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01/12/11 5:08 PM EST

Rotation gives Angels strong starting point

Proven unit in need of improved run support, defense in '11

ANAHEIM -- For starters, the Angels are in great shape. Even their harshest critics would have to concede there is nothing wrong about lining up Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir in a rotation that is close to the equal of any in the game.

Manager Mike Scioscia's long-held belief is that starting pitching is the bedrock of any club. The Angels' starters going into the season will be better than the group that won the 2002 World Series and probably as good as any of the units that pushed the team to five American League West titles in six years during a decade-long run of excellence.

"Overall, I think our starting pitching is an absolute strength of our club," Scioscia said. "Although there are some things riding on the performance of some guys, I don't think it's going to be anything they're not capable of doing.

"If you look at the way Jered or Dan Haren, or Ervin and Pineiro, and hopefully Kazmir's return [to form], if you project that out as a rotation, even if they don't make all 33 starts but make enough to be productive, it's a good rotation."

If what Scioscia likes to call the team's foundation held firm in 2010, it was everything around it that crumbled. The offense didn't produce enough runs to support the work of the starters, and the defense wasn't all that cooperative, either.

The season's most deceiving stat line was 13-12 -- the records of Weaver and AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez of Seattle. While Weaver, who finished fifth in the balloting, was getting 3.82 runs worth of support per start, Hernandez was famished in Seattle with 3.06.

Haren, whose 2.87 ERA after coming to Anaheim was even better than Weaver's 3.01 for the season, drew even sparser offensive support than Weaver. His new teammates handed the sturdy right-hander 3.36 runs per outing, leaving him at 5-4 in 14 outings.

In Weaver and Haren, the Angels have a luxury few clubs realistically can rely upon: dual aces. Both are legitimate No. 1 starters with All-Star talents and the competitive fires of the great ones.

While Weaver and Haren suffered quietly without much offense behind them, the Angels were productive behind Santana (4.94 runs per game) and Pineiro (4.70). The guy who needed the most help, Kazmir, was given an even four runs per game in finishing a career-worst 9-15. Before moving to Arizona in the Haren deal, Joe Saunders received only 3.9 runs per start in going 6-10.

The defense also stumbled, ranking 13th in the AL in fielding percentage at .981. Only the Royals, with 121, committed more errors than the Angels' 113.

The quiet offense and erratic defense led to some long nights for a rotation that deserved better.

Restoring Kazmir, the X factor, to something at least resembling his former All-Star form will be one of the major challenges of the spring for Scioscia, pitching coach Mike Butcher and the gifted southpaw from Houston.

Scioscia has been encouraged by reports of Kazmir's offseason workout program, designed to increase stamina and durability to get him deeper in games.

Kazmir will be pushed during the spring by the likes of Trevor Bell and Matt Palmer, with Hisanori Takahashi available as a potential spot starter while giving the bullpen balance along with fellow southpaw Scott Downs. The organization's premier prospects, Tyler Chatwood and Trevor Reckling, are probably a year away from challenging for spots.

"Yes, there's definitely competition," Scioscia said when asked if Kazmir needs to prove he deserves the No. 5 slot. "But if Scott gets close to where he was throwing the ball for us September a year ago -- it's not like we're going back five or six years -- no doubt he'll be a big boost. That's what he's working towards."

Kazmir came to camp last February with a strained hamstring and took a long time to catch up. He made it to the post 28 times, averaging 5.36 innings per start. The Angels would like to see him increase that by an inning.

"He's on a totally different winter program now," Scioscia said. "He's in Arizona. He's doing very well. He started to throw and feels good. So his progression hopefully will get him back to where he was a short time ago. If it ends up bringing him further or closer to the pitcher that he was three or four years ago, that could be really big for us."

Kazmir spent all last season searching in vain for a consistent slider to go with his fastball and changeup. His strikeouts per nine innings fell to 5.58, a far cry from the 9.31 he'd averaged across his first six Major League seasons, second in the game among active pitchers behind Kerry Wood.

Kazmir is still relatively young. He'll be 27 on Jan. 24. It just seems he's older since he's been around so long, having arrived in the Majors at 20 with Tampa Bay and led the AL in strikeouts at 23.

The No. 4 starter, Pineiro, was on a roll when he strained an oblique warming up before a start on July 28. He missed 10 starts, finishing 10-7 with a 3.84 ERA.

Santana led the staff in wins with 17. Four of the Angels' starters have won at least 16 in a season. Kazmir's high is 13.

Oakland has a potentially superb rotation, and Texas and Seattle have quality arms. But in terms of established, proven production, the Angels have the best unit in the AL West. Now it just needs some help from its friends with the bats and gloves.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.