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Will Garrett Richards Rot in Los Angeles Angels Bullpen?

Rancid Results in Relief Role for Right-hander

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COMMENTARY | Today might not be the best day to bash the Los Angeles Angels for their offseason free-agent signing of veteran right-hander Joe Blanton, who threw one of his occasional quality starts in a 3-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners on June 18, his last outing.

But any day is appropriate for ripping the Angels over their approach to building a major-league club, especially a flailing operation like this 2013 outfit. The Blanton signing is representative of their approach, which is better geared to winning December headlines than summer baseball games.

The Angels signed Blanton to a contract that guarantees him two years and $15 million. He has repaid them with a 1-10 record and a 5.62 ERA. In 14 outings, he has six quality starts -- five of them against the Mariners, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers, which all are among the bottom third of big-league teams in OPS, per Baseball-Reference.com.

No surprise. Blanton hasn't been even an average big-league starting pitcher since 2009. It has never been clear why the Angels thought signing him was a good idea.

The Angels have a 25-year-old right-hander named Garrett Richards. He was their first-round pick in the 2009 draft. He's 6 feet 3 inches and 215 pounds. Fangraphs.com says he leads the American League with an average fastball velocity of 95.1 miles per hour. He was quite effective as a minor-league pitcher -- 34-11 with a 3.34 ERA in 70 appearances, 69 of them starts.

Richards took nine starts in 2012 for the Angels. The first seven were pretty respectable, 3-1 with a 3.61 ERA. Then, he turned up two bad starts and was banished to Salt Lake City. In late August, the Angels called him up and stuck him in the bullpen, where he had virtually no experience since his sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma. He struggled in relief and ended up with a 4.69 ERA.

So, as the 2012 season ended, the Angels were sitting on a big fellow reaching 25, a top draft pick, a starter all the way who throws up to 97 miles per hour and he had nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. His worst ERA in the minors was last year's 4.21 in the Pacific Coast League, where the league average was 5.13.

Furthermore, the Angels faced the loss of three starting pitchers to free agency. It was time to pencil Richards into the rotation for 2013, take the lumps that come with young starting pitchers from time to time, and reap the rewards as they were to come. It's not like he had a history of consistently tanking starts. The guy is a legitimate prospect.

Instead, the Angels traded for two starting pitchers (Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson) and signed Blanton as a free agent. The suits apparently decided that they would rather pay millions to a proven mediocrity like Blanton than give an opportunity to their own guy who has a much higher ceiling.

Richards needs to develop as a starting pitcher, which involves a different mentality than pitching from the bullpen. His game has holes. He is reticent about throwing inside, and he has virtually nothing off-speed. Everything is hard and away. He will not fix any of that by theorizing, nor is he likely to develop off-speed pitches from the bullpen. He's bound to throw bad starts. But an organization that is unwilling to put up with those bad starts will never develop young starting pitchers.

The Angels gave Richards four starts this April. In the first three, he went through six innings without allowing more than two runs. One of those was seven innings of two-hit shutout pitching against the powerful Detroit Tigers. In the other two of those first three, he sustained damage in the seventh inning. How many times have we heard managers say words to the effect that you take your six good innings from your young starting pitcher, then remove him right then or at the next sign of trouble, giving him something on which to build his confidence? Apparently, that's not the Angels' approach.

Following that third start, Richards held a 3.65 ERA. He made his fourth consecutive start on April 30 against the Oakland Athletics, who roughed him up through the middle innings. From that point forward, Richards has been in the bullpen. Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters he hoped Richards would become a power reliever.

He may not be cut out for it. In 17 relief outings since April, Richards has a 5.59 ERA and batters are hitting .337 against him. Meanwhile, the Angels have given starts to Blanton, Barry Enright and Billy Buckner.

It's hard to figure. Harder, still, to like.

Bill Peterson has covered and written about Major League Baseball for more than 30 years in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Texas and Los Angeles, where he now lives and writes a baseball blog, Big Leagues in Los Angeles. He is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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