Garrett Richards reported to spring training feeling secure he has a spot in the Los Angeles Angels pitching rotation.
Penciled in as the No. 3 starter behind veterans Jared Weaver and C.J. Wilson, Richards can experiment with his off-speed pitches instead of competing to make the Opening Day roster.
“That's a huge accomplishment for me,” Richards said. “After bouncing back and forth (between Triple-A and the majors) two years ago, and then pitching in the bullpen the first half last season, I've made major strides. But in baseball you're always working on improving.”
A compensation first-round draft pick four years ago, the 25-year-old right-hander from OU has relied on a mid-90 mph fastball much of his career. This offseason he worked on his curve and change-up.
“I'm getting pretty comfortable with all four pitches,” Richards said. “I throw a two-seam change-up, which I try to mimic my two-seam fastball. That pitch has come a long way. The breaking ball has a much different look that should really help me.”
Last season, the Angels inserted Richards into the rotation soon after the All-Star break. Spending the entire season in the majors for the first time, Richards was 7-8 with a 4.18 ERA. In his final 13 starts, the Edmond Memorial product was 5-4 with a 3.60 ERA.
“When I broke with the team last year out of camp in the bullpen, that was unexpected,” Richards said. “Your preparation is different. You have to be ready any time the phone rings. Talking with veterans, I learned a routine. It was huge for me, eventually leading to my opportunity in the rotation.”
Richards proved in the minors he can win games. In roughly 400 career minor league innings, Richards compiled a 34-11 record with a 3.34 ERA.
After getting an $800,000 signing bonus, Richards methodically climbed through the organization. After spending 2010 at two Class A levels, he advanced to Double-A the following season. He made his major league debut during a September call-up.
Two years ago, Richards shuttled between Triple-A and the majors, logging around 75 innings at each level. Last season, he seized his long awaited opportunity.
“It's part of being a younger player, having to earn your way,” Richards said. “When I bounced back and forth there wasn't any room for me. That year we also had Ervin Santana and Dan Haren. It's kind of like a right of passage.”
Richards still makes his offseason home in Edmond, a startling contrast to Los Angeles, four times the population of the entire state of Oklahoma.
“It's certainly a faster paced lifestyle,” Richards said. “The traffic gets really crazy. It's hard to get into a routine no matter what time of day it is. It's a great city, but it's always nice to come back to Oklahoma. Getting from Point A to Point B like a Thunder game is a lot easier.”
Because he pitched for the Sooners, Richards is older than some prospects. If he had it do over, would he still spend three years at OU instead of opting to sign out of high school?
“Absolutely,” Richards said. “OU has a great tradition. It was a blast, a great life experience. My parents got to come to all my games. I could have gone out of state or signed (professionally). No regrets. None at all. It was three great years.”
Last season, expectations were high. But the Angels (78-84) were one of baseball's biggest disappointments.
The lineup is loaded. Outfielder Mike Trout is five-tool superstar. First baseman Albert Pujols two years ago signed a 10-year, $254 million deal. Outfielder Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125 million contract. This offseason, they acquired third baseman David Freese from the Cardinals.
The AL West, though, is stacked. Oakland has won the past two West titles. Texas recently made back-to-back World Series appearances. Still, the big-market Angels have talent.
“On paper we look great,” Richards said. “We have all the tools, but we have to go out and play well. Getting a healthy Pujols back speaks for itself. Josh has worked on his weight. If you have a healthy Pujols and the Hamilton of two years ago, we'll have a team full of All-Stars.”
Pitching will be the key. It's also a pivotal season for Richards, who will earn $500,000 this season but is arbitration eligible next season.
“Everyone goes into the season with high expectations,” Richards said. “You literally have to take it one start at a time, do your job every fifth day, regardless how you pitched your previous start. I've learned if I simplify things, that's when I pitch better.
“When you're performing well and you're still sent down (to Triple-A) that can be hard to deal with, but it's something a lot of guys go through. Those are the guys that often times don't putter out. Now that I'm in the rotation, it's my job to help the Angels win games.”