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Halos need young lefties to fill big hole in rotation

Skaggs and Santiago, who were acquired in Trumbo deal, must provide quality innings @philgrogers

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Angels had a fatal flaw last year, and it had nothing to do with Josh Hamilton's gluten-free diet or Albert Pujols plantar fasciitis. There was nothing Mike Trout could do to correct it, either, although he did mitigate the problem somewhat by running down fly balls the way Ashley Whippet snared Frisbees.

Mike Scioscia didn't forget how to manage, either. He just had to learn how the other half lived, trying to win with a limited supply of starting pitching.

Scioscia says the rotation is "the heartbeat of your club.'' But an elbow injury suffered by Jered Weaver left C.J. Wilson as the only Angels pitcher to make more than 25 starts, and 11 different starters put up a 4.30 combined ERA, the fifth-worst figure in the American League.

This was a shock to Scioscia's system -- the Angels hadn't ranked lower than fifth in starter ERA since 2003 -- and required an offseason response. General manager Jerry Dipoto had committed $442.5 million to Pujols, Hamilton and Wilson the previous two years, so this time around he had to swallow hard and make a trade.

Out went homegrown slugger Mark Trumbo. In came 22-year-old left-hander Tyler Skaggs and fellow left-hander Hector Santiago in a three-team deal involving the D-backs and White Sox.

The trade of Trumbo after a 34-home run, 100-RBI season is still something of an exposed nerve for the organization, but 2013 convinced Dipoto and Scioscia that they needed multiple pieces for the pitching staff. Scioscia couldn't have been any clearer about that on Monday, before the team's workout at its Tempe complex.

"To a man, all of us were very attached to Mark,'' said Scioscia, who has averaged 88 wins in his 14 seasons as the Angels' manager. "We knew what his talent was, and what he brought us. The reality of the situation is you're not going to get anything unless you're willing to give something up. Our hole was obviously a crevice. It was in our pitching staff, and it needed to be filled. It wasn't a little crack. It was big. I think those two young pitchers are going to go a long way toward hopefully filling that.''

Earlier, Scioscia had said it's not fair to put too much pressure on Skaggs and Santiago. But if you can read depth charts, you know how big it would be for the Angels to get quality starts on a regular basis from the newcomers.

While veteran Joe Blanton is here, he's as much of a candidate to be released as a viable alternative after hanging up a 6.04 ERA last season. The choices beyond Wilson, Weaver, Garrett Richards, Santiago and Skaggs are so limited that it was a real blow to the Angels when the Mark Mulder comeback ended with a torn Achilles tendon.

The 22-year-old Skaggs -- who was selected by the Angels in the first round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft -- has a high-ceiling arm and made 13 starts with the D-backs the last two seasons after he was traded to Arizona in 2010. He and Trevor Bauer were once considered the pitching future of that organization, but both were deemed expendable by GM Kevin Towers after the emergence of Patrick Corbin (acquired by Arizona from the Angels in a midseason deal for Dan Haren) and Archie Bradley.

Skaggs has gone from the Angels to the D-backs and back, so the Halos certainly have a lot invested in him.

"Tyler Skaggs is young,'' Scioscia said. "He still has some growth in his game. We're going to see where it leads him. He'll get an opportunity to show what he has this spring. … If he's throwing the ball to his capability there's no doubt he'll be a huge addition to our rotation because he has big stuff.''

Santiago, a 26-year-old left-hander with two-plus seasons on the White Sox staff, is even more of an X-factor. But I don't think Scioscia should worry too much about him handling pressure. He dealt with enough of it growing up in Newark, N.J., and then again this winter when the Super Bowl was a hometown event.

A lot of people thought Santiago could help get tickets for them, and they didn't mind asking. They did this even though he was spending the winter in Arizona, preparing for the season, and had no plans to attend the game himself.

"So many people kept asking that I decided I'd go to the game if I could get tickets,'' Santiago said. "I did find a couple, but then the weather forecast got bad. I was afraid I'd get stuck there for four or five days and miss the work I needed to be doing here.''

Unlike Skaggs, Santiago was never a top prospect. He is a blue-collar guy who earned every promotion he got with the White Sox, who valued him as a durable guy who was versatile and a quick learner, even picking up a screwball along the way.

"You can see the stuff, first of all,'' Scioscia said of Santiago, who last season compiled a 3.56 ERA over 149 innings, including 130 2/3 in his 23 starts. "He's handled these bullpens very well. The last time out you could see that legitimate screwball, which is really going to be fun to watch, if he can get his command where he needs it to be. It's really a good pitch. We'll see where the other things fall into place.''

Santiago throws harder now -- 92-93 mph consistently with a peak of 96 -- than he did when he signed as a draft-and-follow out of Okaloosa-Walton College in Niceville, Fla. He credits a long run of trial-and-error experiments overseen by Kirk Champion, then the White Sox Minor League pitching coordinator, saying he benefitted from the most frustrating time of his career, when he was tried as a submarine-style reliever.

"They wanted me to do it and I tried,'' Santiago said. "But one day we were playing an A-ball team of Orioles, and this one guy fouled off 12 straight pitches. I got so angry. I just went over the top with the next pitch and it was harder than I've ever thrown. I called Champ and told him I wasn't getting anywhere submarine. He said it was OK to go back to over the top if I wanted to, and I found this really nice arm slot -- high three-quarters, I guess -- that worked better than ever. When I signed, I had been so over the top that my arm was coming by close to my head.''

Whatever works, right?

It's time for the Angels to find something that does. The keys to a return to the playoffs are obvious.

Hamilton's heavier this spring. Pujols is lighter and -- knock on wood -- beyond the foot and knee problems that dogged him in 2013. The only question about Trout is whether the time's right to hand him one of those mega-contracts going around. Now if only the starting rotation can provide a strong heartbeat.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs