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Assessing the Angels rotation

4/10/2013

The good news on Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Jered Weaver hitting the disabled list Tuesday is that the elbow he fractured Sunday night was his left one, and he doesn't rely on that one to throw baseballs. Sure, Weaver will miss a month and perhaps more, but at least we don't need to worry about performance when he returns, as we would if this were his pitching elbow or a shoulder. Or do we?

Lost in the strange way Weaver hurt himself, falling off the mound to avoid a comebacker that did not strike him, is that his already underwhelming fastball velocity was -- as it seems with half of baseball's pitchers these days -- significantly down from last year. Weaver was never Stephen Strasburg to start with, so perhaps it's a bit overblown, but it's tough to get hitters out with an 85 mph heater, and it showed Sunday night before the injury as two Texas Rangers homered off him, and he issued four walks.

Weaver's velocity dropped from an average of 89.1 mph to an average of 87.8 mph last season, though it didn't seem to matter, as he registered a 2.81 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Then again, I couldn't help but notice his FIP was 3.75 and his xFIP 4.18, and those are indicators he was fortunate to earn that ERA. Also, since the 20 wins tell us nothing in terms of being repeated -- remember, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw each lost seven wins from their 2011 totals in 2012 while pitching similarly -- I left Weaver out of my top 10 starting pitchers for this year, though he was close. In 11 innings this season, Weaver's fastball was coming in at 85.5 mph, and he was throwing fewer of them.

Still, Weaver is a terrific pitcher, and in a way the DL stint, while painful for fantasy owners and Angels fans in the short term (though not nearly as painful as most believe) could actually help. We don't know why Weaver's velocity was down. Perhaps his arm was sore or he was still building up strength from the spring. St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Motte can't work on his arm strength while he's sidelined because it's his pitching arm. For Weaver it isn't. Regardless, nobody should be sending Weaver to the free-agent bin in any fantasy format. This is not, and I hate bringing up the names again, Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum.

Weaver's second half of 2012 wasn't close to as successful as his first, but his September ERA was 2.67, his WHIP 1.15. Anyone is tradable, whether you're buying or selling, but I see Weaver returning by mid-May, making roughly 26 starts this season and settling in with a 3.30 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's common for fractures to heal cleaner and quicker than sprains and other ligament issues, depending on severity, so I don't see much risk in reinjury.

The Angels had a rotation somewhat built on hopes and dreams anyway, with two reliable options and three newcomers of varying effectiveness and little depth. Any team can survive the loss of one starting pitcher for a month, even if Garrett Richards, Jerome Williams or even the very available Aaron Harang becomes the replacement options. In ESPN standard leagues, Weaver and lefty C.J. Wilson, himself having sputtered at times in his first Angels season, are 100 percent owned. Wilson is on my bounce-back list because there's a track record, his strikeout rate is strong and he's proved to be durable, but he sure didn't look effective early on Tuesday night against the Oakland Athletics, when he threw a ton of pitches early and was down 4-0 after two innings. Wilson righted himself and gave the Angels six innings, permitting no extra runs. Through two starts he's walked seven and fanned 11 in 12 innings. Stick with him.

As for the three newcomers to the rotation -- right-hander Tommy Hanson, lefty Jason Vargas and right-hander Joe Blanton -- I can't say I'm much of a fan of any of them. Hanson is owned in 44.2 percent of ESPN standard formats, mainly because people remember he had a successful run for the Atlanta Braves and his first start last week went well, but he's had shoulder and back injuries the past two seasons. Plus, I'll be honest, when the pitching-rich Braves unload a guy, I pay attention. Hanson permitted 27 home runs last year, and his walk rate was a career high. He brings more upside than Vargas and Blanton, but with his shoulder issues, I will take the under on 30 starts.

At least Vargas is more likely to stay healthy, and his performance in recent seasons has been consistent. Sure, he doesn't call cozy Safeco Field his home ballpark any longer, but even as his ERA rises to the 4.25 range, there's a security factor for deeper leagues or AL-only formats. Blanton, like Hanson, was allowing too many homers in the National League, so moving to the AL seems like a poor fit. The Cincinnati Reds tagged Blanton for three homers in five innings last week. Go with a middle reliever to fill out your staff rather than Blanton, and stay away from Richards and Williams. I don't think the Angels are in trouble, but for the next month without Weaver, Wilson is the lone starter I'd rely on.