This time yesterday the Angels were on top of the MLB world having surged to the top of the AL West, proud owners of the best record in baseball. Then Garrett Richards collapsed in a heap of agony, blowing out his knee, ending his season and dealing a crushing blow to the World Series hopes of his Angels.
The knee injury to Richards is the most devastating non-Trout-related injury the Angels could have suffered. Entering the season, the rotation was a huge question mark for the Halos, but Richards emerged as a legitimate frontline starter bringing stability to an otherwise questionable group. Richards was their ace, having a season good enough that he was certain to appear on AL Cy Young ballots at the end of the year. Now, his absence is the reason the Angels’ rotation is a huge question mark once again.
What Richards has left in his wake is a declining Jered Weaver to lead the staff into the post-season. The term “lead should” be used loosely though as Weaver has seen his performance erode the last few years to the point that he currently has an ERA+ of 100 which is as average as you can get. Behind him is C.J. Wilson, who has struggled mightily for months and owns a bloated 4.34 ERA. Then there is Hector Santiago, who now leads the Richards-less rotation with a 3.46 ERA, but has been so erratic this year that he was demoted to the minors and spent time in the bullpen in the first half of the season. Rounding out their playoff rotation is the surprising rookie Matt Shoemaker, an undrafted pitcher who has appeared on exactly zero prospect lists in the history of history.
That’s not a set of pitchers that portends to match-up well with the Tigers with Scherzer, Price and Sanchez or the A’s with Lester, Samardzija and Gray or the Mariners with Hernandez and Iwakuma or Kansas City with Shields and Ventura. Without their ace, the Angels will have lean heavily on their potent offense and deep bullpen. That’s a recipe that can win a championship. In fact, it is pretty much the same recipe the 2002 Angels used. It is, however, a much higher degree of difficulty without a dominant starter like Richards available to go toe-to-toe with the opposition’s ace.
The trick here though is that the Angels actually need to qualify for the playoffs first. On that front, at least, things don’t look so hopeless. Losing Richards certainly hurts, but the Halos built themselves a nice cushion in the playoff race. They have 1.5 game edge on Oakland in the AL West and 6.5 game lead over the two teams tied for the second Wild Card. The Angels would have to drop off substantially to fall out of the playoff race altogether.
That seems highly unlikely. This morning’s updated playoff odds for the Angels have them at 99.7% odds to qualify for the post-season in one way or another. Losing their best pitcher seems like the kind of thing that could push them into that 0.3% bucket, but if you really breakdown the regular season impact of Richards’ loss, he’s only going to miss six more starts.
Granted, those six starts are now going to be made by the likes of Wade LeBlanc, Randy Wolf or Michael Roth, but there is only so much damage that can done in those games. Some might fear the loss of Richards might cast a black cloud over the Angels clubhouse, but it sure didn’t the night he got injured when the Halos rallied from down three runs to win 8-3.
The real danger though isn’t whether or not they make the playoffs but how they make the playoffs. Giving away 6.5 games over the Wild Card teams seems unlikely, but 1.5 game given away to the A’s for the division lead seems perfectly plausible. Heck, it was highly possibly, if not likely, even before Richards went down. Losing the division lead and ending up in the coin-flip Wild Card game makes the road to the World Series that much harder for the Angels.
For that reason, we might see the Angels try and acquire an established veteran to fill-in for Richards. They aren’t going to land an ace, but getting a reliable veteran like Jorge De La Rosa to take those six starts instead of the has-been/never-were arms in the Halos farm system. Such a trade won’t be easy to pull off with the Angels owning the best record in the league though as the other 29 teams can all place a claim to block the Halos from getting the arms they want.
Even if they do land that arm, it isn’t likely to make much difference once the Halos do reach the playoffs. For that, they’ll have to cross all their fingers and toes that Jered Weaver and/or C.J. Wilson are able to turn back the clock and pitch at peak level once again. They only need to do it for a month, so it isn’t entirely impossible and stranger things have certainly happened in the playoffs.
That’s probably not the kind of hypothetical that the Angels and their fans want to hang their World Series hopes on, but without Richards, that’s really the best they are going to do.