There they sat, a latter-day version of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, all with the same club.
Josh Hamilton. Mike Trout. Albert Pujols.
What, you expected Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson?
Uh, the Los Angeles Angels won’t be staging a news conference on live television for their three new starting pitchers the way they did for Hamilton, Trout and Pujols on Thursday.
For the 2013 Angels, starting pitching is not a point of emphasis the way it is for most clubs. General manager Jerry Dipoto says that is by design, and offers not only a detailed justification for his offseason maneuverings, but also a historical precedent.
I’m just not sure it will play out how Dipoto envisions.
The Angels’ top two starters, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, make big money, and Weaver is one of the game’s few legitimate aces. But Vargas, Blanton and Hanson will earn a combined $18.725 million this season, or less than outfielder Vernon Wells, who is now a reserve.
The Angels went for Hamilton over right-hander Zack Greinke in free agency, declined to move outfielders Mark Trumbo and/or Peter Bourjos for starting pitching, watched as other clubs added top-of-the-rotation types such as James Shields and R.A. Dickey.
“I can’t say that we didn’t consider any and all of the above,” Dipoto says. “We did, from Zack to every guy who was potentially available on the trade market.
“At the end of the day, you have to make good decisions based on the collective good of the 25-man roster. Whether it was the asking price in a trade or carrying cost of a top-of-the-line free agent, we preferred to take a more broad-based 25-man roster and 12-man pitching staff rather than hitch our wagon to one star.”
A pitching star such as Greinke, that is, not an offensive star such as Hamilton. The Angels’ modest expenditures in the rotation enabled them to bolster their bullpen with two free agents, Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Trumbo and Bourjos, both of whom are a year away from salary arbitration, will help balance the team’s payroll, as will Trout, who is two years away from arb.
OK, but why Vargas, Blanton and Hanson?
“For a long time, I watched John Hart and the way he did things,” Dipoto says, referring specifically to Hart’s successful tenure in Cleveland in the mid- to late-1990s.
“It’s very hard to find effective and sustainable pitching. But John was adept at finding the right veteran guys to fill a short-term need, whether it was Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Jack McDowell — I could line ’em up.
“They would allow you to be a very competitive team while you bring your (younger) guys through — your Bartolo Colons, your Jaret Wrights. Some hit and some miss; that’s just the nature of player development. But that model works if you have a young, controllable position-player club.”
Which, for the most part, the Angels do — Pujols, 33, and Hamilton, 31, are the team’s only regulars over 30, and both are under long-term control.
Dipoto, after declining club options on Dan Haren ($15.5 million) and Ervin Santana ($13 million), acquired Vargas for designated hitter Kendrys Morales, signed Blanton to a two-year, $15 million, free-agent contract and obtained Hanson for reliever Jordan Walden.
The goal, Dipoto says, was reliability; the Angels, thin on upper-level pitching prospects, were not in position to take a chance on a free agent such as the oft-injured Brandon McCarthy, fearing they could not cover a significant number of lost innings.
Vargas has averaged nearly 204 innings the past three seasons. Blanton, when healthy, is a similar type. Hanson, in Dipoto’s view, is more of a “wild card” — but at the cost of Walden, who worked only 39 innings last season, most in low-leverage situations, worth a shot.
All three of the new starters also are flyball pitchers, making them well-suited for both their new club and park. Weaver ranked fifth in the majors in flyball rate, Vargas 14th, Hanson 16th and Blanton 44th. Angel Stadium, in Dipoto’s words, is “flyball friendly,” and Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton will form one of the game’s top defensive outfields.
Fair enough, but let’s look a little closer:
• Vargas. The rap on the left-hander is that during his time with the Seattle Mariners, he was a creation of pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
The 30-year-old Vargas had a 2.74 ERA at home and a 4.78 ERA on the road last season, though his splits were less pronounced the previous two years.
“Jason Vargas is pretty damn good,” Dipoto says. “Nobody realizes that because he pitched up in Seattle. If he got an advantage from pitching in his ballpark, I don’t know that our ballpark will treat him too differently.”
Fair point: In each of the past three seasons, Angel Stadium was the fourth-most-difficult hitter’s park in the majors according to park factor, which compares the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road.
Safeco ranked second, fifth and first during that span.
• Blanton. His average fastball velocity, according to Fangraphs.com, was a career-high 90.2 mph last season — in part, Blanton says, due to an aggressive stretching routine he adopted after he injured his elbow in 2011.
Still, Blanton’s career ERA-plus — his ERA adjusted to his league and ballpark — is only 96. The average is 100, a figure that Blanton hasn’t exceeded since 2009.
“Joe gets beat up for the things he hasn’t done well,” Dipoto says. “There are some things he does extraordinarily well, not the least of which is throw the ball over the plate. He’s just as good as anybody in the league in that regard.”
Blanton, 32, had the third-lowest walk rate in the majors last season, 1.6 per nine innings.
• Hanson. He’s still only 26, but his average fastball velocity has diminished from 92.7 mph to 91.1 to 89.6 over the past three seasons, a scary proposition as he moves to the American League for the first time.
But Hanson, who worked to add strength this offseason, vows, “I want to get back to where I was three years ago,” when he had a 3.33 ERA in 202 2/3 innings for the Braves.
“Tommy Hanson, in his four-year career, the first three years were extraordinarily good. He’s coming off a bad one,” Dipoto says. “It’s a calculated risk at a moderate cost. It’s not like we were taking a $15 million flyer.”
Not on Hanson, and not on Blanton and Vargas, either.
Yet, even if the Angels reach the playoffs for the first time since ’09, how will their rotation survive three postseason series?
The Angels are betting on their offense. Betting big.