Angels' success rests on rotation
Colon, Escobar healthy heading into AL West title defense
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The key word for the Angels in 2006 is pitching, and it starts in the rotation.
As it was last season, when Angels starters paced the club to its second consecutive division crown in the American League West, the group that takes the hill each day will again be called on to carry the flag.
"It's a five-cylinder engine, and we'll need those five guys every night," manager Mike Scioscia said.
The quintet faces a bar that will not be easy to clear. Last year's rotation posted a 3.75 ERA, tying the White Sox for the league's low mark while Bartolo Colon distinguished himself by winning the AL Cy Young award.
Left-hander Jarrod Washburn had the low ERA in the rotation at 3.20 while John Lackey matched a career-high with 14 wins and dropped only five decisions. Ervin Santana chipped in 12 victories as a rookie.
"I think it has a chance to perform as well as last year's, but I don't think you can ask for more than what we got last year," Scioscia said. "We pitched deep enough into games on a nightly basis and throughout the season. That allowed us to keep the bullpen on pace. We have the potential to do that again."
The makings for a repeat are there, though.
Colon returns as the ace of the all-right-handed rotation and will be followed by Lackey and Jeff Weaver in the regular season's opening series in Seattle. Kelvim Escobar will be the No. 4 starter with Santana handling the fifth spot.
Two health concerns faced the Angels at the opening of camp this spring. Colon suffered a right shoulder strain last October while Escobar had surgery to remove bone chips and shave a bone spur from his right elbow last June.
The two pitchers have been healthy all spring and both pitched in the World Baseball Classic: Colon for the Dominican Republic and Escobar for the pitching-rich Venezuelan team.
It was Colon who enjoyed the upper hand as the Dominicans eliminated Venezuela to advance to the semis. Colon then held Cuba scoreless for six innings to lower his ERA in the Classic to 0.64 only to see Cuba rally against the Dominican bullpen.
Escobar returned from the experience of playing in the international tournament not only energized for the regular season but feeling better than he has in years. He last started over a full season in 2004, when he went 11-12 with a 3.93 ERA but suffered from a lack of run support that resulted in the Angels getting shut out in five of his starts.
The right-hander is pain-free this season and has the ability to dominate with a five-pitch repertoire that features fastball, slider, split, curve and changeup. He can also cut his fastball and will form a solid back end of the rotation with Santana.
"We have good pitching all the way through; it doesn't matter your place in the rotation," Escobar said. "It is pretty good when you have me and then Ervin as the No. 4 and the No. 5 guy."
The rotation is down a pair of starters from last year with the departure of Washburn and Paul Byrd. Escobar is taking one slot with the other going to Weaver.
The Angels did not make many headlines during the offseason, adding right-hander Hector Carrasco and left-hander J.C. Romero to the bullpen. But as camp opened, they landed Weaver with a one-year deal worth a potential $9 million with incentives.
After two seasons with the Dodgers, Weaver is returning to the AL and will give the Angels a veteran presence that is capable of taking the ball every fifth day and chew up innings. Weaver has logged at least 200 innings in each of the last two seaons and has never been on the disabled list in his career.
"I'm excited," said Weaver, who won a career-high 14 games last season. "I think everyone that goes out there is a No. 1. I think it is a sign of a great rotation. That is what wins: pitching and defense. If everyone stays healthy and does what they're capable of, it is going to be a fine year."
Darin Erstad is returning to center this season with Casey Kotchman taking over at first. Orlando Cabrera and Adam Kennedy form a Gold Glove double-play combo in the middle of the infield so the defense that plays behind the starters should once again be solid.
"Our team starts with pitching and part of our pitching is the defense that goes behind it," Scioscia said. "Erstad is a part of that defense. Adam Kennedy is a part of that."
Francisco Rodriguez in the closer's role will anchor a bullpen that should rank among baseball's best, but the road to a three-peat in the AL West will be fueled by the success of the starting staff.
Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.