Keys to AL teams’ rotations

The Angels took a late-season gamble in 2009.

It didn’t help them advance to the World Series. The acquisition of left-handed starter Scott Kazmir, however, could turn into a godsend in the long run.

Tampa Bay was looking to reduce some payroll and concerned about struggles Kazmir began to have midway through the 2008 season. The Angels, however, looked past the numbers. They saw a resurgence in Kazmir’s abilities after a June stint on the disabled list — during which Kazmir tracked down his former minor-league mentor with the Mets, Rick Peterson, to straighten out his mechanics.

As a result, the Angels were willing to cough up three prospects to acquire Kazmir at the end of August. They wanted a quality starter for the stretch run, but also knew that in acquiring Kazmir they were adding a lefthander who turned 26 in January and who is under control through 2012. In addition to a $20 million guarantee the next two seasons, the Angels have a $13.5 million option — or $2.5 million buyout — for 2012.

There was a feel-good glimpse from Kazmir in September. Kazmir, after having a 3.04 ERA the first half of 2008 and a 4.02 ERA after the break that season and then compiling a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts for the Rays last year, was only 2-2 in six starts with the Angels. The Angels, however, won his two no-decisions and he had a 1.73 ERA.

Now the Angels are hoping that Kazmir can continue his resurgence over a full season.

Every team, however, has rotation questions to be answered.

Consider what’s going on with American League rotations:

BALTIMORE feels it took advantage of Texas’ financial struggles and got lucky in being able to land right-hander Kevin Millwood, whose $12 million salary was too much of a burden for the Rangers. The Orioles added a veteran who has been durable with the hope he can provide stability for a developing rotation.

BOSTON right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka doesn’t have the WBC to blame for failures this year. After denying the WBC was to blame for his shoulder problems last year, Matsuzaka has since admitted he did hurt an ankle getting ready for the WBC, which led to a change in his delivery and caused the problems. He is working out in Arizona this winter and the Red Sox are keeping an eye on him. He does, after all, have $28 million still guaranteed for the next three seasons and the contract includes a clause that forbids the Red Sox from sending him to the minors so they need him to be capable of contributing at the big-league level.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX general manager Kenny Williams also gambled last July when he shipped four legit prospect to San Diego for Jake Peavy, who battled ankle problems that knocked him out last June and created concerns about residual arm problems from trying to compensate for the ankle. Williams’ feeling was to land a talent like Peavy, the 2007 NL Cy Young winner, you had to take advantage of a situation like this, even if he is guaranteed $37 million in 2010-2011. The initial return was positive. Finally able to pitch last September, Peavy went 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA. The Sox, though, need season-long success so they can match Peavy up with Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation.

CLEVELAND is ready for lefty Jeremy Sowers to meet the expectations that come with being the team’s first-round pick in 2004. He is only 18-30 in the big leagues, but there’s not much more for him to prove in the minors (33-15, 2.53) so he needs to take the next step and become a cornerstone for a rotation with a rebuilding franchise.

DETROIT pitcher Armando Galarraga went from a phenom in 2008 (13-7, 3.73) to a flop in 2009 (6-10, 5.64), which was a key part of the Tigers’ on-field failure. With the decision to deal Edwin Jackson, and gamble on the health of former Arizona No. 1 draft pick Max Scherzer, the Tigers have to get Galarraga back on line in 2010 if they want to contend in the AL Central.

KANSAS CITY pitching coach Bob McClure worked wonders the last couple of years in turning the potential of Zack Greinke into results. Now, however, comes an even bigger challenge. With Greinke having won the AL Cy Young the attention will grow on the right-hander. A private sort — who doesn’t like being in crowds — Greinke won’t be an afterthought for visitors to the Royals clubhouse.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS see Kazmir as being capable to move into the upper part of the rotation, helping make up for the free-agency loss of John Lackey during the offseason.

MINNESOTA has waited three years for Francisco Liriano to bounce back from elbow problems. After missing the entire 2007 season and going a combined 18-30 the last two seasons, Liriano has given the Twins some reason for hope. He had a solid winter, which included 10 strikeouts in four innings of a playoff game in his native Dominican Republic this winter.

NEW YORK YANKEES didn’t give up much to acquire right-hander Javier Vazquez from Atlanta, which was cutting payroll, and he has been durable (198 innings or more in each of the last 10 seasons). He, however, has an ERA a half-run higher in his four AL seasons (4.52) than he has compiled in the NL (4.02).

OAKLAND works in mysterious ways. With a pitching staff that is young and promising, and an offense that has been stumbling, the A’s decided to take a high-priced gamble on oft-injured Ben Sheets. Sheets, who missed all of last season with surgery and has made 30 starts once in the last five years, was given a $10 million deal. That ranks him second on the team in salary, behind Eric Chavez. What’s more, he can add up to $2 million of incentives if he works 195 innings. Sheets, however, could become this year’s Matt Holliday. A healthy first half and he will draw interest of contenders, and the A’s could turn him into a prospect or two.

SEATTLE made a long-term investment in the talented right arm of Felix Hernandez, signing him to a five-year, $78 million deal that will buy out his final two years of arbitration and first three years of free-agent eligibility. There’s no debate on Hernandez’s potential. He, however, has had only two winning records in five big-league seasons. Was last year’s 19-5 a breakout season for the 24-year-old? The Mariners are gambling it was.

TAMPA BAY right-hander James Shields has become the ace of the staff, but after back-to-back quality seasons, Shields sent up some flares that were cause for concern last year. His hits (239) and walks (52) went up markedly and his ERA went back above the 4.00 level for the first time in his three solid years in the rotation.

TEXAS has a rotation full of promises and question marks, but the biggest hope hinges on a healthy season from Rich Harden. He’s the one experienced veteran in the rotation, the guy the Rangers signed with the idea that he could step into that sage veteran role which Kevin Millwood had filled the last couple of years. At $7.5 million in base salary on the one-year free-agent deal he signed, he is the second-highest-paid player on the team, behind only third baseman Michael Young. And while he has a 50-29 big-league record, don’t overlook the fact he has made 30 starts once in his big-league career.

TORONTO right-hander Brandon Morrow, a first-round draft choice of Seattle when he came out of the University of California, was moved into the bullpen by the Mariners to try to limit the workload. Morrow, however, bombed in a chance to be a closer, and then decided he wasn’t happy pitching in relief. Can he find happiness in Toronto, where his wish to be a starting pitcher will be granted?