Pujols is still without a home run
While the Los Angeles Angels have struggled across the board in the early going, the bullpen may be the club's biggest long-term issue. Coming into Tuesday's game against Tampa Bay, Angels relievers had a cumulative 5.08 earned-run average.
As the Angels have struggled to a 6-10 start this season, very little has gone according to their preseason plan.
But Albert Pujols, without a home run in the first 16 games and 65 at-bats) is not likely to go all season without one. Nor is the Angels' rotation likely to be as inconsistent as it has been through the early weeks of the season.
The bullpen issues that have trailed the Angels from last season into this, however, are far more likely to be a season-long sore point.
"We're going to have to have guys form some roles down there, make pitches and hold leads," manager Mike Scioscia said after a recent game. "That's critical for our club."
The same was true last season, and the Angels never did figure it out. They finished with 25 blown saves, tied for the most in the American League and third-most in the majors.
Although Jordan Walden blew 10 saves as a rookie closer, even more games were lost when Scioscia sorted unsuccessfully through an assortment of middle relievers and setup complements to reliable veteran Scott Downs.
The only changes in the bullpen this winter were the additions of 39-year-old veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen to that setup mix.
The early returns are not good.
The Angels have blown four leads in their first 16 games, tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for the most in the majors, and the bullpen has a collective ERA of 5.08, 28th in the majors.
The Angels have managed to get Walden only one save opportunity and were the last team in the American League to record a save.
First-year general Jerry Dipoto knows what it takes to rebuild a bullpen. As a member of the Diamondbacks' front office the last few years, he helped general manager Kevin Towers successfully rebuild one of the worst bullpens in history between the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Whether out of wariness over the volatility of the relief market or a lack of financial flexibility after aiming high with the free-agent signings of Pujols and C.J. Wilson during the offseason, Dipoto has not invested a lot of resources in the Angels' bullpen.
That doesn't figure to change in the short-term. Even if Dipoto were looking to acquire solutions, he would find them hard to come by on the trade market until possibly the July 31 trade deadline.
Even then it probably would cost him dearly (one of the Angels' young players like Mark Trumbo or Peter Bourjos or a top prospect).
"There is not a surplus of high-quality, major league relievers available," Dipoto said recently.
"There are 30 teams out there and virtually all 30 of them are not particularly satisfied with the depth of their pitching staff. The next team that utters the words, 'We have a perfect bullpen,' will be the first."
The Angels' best hopes for a turnaround in their bullpen's performance actually might hinge on players who don't spend their days there.
As the starting rotation rounds into its expected form, Jered Weaver (who pitched a complete game Saturday), Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Wilson figure to get deep into games and minimize the bullpen's workload.
And a more productive offense, led by Pujols, could provide a greater cushion for the rough spots late in games.
Angels Notes & Quotes
1B Albert Pujols went hitless in the Angels' weekend series against the Orioles (0-for-11) and still has not hit his first home run with the Angels after 16 games and 65 at-bats. The regular-season homer-less streak stretches to Sept. 22 of last season with the Cardinals -- 22 games and 94 at-bats ago.
OF Torii Hunter has his own homer-less stretch. Hunter has yet to hit a home run in 57 at-bats since the 2012 season started. He also didn't hit a home run in 60 at-bats during spring exhibitions. Hunter has not hit a home run since Sept. 24, 2011, a stretch of 65 regular-season at-bats.
INF Mark Trumbo has started a season-high four consecutive games, at four different positions. Trumbo was the Angels' designated hitter against the A's on Thursday, started in left field for the first time in his career on Friday, at third base on Saturday and at first base on Sunday. Trumbo was 4-for-14 in the four starts with at least one hit and an RBI in three of the games.
RHP Ervin Santana has allowed six home runs already this season, two each in his first three starts. That was tied for the most in the majors heading into Monday's games.
"He's given them up in the past, too," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Santana, who is 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA heading into his start Tuesday against the Rays. "It's just part of some pitchers to do that."
Class AAA Salt Lake OF Mike Trout left Sunday's game in the fifth inning after being hit in the elbow by a pitch. Trout stayed in long enough to score a run and play another inning on defense and the injury is not considered serious. Trout also had a triple (his fourth) and a walk and is batting .400 through the first 18 games of the Class AAA season. Trout has a hit in 17 of those 18 games.
By the Numbers: 5.08 – Collective ERA of Angels' relievers through the first 16 games of the season.
Quote to Note: "There's going to be a power element to our team that we maybe haven't seen in a couple years. But that hasn't emerged yet." -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia, on the team's 11 home runs through its first 16 games, tied with the Mariners for the fewest in the American League through Sunday.