The Angel free agent exodus continues with Darren Oliver becoming the latest Halo veteran to take the money and run to and Angel rival.  Oliver had been the only consistently bright spot of last season’s otherwise dismal relief corps.  Now all that remains in the bullpen is darkness and no obvious plan for how to restore the light to what used to be the strongest part of the Angel roster.

Darren Oliver

It is the Angels who should be sweating now that Oliver is gone.

Considering that Tony Reagins let Darren Oliver leave without really even putting up a fight to keep him, I have to believe that there is plan afoot to return the Angel bullpen to its former glory.  Hopefully that plan extends beyond hoping that the young relievers continue to improve and that Scot Shields returns healthy and productive in 2010.  Expecting Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen to continue to blossom in next season might seem like a good idea on the surface, but we all saw how well that turned out when everyone expected Jose Arredondo to become the next great Angel reliever last season.  No, there simply has to be some greater plan at work here.  The question is what that plan is since so many quality relievers have already been taken off the free agent market.

While the free agent pool has been raided already, the Angels still have some option, depending on which path they choose to pursue.  They could try and snag another veteran southpaw to serve as a lefty-specialist.  Joe Beimel, Ron Mahay, Eddie Guardado, Scott Eyre, Alan Embree, Mike MacDougal and Brian Shouse all fit this mold to a tee.  For the most part they would all be cheap and probably reasonably effective components that Mike Scioscia wouldn’t have to worry too much about.  However, Sosh has never been too concerned about playing the match-ups anyway, so this hardly seems like a realistic primary plan.  Maybe the Angels will add a specialist to round out the pen, but not before addressing the bigger holes in the bullpen.  The fact of the matter is getting out opposing left-handed batters is far from the Angels’ biggest problem.

What the Angels really need is what they had in Oliver, someone that can be counted on all season long.  But in what role?  Scot Shields is going to be the primary set-up man no matter what.  Mike Scioscia is slavishly loyal to his veterans and Shields figures to be no exception, even if his knee is still crumbling and his rubber arm finally starts to come off his body.  Kevin Jepsen will always be on hand as an insurance policy for Shields in the unlikely event that Sosh ever does lose faith in him and Bulger after that.  While Jepsen and Bulger are no sure bets either, it just doesn’t make financial sense for the Halos to drop a sizable chunk of change on another power righty just so he can end up working low leverage innings.  But that doesn’t a power righty can’t be of any use, it just needs to be in a different role… like the closer.

Brian Fuentes

Upset about getting demoted, Brian?  Try not to suck so much.

Signing another new closer a year after kicking K-Rod to the curb and replacing him with Brian Fuentes may not be the most popular of moves, but then again neither would leaving Tito installed as the closer after his train wreck of a second half.  Replacing him as closer though actually kills three birds with one stone.  As luck might have it, Tito is southpaw and for all his struggles last season, he was still pretty effective against left-handed batters (.589 OPS against lefties).  He may not be too happy about the demotion, but it wouldn’t be the first time he has gotten fired from the closer gig… or the second time.

Paying two guys closer money hurts too, but only for one year.  Fuentes will pull in a cool $9 million this year but he’ll be guaranteed even more scratch to be just as crappy in 2011 if he finishes a pre-defined number of games, thus triggering his 2011 option year that would be a team option otherwise.  Unless that Angels are keen on getting stuck with Fuentes for yet another year, they almost have to find another closer to take his place.  They just need to be careful of replacing one problem with another.  There are a number of former closers on the market that could be had.  Matt Capps, Fernando Rodney and Kevin Gregg (yes, the former Angel mop-up man) are all sitting around waiting for someone to throw money at them.  But just because some other foolish ballclubs made the mistake of using these guys as closers even though they clearly weren’t up to the task doesn’t mean the Angels should make the same mistake.  That is, after all, how they ended up with Fuentes in the first place.

Really, there is only one real option: Jose Valverde.  For whatever reason, Valverde is not finding much love on the open market despite three straight very strong seasons closing for the Astros and Diamondbacks.  The combination of Valverde’s $10+ million asking price and the dearth of teams seeking an established closer creates a perfect opportunity for the Angels to swoop in and get themselves a bargain.  If Tony Reagins were smart, and I still think he is though others seem to be losing faith, he’d give Valverde that $10 million (or close to it) but only for one year, something Valverde should be interested in if in hopes that he can try and test the free agent waters again next season to get that long-term big bucks deal that clearly isn’t coming this year.  It’s a win-win for the Angels.  They get an upgrade at closer, add bullpen depth and keep their financial future intact.

Now all that is left to do is for Reagins to actually act.  The longer he waits to put his plan, whatever it is, into effect, the more likely the Angels are too get screwed over yet again.

UPDATE: The Angels are in “serious talks” with Fernando Rodney.  Which is the perfect cop out choice by Reagins since it is not clear the Rodney would immediately replace Fuentes as closer.  Prepare for a spirited closer controversy in Spring Training if Rodney gets inked.