Purgatory Online

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The party line continues to be that the Angels are perfectly comfortable heading into spring training with six starters. Just to recap, they are: Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn, Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, Ramon Ortiz, and Aaron Sele. Additionally, the Angels have Scot Shields, who's performed competently as a spot starter, in the bullpen, as well as a couple of minor-league pitchers who may or may not be ready for work with the big club.

It's a logjam. Or an armjam, anyway.

Realistically, Colon, Washburn, and Escobar are pretty close to guaranteed a spot in the rotation. Most of the stuff I've been reading assumes that Lackey is in, too, although a look at his numbers reveals a guy who's been almost exactly average over the last couple of years, albeit with flashes of dominance (and a permanent place in the hearts of Angels fans as the guy who pitched five good innings to start Game 7). Lackey's big advantage is that he's a youngster - 25 years old - and can be expected to improve for the next few years. So he's a good bet to be starter #4.

Neither Ortiz nor Sele is a safe bet to return to their glory days. Ortiz has had his ups and downs, will turn 31 before the season starts, and I get the sense that the Angels have grown just a little bit weary of waiting for him to fulfill his potential. After a pair of good seasons in 2001 and 2002, he had a subpar 2003. Then again, who didn't?

Sele, meanwhile, is three years older than Ortiz, and attempting to come back from an injury, to boot. I suspect that his days of sub-4.00 ERAs are done, but he's certainly wouldn't surprise anyone by being a capable fifth starter. He'll be making somewhere in the $8 million range in 2004, meaning that his contract is virtually untradable at this point. If he impresses in spring training, he'll likely get the slot in the rotation, and the Angels will attempt to deal Ortiz. If he doesn't, the Angels will either release him (bringing the amount they'll spend on starting pitchers not playing for them in 2004 to $20 million), or attempt to trade him while picking up some of his contract money. Either choice would be perilous - keeping Sele means keeping your fingers crossed that he doesn't get injured again, or just plain break down over the course of a season. Trading or releasing him means you end up paying for something you're not using. Fortunately, the presence of Shields as an emergency fifth starter should give the Angels the flexibility to use either Ortiz or Sele as their fifth starter, on the theory that even if they choose a dud and trade away the other, they still have a competent backup.

No matter how many times Stoneman says that all jobs are up for grabs, expect most eyes to be on Aaron Sele. Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow; the first spring training game is versus San Diego on March 5.