One of the weaknesses the Angels were hoping to address coming into the 2012 season was their bullpen. In 2011, the Halos started the year with Fernando Rodney as their closer, hoping he’d be able to hold the spot for a few years before turning the position over to young fireballer Jordan Walden. Rodney turned out to be a disaster, forcing the team to turn to Walden much earlier than expected. Walden showed flashes of being a good-to-great closer, but also showed his youth, tying for the league lead in blown saves with 10. The Angels would finish the year 10 games back of division winning Texas. Things needed to get shaped up in bullpen.
During the offseason, new GM Jerry Dipoto worked to bring some reliable arms in order to give the pen a bit more stability than it had last year. He signed LaTroy Hawkins and talked Jason Isringhausen out of retirement to act setup men and mentors to Walden. The team put their support behind Walden as the closer now and for the future, believing that another year of experience would do wonders for his consistency and confidence at the end of close games. It certainly wasn’t anything flashy or exciting, but they were solid moves to make sure thin leads held up down the stretch.
Then the season started and none of it mattered. The bullpen looked like they were throwing batting practice, blowing their first six save opportunities before Jordan Walden finally got his first shot at closing out a game April 20 in the team’s 14th game of the year. He would only get one more shot at saving a game, which he blew with a walk-off home run against Tampa Bay, before he was replaced as closer by Scott Downs and demoted to middle relief/setup man. Walden would finish April with a 8.31 ERA, and his struggles were indicative of the entire bullpen. And, oh yeah, Rodney was now with the Rays and leading the league in saves, just to rub some salt in the wound.
The team was forced to improvise to try and fix things on the fly. They released Rich Thompson after he gave up four runs on five hits to the Minnesota Twins in just over an inning of work with an enormous 15.43 ERA. They eventually sent Kevin Jepsen down to Triple-A at the end of April after watching his ERA sit above 10 for most of the first month of the season. They gave the closer job to Downs, who had been one of the only consistent arms out of the pen for the team since Opening Day. They struck a deal for Ernesto Frieri, a hard throwing set-up man from San Diego, to add another arm to their pen, which came in handy when Hawkins went the DL with a broken finger. If you had to choose one word to desribe the Angels bullpen this season, you’d be hard pressed to find a better word than ‘chaotic’ as the team churned through arms trying to find anybody who could throw out of the pen for them…without giving up a dozen runs, that is.
But things are looking up for the much-maligned group. While they did take the loss on Sunday for their seventh loss of the season, the bullpen has been pitching much better over the past week. Even without Hawkins, the bullpen gave up just three earned runs in 20.2 innings of work last week, and dropped their collective ERA from 4.70 to 4.02. That’s still only good enough for the 21st best mark in the majors, but it represents a stabilizing happening in the back end for the Angels and manager Mike Scioscia. Downs has kept his strong start going, earning his third save of the season May 12 against Texas (he’s also earned seven holds) and still hasn’t allowed a run, Frieri has been every bit the spark the team hoped he would be, and Walden seems to be responding well to getting demoted to some less-stressful pitching situations.
The bullpen certainly isn’t “fixed” by any stretch of the imagination, but a good week of relief is a postive step. If the Angels can find some arms they can consistently rely on late in games, including the eventual return of Hawkins, it will take some of the pressure off the starting pitching to pitch deeper and deeper into games. Now, if only they could find some offense…