CINCINNATI -- There's no shortage of blame for why the Angels fell short of their lofty expectations in 2012. You can point to an offense that inexplicably navigated through April with the second-fewest runs per game in the American League. You can look at the rotation, which posted a 5.50 ERA in a 36-game stretch to start the second half.
But in the end, there's this: 22 blown saves, tied with the Red Sox (the 26-games-out-of-first-place Red Sox) for most in the AL. Shave five off that total, which still puts them in the middle of the pack, and the Halos are probably a playoff team.
Yes, it's shortsighted, perhaps even unfair, to pin their shortcomings on one department -- the one area that universally gets lots of blame and little praise. But nothing is more crippling to a team than losing a game in the final inning. And down the stretch last year, as they were looking to gain ground on teams that simply wouldn't lose, a lack of options in the back end ultimately doomed the Angels' season.
It's why general manager Jerry Dipoto, a former reliever himself, made improving the bullpen his biggest priority of the offseason.
It's why he'll vehemently say that right now, even with Ryan Madson plateauing in the final stage of his 12-month rehab, they're better.
"Put that crew last year up against this year's," Dipoto said, "and just on sheer talent and ability and recent track record, yeah, we're in a better position."
Last year, each of the teams that boasted the top five bullpen ERAs (the Reds, Braves, Rays, A's and Orioles) won at least 90 games. Ditto for five of the six that blew the fewest saves (the Rays, Rangers, Yankees, Braves and Giants).
The Halos are headlined by three superstars in their lineup and boast one of baseball's best starting pitchers. But it's their bullpen depth that can ease the concerns of a perceivably flimsy rotation and will play a big part in how 2013 plays out.
And if Opening Day was any indication -- when six relievers held the Reds to one hit and no runs through seven frames of a 3-1 victory in 13 innings -- perhaps they've taken big steps forward.
This year, they'll have a full year of Ernesto Frieri, who posted a 2.36 ERA and went 23-for-26 in saves after coming over from the Padres last May. They have a seemingly improved Kevin Jepsen, the 28-year-old who posted a 1.67 ERA in his last 40 games. They still have Scott Downs, who has compiled a 2.30 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over the last six years. They have Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams, who started the season competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, exclusively as relievers.
And they've added Sean Burnett, arguably the best free-agent lefty this past offseason, and Mark Lowe, who compiled a 3.63 ERA in 84 1/3 innings with Texas the last two years.
"I love our bullpen," Jepsen said. "We have a bunch of great guys and a lot of good arms in there. A lot of guys with experience who have done it in the big leagues for a long time, have a good resume. I think we're going to have a great group."
These first few weeks are going to be crucial for manager Mike Scioscia to establish some set roles. That's always the preference, for managers and relievers, but not always the reality. Last year, it wasn't until deep into May when things started to materialize in the back of Scioscia's 'pen.
This year, though, he may have more options.
In Downs and Burnett, Scioscia has two veteran ground-ball-inducing lefties with sparkling track records. In Jepsen and Lowe, he has two power arms. In Richards, Scioscia has a wild card capable of pitching multiple innings or, with his explosive stuff, holding a late lead. And in Frieri, he has a reliable ninth-inning man.
"This year, even with Ryan Madson not quite in the fold, we're in a much better position starting off the season than we were last year," Scioscia said. "Last year, obviously, Ernie wasn't with us starting the season off, Jordan Walden didn't really throw the ball to his capability -- there were a lot more question marks last year. Hopefully this will be something that helps us get off to a better start, the fact that we have some depth in our 'pen."
Here's something that can throw all that out the window: The seven relievers that entered the season last year were statistically better than the new seven.
Walden, Jepsen, Downs, LaTroy Hawkins, Jason Isringhausen, Hisanori Takahashi and Rich Thompson came into the 2012 season on the heels of combining for a 3.06 ERA in 344 innings the previous campaign. Jepsen, Downs, Frieri, Burnett, Lowe, Richards and Williams, meanwhile, head into 2013 after posting a 3.61 ERA in 461 innings the previous season.
But Hawkins, Isringhausen and Takahashi were nearing the end of their careers, while Richards, Burnett and Frieri are basically in their primes.
And then, don't forget, there's Madson.
The Angels still don't know when he'll appear in his first game since Tommy John surgery, but he's in the final stages of his rehab -- "the last five percent," as Scioscia often says -- and could still be back by late April or early May.
"Frankly, I'm not sitting here putting a date on him," Dipoto said. "When Ryan's healthy, and he's completely and 100 percent back from his rehab, that's when we'll send him out there. We want Ryan Madson clicking on all cylinders."
When Madson is -- if he is -- this bullpen can go to a whole new level.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.