Around the Horn: Starting pitching

Trio to compete for final spot behind Weaver, Wilson, Richards and Shoemaker

Around the Horn: Starting pitching

With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 19, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2015 roster. This is the fifth of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: Starting pitching. (previously: outfield, corner infield, middle infield, catcher)

ANAHEIM -- When analyzing the Angels' starting rotation, it's easy to make assumptions on both ends of the spectrum.

There's the optimist's view: Jered Weaver is a rock, C.J. Wilson's 2014 struggles were an anomaly, Garrett Richards has the best stuff in the game and Matt Shoemaker is one of baseball's great hidden gems.

And there's the cynic's view: Weaver is in decline, Wilson can't be trusted, Richards will have a tough time recovering from knee surgery and there's no way Shoemaker can replicate his 2014 season.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

The Angels believe they have a strong rotation, but they also understand they have questions, which is why they made certain that they have depth, for the first time in a long time.

Heading into the 2015 season, the Angels have seven starting pitchers they feel comfortable with taking the ball every fifth day. Behind the four locks, it's the three guys who will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation -- Hector Santiago, Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano.

Last year, Angels starters -- mostly Weaver, Wilson, Richards, Shoemaker, Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, who will spend 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery -- ranked first in the American League in innings, third in OPS against and seventh in ERA.

The current staff's success will hinge largely on Richards, the 26-year-old right-hander who is in the final stages of recovering from a ruptured left patellar tendon.

Before going down with a very rare injury for starting pitchers on Aug. 20, Richards was in the thick of the AL Cy Young Award race, going 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 164 strikeouts in 168 2/3 innings.

Richards' injury

Richards ran with all of his body weight Tuesday and is slated to throw his first bullpen session Monday, three days before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to camp for their physicals. He could be ready by Opening Day, though the Angels will certainly be cautious.

Richards has, by far, the best stuff on the staff and can be the one to put the Angels over the top -- even if his general manager would rather not put that kind of pressure on him.

"We're not counting on Garrett to go out there and go 25-2 with 250 innings pitched," Jerry Dipoto said. "We're counting on Garrett just to be Garrett. And if everybody goes out there and just does their job, and they perform to their norm, we're going to be in really good shape."

Weaver will enter camp in slightly different shape.

On Jan. 25, 25 days before reporting for Spring Training, the Angels' ace had bulked up to a career-high 224 pounds, up from the 199 that he weighed late in 2014. Weaver won an AL-best 18 games in his age-31 season last year, posting a 3.59 ERA in 213 1/3 innings despite having the fourth-slowest fastball velocity among non-knuckleball-throwing starters.

"Numbers-wise, it was all right," Weaver said, "but from a personal standpoint, me being me and ultra competitive, I want to get deeper in games. The bullpen helped me a lot last year. I just want to gain some strength."

Wilson's 2014 season was his worst in five years as a Major League starter. He led the AL in walks, didn't complete six innings in 14 of his 31 starts, and had a 5.64 ERA from the start of June to the end of September. His lasting image came in Game 3 of the AL Division Series, when he gave up a first-inning, bases-clearing double to Alex Gordon and exited.

Wilson had seemingly lost the trust of Angels manager Mike Scioscia, and now looks to regain it all over again.

Shoemaker, meanwhile, looks to prove his rookie season was no fluke.

As an undrafted 28-year-old who posted subpar numbers in Triple-A the previous two years, Shoemaker came out of nowhere to finish second in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting last season, going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA and a 5.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 games (20 starts).

Outlook: Shoemaker, SP, LAA

Shoemaker always has attacked hitters, and there always was an expectation that his pitches would play better once he escaped the high altitudes of the Pacific Coast League. But he's never had this kind of success.

Can he duplicate it?

"Of course," Shoemaker said recently. "You never know how it's going to go until it's all set and done, but of course that's the plan."

One of the most interesting aspects of Spring Training will be the competition between Santiago, Heaney and Tropeano for a spot in the Angels' rotation.

Santiago, 27, has posted a 3.58 ERA, a 1.37 WHIP and a 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the White Sox and Angels the last three years, starting 51 games and coming out of the bullpen for the other 55. In 2015, he'll either be the fifth starter or join Cesar Ramos as a second lefty out of the bullpen.

For Tropeano and Heaney, it's the Major Leagues or Triple-A.

Tropeano, acquired from the Astros for Hank Conger in early November, made four starts in the Major Leagues last season and posted a 3.03 ERA in 124 2/3 innings in Triple-A, making him the ERA champion of the PCL. The 24-year-old right-hander is 6-foot-4, pitches off his low-90s fastball, misses bats (9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his Minor League career) and doesn't hurt himself with walks (career walk rate is 2.7).

Top Prospects: Heaney, LAA

Heaney was acquired from the Dodgers for second baseman Howie Kendrick on Dec. 11 and is considered baseball's 25th-best prospect by MLB.com. He's a 23-year-old left-hander with a wiry, 6-foot-2 frame and, like Tropeano, good peripherals. Since being drafted ninth overall by the Marlins in 2012, Heaney has posted a 2.69 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in his Minor League career, walking 2.4 batters per nine innings and striking out 9.0.

"We feel like this guy can pitch up in a rotation," Dipoto said, "and he has a No. 2-type ceiling with All-Star potential."

Beyond the active roster: After Heaney, the Angels' best starting-pitching prospect is Sean Newcomb, selected 15th overall in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. The big-body lefty finished the season with four starts for Class A Burlington, so he still has a ways to go. … Starting pitching is one area the Angels have made strides in their farm system. The organization also thinks highly of Joe Gatto (ranked fourth on the Angels by MLB.com), Chris Ellis (fifth), Hunter Green (10th) and Nate Smith (unranked). … Jose Alvarez, Drew Rucinski, Alex Sanabia and Adam Wilk are set to make up the Triple-A rotation, along with whoever doesn't win a spot on the Opening Day roster. … Cory Rasmus will be stretched out as a starter in Spring Training, but could be a reliever on the Opening Day roster.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.