss the last month of the 2009 season still has him out.
• The Blue Jays outbid the Yankees and a couple others to sign Cuban defector Adeiny Hechevarria, a shortstop, for $10 million. The Blue Jays made a strong bid to try to sign Aroldis Chapman and are a big player in the international market. The New York Post first report Hechevarria was close to going to the Jays while SI's Melissa Segura reported there was an agreement, pending a physical.
• Dominican right-hander Alexi Ogando, who was banned from coming to the United States for five years after admitting to marrying a woman to help her gain a visa, is impressing with a big fastball and impressive secondary stuff in Rangers camp. Ogando, 26, throws 94-100 mph and has an excellent breaking ball and changeup. He was originally an outfielder in the A's organization, but Texas acquired him for the $12,000 minor-league Rule V price.
• Sergio Santos, a converted shortstop who's pitching well for the White Sox, is very likely to make their staff as a reliever, as he is out of options. He throws in the high 90s and has an excellent corkscrew changeup, according to pitching coach Don Cooper. White Sox farm director Buddy Bell gave him the chance to become a pitcher a year ago after he didn't hit enough to play shortstop. He still had the bug to hit and was traded to the Giants last spring, but after he didn't make it there as a shortstop either, he returned to the White Sox.
• Jason Heyward, a sensation in Braves camp, is no fluke, according to scouts, who love his plate discipline and expect a big rookie year.
• Jenrry Mejia looks like he has a good chance to make the Mets as a reliever. The other option would be send him to the minors and keep working him as a starter. First base prospect Ike Davis, who's had a big spring offensively, and shortstop Ruben Tejada, who's also been impressive, are likely to start at triple-A Bualo.
• Astros owner Drayton McLane is still thinking seriously about selling the team, though he has publicly downplayed sales talks. His issues are said to be capital gains and estate taxes.
• Best wishes to top Red Sox outfield prospect Ryan Westmoreland, who will be undergoing surgery to repair a cavernous malformation in his brain. The Red Sox have asked that no inquiries be made of Westmoreland's family during this difficult time.