Angels’ bullpen needs to step up in 2012

Jordan Walden’s performance will be a key factor in the Angels’ 2012 hopes. (Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

In 2011, one of the Angels’ biggest weaknesses was a bullpen that couldn’t quite shut the door on opponents. Halo fans groaned when it was finally time to take the game out of the starter’s hands and let the bullpen do its work.

It was a little bit of an overreaction, but the fact remains that the Angels’ bullpen could certainly stand for some improvement in time for 2012.

The biggest mystery for the Halos’ relief staff is whether closer Jordan Walden is truly ready for the big time. In spite of his 100 mph-plus fastball and an All-Star Game appearance, Walden still had his struggles. The closer’s 10 blown saves in 2011 are tied with Carlos Marmol for most in the league.

It’s safe to say Walden’s struggles came primarily from a lack of variety in his pitches. 105-mph heat is still hittable when you know it’s coming on nearly every pitch. His control tended to suffer from time to time, as well. Walden experimented with his slider a few times last season, so he may very well expand on that pitch in his time off. Whatever the case, there’s no real reason to panic – with a full season of relief pitching under his belt, expect Walden to settle down and take control.

Walden took over the closing position previously held by Fernando Rodney, who held the position for all of three appearances in 2011. Rodney underwhelmed while Walden dazzled, and Mike Scioscia tinkered with the bullpen until Walden finally earned the job for good.

Rodney, a free agent after 2011, was clearly unhappy with the decision. He’ll probably sign with a team who will let him close before considering re-signing with Los Angeles.

Of course, Rodney finished the season with a 4.50 ERA and a .93 K/BB ratio, so it won’t be a tragedy if he signs elsewhere.

Walden’s struggles and Rodney’s drama are the only glaring negatives in the Angels bullpen, and both of those problems should be wrapped up before next season anyway. Meanwhile, most of the players on the relief staff have ranged from solid to mediocre. I say “most” only because there’s one reliever I can’t wait to see next season: Scott Downs. Downs was easily the best pitcher in the bullpen, finishing the season with a 1.34 ERA and 39 hits allowed in 60 appearances. When Downs entered the game, the inning was all but guaranteed to end without a run allowed.

The Angels’ bullpen will be a big deciding factor in whether their 2012 campaign is a success or failure. The bullpen was not a disaster in 2011, but they’ll definitely want to improve on their performance and give fans reason to rest easy when it’s time to preserve a lead.

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