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Ready or not, Skaggs could be key for Angels

Left-hander with 13 career starts expected to be difference-maker in 2014 @RichardJustice

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's never about just one guy, so it would be silly to say that 22-year-old left-hander Tyler Skaggs is the most important player the Angels have in camp this spring.

No player should have that kind of pressure, especially a 6-foot-5, 215-pound kid with all of 13 big league starts under his belt and someone who is still trying to figure out all sorts of things. How about giving the guy some breathing room?

Still, there's no question Skaggs could be a huge piece for the Angels in 2014. If he's not the part that gets them back to the postseason, he could very well elevate a decent starting rotation into a special one. If that happens, the Halos almost certainly will be in the mix for a playoff berth.

"He's very important to our season, very important to our future," Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto said.

DiPoto emphasizes that his top four starters -- Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago -- are important, too, that Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are still fairly big deals, and that free-agent reliever Joe Smith will be a terrific addition to the bullpen.

And yet ...

"Tyler, being that he's the youngest and least experienced of our starters, it's an important spring for him to take that next step and establish himself at the Major League level," DiPoto said.

No general manager knows Skaggs better than DiPoto. He first watched him pitch as a high school junior in Southern California, and he was impressed by the size, stuff and makeup, especially a terrific curveball that complemented a 94-mph fastball.

DiPoto had hoped to take Skaggs in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft while working for the D-backs. He had the 41st pick that year. The Angels had the 40th. Guess who the Halos took?

This is where it gets good. Unable to draft Skaggs, DiPoto has more than made up for it by trading for him twice, bringing him to both the D-backs and Angels. He's hoping the deal he made last December is the one that sticks. It was a three-team trade that got the Halos the back of their rotation in Santiago and Skaggs.

If DiPoto is right, the Angels could be nicely positioned moving forward. When last season ended, they had one young starter, 25-year-old Richards, and no one else even on the horizon. If things work out the way DiPoto hopes, they'll open the season with three starters under 30: Richards (26), Skaggs (22) and Santiago (26).

"We went from having a very veteran and somewhat shallow pitching staff to one with high potential," DiPoto said. "We're really excited about the group. We probably went from one extreme to the other. It's something to look forward to as an organization. We feel really good about the club."

The Angels are handing Skaggs nothing more than an opportunity this spring. He's competing with veteran Joe Blanton for the Halos' fifth rotation spot. When Patrick Corbin beat him out for Arizona's final rotation spot last spring, Skaggs went out and had his worst professional season. Thus, there are questions.

In 17 starts at Triple-A, Skaggs was 6-10 with a 4.59 ERA. In seven starts with the D-backs, he was 2-3 with a 5.12 ERA. More troubling was that Skaggs' velocity declined, and the D-backs seemingly had no qualms including him in the trade that landed them outfielder Mark Trumbo from the Angels and closer Addison Reed from the White Sox.

Skaggs calls it all a learning experience.

"You have to," he said. "You can't dwell on the past. It is what it is. It's a family over here, and I'm really enjoying it so far."

Since joining the Angels, pitching coach Mike Butcher has tweaked Skaggs' mechanics and worked to restore both his velocity and confidence. Skaggs said being around veteran starters like Weaver and Wilson has been a valuable learning experience.

"I've learned 10-fold since I came here," Skaggs said. "C.J. and I play catch every day. He has caught the little things, like not following through enough. You can't beat a veteran like that with a lot of experience helping you out."

Skaggs said being back with the team that originally drafted him has been everything he could have hoped.

"It's been phenomenal," Skaggs said. "[Angels manager Mike] Scioscia, Butch, the guys. It's nothing but amazing. I love the vibe here. It's going to be a fun season to say the least. I'm plugging away here and getting my starts in."

Skaggs breezed through two innings in his first spring start on Tuesday, and then ran out of gas in the third. He got just one out in the third and was charged with two runs in 2 1/3 official innings against the Rangers.

"That stuff is real," Scioscia said. "You can see it. He just got a little tired. It's a good workout for him. He got to 50 pitches, which is where Butch wanted to get him."

All in all, a good beginning.

"I felt really comfortable those first two innings," Skaggs said. "The third inning wasn't the worst inning. It wasn't like I was all over the place. But it was one of those things where I started overthrowing a little bit, and it was hot out there and I got a little tired.

"I liked it. First outing of the year, [you] couldn't ask for anything better. The velocity's back up. It felt good. The strikes were down in the zone. I was just happy to get back on the mound. The season ended kind of sour for me last year. It felt really good to go out there and let it fly."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Tyler Skaggs