Weaver leads a Halos staff bent on redemption
Veteran's return from injury-riddled season will set tone for young rotation
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's uncertainty surrounding the Angels' rotation again, with three of the projected members yet to go a full season as a Major League starter, little depth existing beyond the top five and the staff ace facing more doubt than ever as he enters his age-31 season.
The latter would be Jered Weaver, who's only two years removed from a 20-win season and a third-place finish in American League Cy Young Award voting.
"It's amazing how quickly they forget," Weaver said from his clubhouse seat, and suddenly the defiance eked out of the 6-foot-7 right-hander, who goes from California cool to rip-your-heart-out competitor as soon as he toes the rubber.
"A lot of people said that I couldn't do a lot of stuff, and I've proven a lot of people wrong," he said. "That's kind of motivation for me. I love when people talk. ... I want to prove everybody wrong. That's what I use for motivation."
They see the annual velocity drop and the injury-shortened 2013 season, and they wonder if Weaver will be that true ace again, whether he still belongs in the pantheon of Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.
"I have self-motivation," Weaver said. "But when you're not in the talks anymore, you want to prove to people that you should be in the talks."
Angels Spring Training will be dominated by narratives revolving around Albert Pujols' return to health, Josh Hamilton's added weight and Mike Trout's potential big-money extension. But nothing will be more important to the Angels' success than the state of their starting rotation.
Last year, Weaver missed nine starts with an ill-fated broken left elbow, Jason Vargas missed 10 because of a blood clot in his left armpit, Joe Blanton morphed into a human pinball machine and Tommy Hanson never got right as the Angels' staff posted a 4.30 ERA, higher than 21 other teams.
"Our offense is really talented, and our pitching staff has to pull its weight this year," said C.J. Wilson, the only Angels starter to take every turn in 2013. "Last year, our offense was the fourth- or fifth-ranked in baseball and our pitching staff [struggled]."
The 2014 staff is younger with more upside, but the questions are almost as pronounced -- albeit for vastly different reasons -- when you get past Weaver and Wilson.
Richards, 25, solidified himself as the No. 3 starter after seemingly coming into his own in late July, posting a 3.72 ERA in 13 starts after replacing Blanton. The Angels envisioned a future front-of-the-rotation starter when they made Richards a first-round Draft pick in 2009, and now he'll finally get the chance to prove that for a full season.
"It's exciting, man," Richards said. "When I got drafted, this was where I wanted to be, this is what I've been working toward. I'm just ready to work. I gained a lot of confidence last year and I learned a lot of things, getting that first full season under my belt. I'm just excited to get out there and start playing again."
Following Richards in the roation will be Hector Santiago, the 26-year-old left-hander who's one of few remaining pitchers with command of a screwball -- a pitch he only uses to set up his fastball and changeup.
He was effective with the White Sox, with a 3.33 ERA in 70 1/3 innings in 2012 and a 3.56 ERA in a professional-high 149 innings in '13. But 49 of his 76 appearances in that two-year span came out of the bullpen. Santiago's only full season as a starting pitcher came as a Minor Leaguer in 2011.
"Because we've never heard of him doesn't mean he's not good," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "I know not a lot of people outside of the South Side of Chicago are familiar with him, but he's pretty good. We're excited to see him get the opportunity to go out and sink his teeth into a starting job this spring."
Dipoto acquired Santiago in a package deal. He and Tyler Skaggs -- the other young left-handed pitcher acquired in the three-team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to the D-backs on Dec. 10 -- are joined by the common goal of proving it was worth it for the Angels to part ways with a guy who led their offense in homers for three straight years.
Skaggs, 22, has a 5.43 ERA in 13 Major League starts the last two years and a 4.59 ERA in 104 Triple-A innings in 2013. He'll have to earn his place as the Angels' fifth starter, and the Angels -- with only Blanton, journeyman Matt Shoemaker and Minor League signee Wade LeBlanc as coverage -- are hoping that happens.
"He still has some growth in his game that we hope will happen," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "but we're going to see where it leads. He's getting an opportunity to show what he has this spring."
The Angels' front office is thrilled with the prospect of having three, high-upside starting pitchers they can control for a few years. But, as Wilson pointed out Tuesday, "The only reason why we have the payroll we do is to win, not to develop."
Weaver has always preferred to lead by example, but he's going to try to be more vocal this year. Talking about Richards, Santiago and Skaggs made him think about what it was like when he came up with Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, and how the three of them had a good run together.
Then he noticed he's become sort of like the John Lackey of this new group, and then he thought about how long it's been since he pitched in the playoffs.
"We gotta get back there," Weaver said. "It's been frustrating the past four years. There's not too many guys in this clubhouse that were here when we were doing winning stuff. It comes to the point where you kind of have to tell people how we won, and what it took to win, to try to bring that Angel attitude back into the clubhouse."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.