Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the Angels have a big problem with their starting rotation depth. Yeah, I know, shocking, right?
In the wake of Mark Mulder rupturing his Achilles, the Halos find themselves with a perilously thin depth chart in their starting rotation. Of course, they were only distressingly thin before Mulder went down, so it wasn't as if the rotation situation was a source of stability and confidence beforehand.
The fact that losing a pitcher who hadn't thrown a pitch since 2008 is, in fact, an actual problem exemplifies just how poor the Angels' rotation depth was to begin with. As great as Mulder's story could have been, it is pretty damning that Jerry Dipoto built this roster in such a way that the team was actually counting on getting a significant contribution from Mulder, who was shaping up to have very good odds of being in the Opening Day rotation.
What's even more damning is that lack of rotation depth has become something of a trademark for the Dipoto era. Granted, having a deep pipeline of starting pitching is a hard thing to come by, especially when you inherit a such a poor farm system. But Dipoto only exacerbated the problem by trading away Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena, Donn Roach and Tyler Chatwood since he arrived on the job.
That lack of depth proved costly in 2012 when Dan Haren and Ervin Santana both struggled. Haren was battling a bad back, but the Angels had nobody to turn to for an extended period of time, so Haren never really got a chance to hit the DL to heal up. At the same time, Ervin Santana had one of the worst seasons of his career but never got pulled from the rotation because there was nobody else to turn to.
In 2013, Dipoto's hand was forced thanks to injury to Jered Weaver and the personal tragedy of Tommy Hanson. They got what they could out of Jerome Williams and, eventually, Garrett Richards, but when Jason Vargas went down, the Halos were tapped out. Despite his epic struggles, Joe Blanton made 20 starts before the organization finally replaced him and Jerome Williams made 25 starts despite falling apart in the second half of the season. Perhaps had the Angels had more depth, both pitchers could have been replaced much earlier in the season and the Halos might've been able to claw their way into the Wild Card race (OK, probably not).
Now as we head into 2014, the Angels are perfectly position to fall to a similar fate. As things currently stand, their rotation is a 31-year old with flagging velocity, a 33-year old and three young pitchers, none of which have thrown more than 157 innings or 26 starts in a season, including one pitcher, Hector Santiago, who has never been a starting pitcher for a full season at any professional level. With that mix, someone is going to get hurt or breakdown.
That's true of just about any team though. In 2013, the MLB teams averaged 32 starts that went to pitchers not in their Opening Day rotation. The Angels were hit particularly hard with 48 starts going to those outside of their initial five. That's more of a worst case scenario, but given the normal attrition within a rotation, the Angels have to plan to give at least 20 starts to pitchers further down their depth chart.
As of today, that is a terrifying proposition. The Angels now have almost no choice but to start Hector Santiago, even if they think he might be better off in the bullpen. They have almost no choice to but to start Tyler Skaggs, even if they think he needs more time in the minors. If it isn't one of them, then it has to be Joe Blanton, who has given us very little reason to think he is going to be much better than he was in 2013. That is why the initial plan has always been for the Halos to trade or release Blanton before Opening Day. Now, they almost have to keep him just for security.
If the Angels had any kind of minor league depth, they wouldn't need Blanton. Unfortunately, they don't. As of right now, the only homegrown options they have are Matt Shoemaker, an overachiever with fringy stuff, and Michael Roth, a low-ceiling starter who will probably end up in relief if he ever sticks in the majors. Things don't get much better with the non-roster invites. Wade LeBlanc is the only one with major league starting experience and he was a disaster in 2013.
The shame of it all is that Jerry Dipoto has seen the light regarding depth in the rest of the roster. For the first time in a long time, the Angels have too many deserving bullpen arms. They could field an entire bullpen out of left-hand specialists if they wanted to. On the position player side, Dipoto has been signing a veteran hitter to seemingly ever 5 hours. There just hasn't been the same activity or urgency with starting pitching.
Obviously there isn't the same abundance of starting pitching available to be signed, but Dipoto has had and still does have an opportunity to address this problem. Chris Capuano remains unsigned. His demand for a major league deal has apparently scared off the Angels, but they may not have a choice but to relent at this point. They could also take a look at Joe Saunders or roll the dice on a pitcher coming back from injury like Jeff Karstens or Johan Santana. The Angels need to make one, if not two or three, of those moves if they want to survive the season, much less actually contend for a playoff berth.
It is a shame that it took a tragic end to Mark Mulder's comeback story for Dipoto to have his hand forced, but at least he will do something now. Or at least we hope so.