With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 13, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2014 roster. This is the fifth of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: the bullpen.
ANAHEIM -- The Angels' bullpen ranked in the bottom third in ERA and WHIP in 2012, and last season it was even worse. The relief corps was 26th in ERA (4.12), tied for 24th in WHIP (1.35), 26th in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (4.03), tied for 22nd in Wins Above Replacement (1.6) and tied for 25th in walk percentage (10.1). In terms of "meltdowns," which uses Win Probability Added to tally the amount of times a reliever hurts his team's chances of winning, the relievers had more than anyone in the Majors (88).
So is it crazy to think the bullpen can actually be a strength this season?
Not if you look a little closer.
Not when you factor in Joe Smith, the veteran right-hander who was signed to a three-year, $15.75 million deal to be the setup man.
Not after accounting for a healthy Sean Burnett, a formidable left-hander whose presence will be huge in a division that is now home to Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano.
Not if you consider journeyman Dane De La Rosa and the hard-throwing Michael Kohn, two righties coming off what could have been breakout seasons.
And not when you look at how much quality depth projects beyond the seven-man bullpen in 2014.
In the end, though, it'll rest mostly on the closer.
Right-hander Ernesto Frieri, 28, has been among the better ninth-inning arms over the past two years, posting a 3.07 ERA with the 12th-most saves (60) and eighth-best save percentage (89.6).
In 2013 -- his first full season with the Angels after coming over from the Padres in May 2012 -- Frieri saw his ERA jump, from 2.32 to 3.80, and his WHIP go from 0.99 to 1.24. He temporarily lost the closer's role in August after giving up 12 runs in a 4 2/3-inning stretch, but he turned it around by posting a 1.66 ERA and going 11-for-11 in save chances in his final 19 appearances.
Unlike last offseason, when Ryan Madson was brought in as a potential ninth-inning option -- before he missed a second straight season recovering from Tommy John surgery and was released on Aug. 5 -- the Angels are going into 2014 with Frieri as their no-doubt closer.
They're willing to live with the occasional bumps in the road because ultimately they feel he's the best man for the job.
"Ernie has been the ninth-inning guy for two years and has done a tremendous job," general manager Jerry Dipoto said just before the start of the offseason, "so we'll go out and try to add more depth."
Dipoto zeroed in on Smith from the onset because he felt he'd be the perfect fit as a bridge to Frieri. Smith's sidearm style offers a very different look for a bullpen made up mostly of over-the-top, power right-handers. He's a master of getting ground balls -- a useful skill for a 'pen that ranked 27th in ground-ball percentage -- and he boasts an impressive track record, with a 2.42 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 213 appearances for the Indians the past three seasons.
"He's a proven commodity; he's done it in a leverage-type role," Dipoto, a former reliever himself, said upon acquiring Smith. "Being able to put him in a group of younger guys who throw hard, with the leadership skills that Joe brings to the table, it's a very good feeling at this point in the year, particularly with what we've dealt with, with the turbulence in our bullpen over these last two years."
Burnett's track record was just as impressive before he joined the Angels on a two-year, $8 million contract last offseason, with a 2.85 ERA while averaging 71 appearances a season from 2009 to 2012. But a partial tear of his left flexor tendon limited him to 13 appearances in 2013 and led to surgery to remove residual scar tissue in August.
The 31-year-old left-hander started throwing again in the new year and is targeting a return by Opening Day.
"That's my goal," Burnett said during a recent phone conversation. "When I sat down with Dr. [James] Andrews last August, I wanted to figure out something that would allow me to pitch this upcoming season. As of now my goal is to be ready for Opening Day. Not necessarily ready for Spring Training when it starts, but to be ready in late March and get ready for the season in April."
Beyond the late-inning trio of Frieri, Smith and Burnett will be De La Rosa (2.86 ERA in 75 games in 2013) and Kohn (3.74 ERA in 63 games), both of whom stepped up in late-inning situations last season.
The hard-throwing Kevin Jepsen -- solid in 2012, subpar before an emergency appendectomy in 2013 -- is out of options and will have to earn a spot in a suddenly crowded bullpen. Fernando Salas, acquired from the Cardinals after posting a 1.90 ERA in the Pacific Coast League, will be in the mix. So will Brian Moran, Clay Rapada and Buddy Boshers, three southpaws who have a knack for getting left-handed hitters out. And so will Cory Rasmus, the 26-year-old right-hander who was acquired from the Braves for Scott Downs in July.
With a little more than a week left before the start of Spring Training, there's still reasonable concern over the rotation, with three young arms -- Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs -- being counted on behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
But the bullpen -- given health, and the knowledge that this is the most unpredictable department in baseball -- could be a strength.
Beyond the active roster: Assuming the final two spots go to the two guys who can't be optioned to the Minors, Jepsen and Rule 5 pick Moran, here are the seven relievers who could make up the Triple-A bullpen: Salas, Rapada, Rasmus, Boshers, Ryan Brasier, and two pitchers claimed off waivers in October, Robert Carson and Josh Wall.
That kind of depth could keep Nick Maronde (the Angels' No. 5 prospect as ranked by MLB.com) and Mike Morin (eighth) in Double-A. Maronde, a lefty, had a 3.51 ERA in 41 Double-A games last year. Morin, a righty, had a 1.93 ERA and 23 saves for Class A Advanced and Double-A. R.J. Alvarez, a 22-year-old right-hander taken in the third round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, had a 2.97 ERA and 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings at Class A Inland Empire. He, too, projects to pitch for Double-A Arkansas.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.