Angels shake up pitching staff, sending reliever Chris Rodriguez to the minors

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Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Chris Rodriguez (73) throws during a baseball game.
Angels relief pitcher Chris Rodriguez delivers against the Kansas City Royals on June 7. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

A week that began with a disappointing three-game sweep at the hands of the Oakland Athletics ended with three of four wins against the Detroit Tigers, a stretch of extremes in which the one constant was Shohei Ohtani, who hit six homers and drove in nine runs in his last six games.

Here are four observations of the Angels, who are 36-36 and 7½ games behind the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics in the American League West entering Tuesday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants, who have a major league-best 46-26 record:

The future of C-Rod

The Angels announced Monday morning that they have optioned reliever Chris Rodriguez, who has struggled since returning from a shoulder injury in early June, to double-A Rocket City and right-hander Jaime Barría to triple-A Salt Lake.

José Quintana, out since late May because of shoulder inflammation, was also reinstated from the injured list, and the veteran left-hander is expected to be moved from the rotation to the bullpen.

Angels general manager Perry Minasian said through a team spokesperson that Rodriguez will start at double-A “but that doesn’t mean he can’t come back up later in the year as a reliever.”

But the team — and Rodriguez — would be better served by stretching out the hard-throwing right-hander as a starter in the minor leagues and leaving him in the rotation, positioning him as a starting pitching option not only for later this season but for next season and beyond.

Rodriguez, 22, who missed all of 2018 because of a stress-reaction in his lower-back and most of 2019 because of surgery to repair a stress fracture in his back, was the organization’s top pitching prospect entering this season.

He has a has a tantalizing four-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball that averages 94 mph and touches 98 mph with late movement, a wipeout slider that ranges from 87-91 mph, a big overhand curve that he throws in the mid-80s and an 89-mph changeup with screwball-like fading action.

While Rodriguez boosted the bullpen this season — he had a 2.30 ERA in 15 2/3 innings across eight games before going on the injured list — he would have a far greater impact on a thin rotation that features only one high-end, potentially dominant arm in Ohtani and four others — Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, Alex Cobb and Quintana — who are in the final year of their contracts.

Rodriguez could team with Ohtani, 25-year-old right-hander Griffin Canning, in his third season in the big leagues, and 2020 first-round pick Reid Detmers, a 22-year-old left-hander who is 2-2 with a 3.34 ERA in eight starts at Rocket City, and perhaps Patrick Sandoval to form the foundation of a young Angels rotation for several years.

Detmers, the 10th overall pick out of Louisville last summer, threw an immaculate inning — nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts — as part of a six-inning, 14-strikeout effort against Biloxi on Sunday.

Leading man

David Fletcher hits a run-scoring double for the Angels in a win over the Detroit Tigers on Saturday.
David Fletcher hits a run-scoring double for the Angels in a win over the Detroit Tigers on Saturday. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Manager Joe Maddon acknowledges that his lineup would probably function best with a healthy and productive David Fletcher at the top of the order. The contact-hitting second baseman batted first in all but one of his 49 games in 2020, when he hit .319 with a .376 on-base percentage and scored 31 runs.

“I think if you want to speak in theoretical terms, before the season began,” Maddon said, “you would think that.”

Fletcher spent the first month and a half of 2021 in the leadoff spot before being demoted to the ninth spot with a .250 average and .271 on-base percentage May 15.

Maddon moved middle-of-the-order slugger Justin Upton, who had never hit leadoff in 14 previous big-league seasons, to the top spot on May 23, and in 24 games since, all but one in the leadoff spot, Upton has hit .333 with a .427 OBP, six homers, eight doubles, 15 RBIs and 25 runs.

Fletcher has since regained his stroke, hitting .327 (34 for 104) with a .369 OBP, seven doubles, 11 RBIs and 18 runs in 31 games in the ninth spot, but even when Maddon gave Upton a day off on Sunday, he kept Fletcher at the bottom of the order.

“Of course, I did think about it,” Maddon said of moving Fletcher to the leadoff spot for one game, “but I don’t want to mess with his mojo now, it’s been fabulous. There’s been a lot of action at the bottom, and he’s taken care of that really well.”

So well, in fact, that Maddon said he has “no intentions” of moving Upton out of the leadoff spot when star center fielder and three-time American League most valuable player Mike Trout returns from a left-calf strain in July.

“I’m in no hurry to get J-Up out of the leadoff spot,” Maddon said. “He’s gotten plenty of opportunities to drive in runs there. The biggest thing with J-Up at the top is he’s really setting a strong tone for the whole group with his ability to accept his walks and drive the ball and his baserunning. It kind of works.”

Rendon’s bat lagging

Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon runs while wearing a batter's helmet.
Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon runs back to the dugout during a game against the Kansas City Royals on June 7. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Angels lost five of their first six games after Trout was hurt May 17, hitting .206 with a .694 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and averaging 3.8 runs and 6.2 hits per game. They went 17-9 in their next 26 games, hitting .278 with an .819 OPS and averaging 5.9 runs and 9.5 hits per game.

But if the Angels are going to continue to weather the loss of Trout and make some kind of playoff push in the second half, they’re going to need much more production from third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has been among baseball’s most disappointing players in 2021.

Rendon, in the second year of a seven-year, $245-million deal, went hitless in four at-bats in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Tigers, striking out twice and hitting into a double play, and is batting .230 with a .653 OPS, four homers, nine doubles and 30 RBIs in 47 games.

He has been on the disabled list twice this season, because of a left-groin strain in early April and a left-knee bruise in early May, and he missed four games last week because of a left-triceps injury he suffered while diving for a double down the line in Oakland on May 14.

“He’s shown some flashes of coming out of it on occasion,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing for me, from a technical perspective, is he’s laying back a little too much, kind of being not on time. When he is on time, there’s a flatter, more timed-out approach to the ball and the trajectory is better. Every time he’s off for a couple of days, this seems to happen.”

Maddon insisted after Sunday’s game that Rendon is “OK” physically. Though Rendon has suffered a series of injuries, “he doesn’t complain of anything,” Maddon said. The manager remains confident that Rendon will snap out of his season-long funk.

“I have absolute faith in this guy, I know he’s gonna get hot,” Maddon said. “He knows exactly what he’s working on. I’ve spoken to him and watched his work, and I’m very encouraged that he’s going to get better.”

Star attraction

The Angels have been unable to mount much of a threat in the division, but they were smart to maximize Ohtani’s box-office potential both this week and next.

Ohtani’s next start on the mound was pushed up to Wednesday’s 1 p.m. game in Angel Stadium, setting up a marquee pitching matchup between the two-way star and Giants ace Kevin Gausman, who is 8-1 with a major league-leading 1.51 ERA.

Griffin Canning was pushed back to Friday’s series opener at Tampa Bay to accommodate Ohtani, who is 3-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 10 starts this season, striking out 73 and walking 29 in 53 1/3 innings.

Not only will the move increase attendance for the final game of the Angels’ homestand, it will put Ohtani in line to make his first-ever pitching start in Yankee Stadium next week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.