Frieri finds peace in secure role, strengthened 'pen
Angels closer appreciates team's confidence, likes promising relief depth
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Ernesto Frieri has arrived, in more ways than one. On Friday, the love of his life, Caroline, gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Veronica, in Phoenix. Two months ago, he and the Angels agreed on Frieri's first salary as an arbitration-eligible player without the need for a hearing. And heading into the 2014 season, Frieri's role is solidified, really for the first time in his life.
Stability for a closer -- the most mentally draining position of all -- is no small thing.
"That gives me peace within myself," Frieri said in Spanish. "But I don't count on anything. I've always loved competition. Last year, when I didn't know what role I was going to have, I came in to compete. They haven't told me anything. I'm here to compete and to show them once again that I can. But what it has done is given me a lot of confidence, and I'm very thankful for what they've done for me. It shows me that they're confident in me, that they know I can do the job. What I have to do this year is show them that they made the right decision."
Frieri typically smiles a lot, but this spring a little more than usual -- because his life is in order, and because he looks around the room and sees a team that, in his eyes, should finally return to the playoffs.
"We're a young group," Frieri said of his fellow relievers, "but we have some good experience and also some good arms, which is most important. I think it's going to be a longer year, because we're going to play into October."
The Angels' bullpen depth looks promising heading into 2014, with sidearmer Joe Smith joining a back end that should include a healthy Sean Burnett, Dane De La Rosa coming off a breakout season, Michael Kohn a second year removed from Tommy John surgery, Kevin Jepsen healthy, and several others -- Fernando Salas, Brian Moran and Brandon Lyon, to name a few -- brought in to provide added depth.
If all this sounds familiar, it should.
Last year, the Angels' bullpen looked deeper when Burnett and Ryan Madson joined the fold, but Burnett appeared in 13 games before undergoing season-ending forearm surgery in August, and Madson -- expected to eventually take over the ninth inning -- missed a second straight year due to Tommy John surgery.
Those injuries, coupled with a starting rotation that was in flux from the get-go, put a lot of strain on the Angels' relievers and created a lot of uncertainty for Frieri.
Twelve times over the course of the first four months, Frieri went at least three days without appearing in a game, a direct byproduct of closing for a team that didn't lead in the ninth inning all that often. Seven times over the course of the year, he saved games in which he recorded at least four outs, more than anyone in baseball.
Then there was that two-week stretch that began in late July and seeped into early August. Frieri was struggling on the mound, dealing with some personal stuff at home, started putting added pressure on himself with arbitration looming for the first time and gave up 12 runs over a 4 2/3-inning stretch that spanned seven appearances.
"It was a lot of stuff outside of baseball, personal stuff, and also came that moment that was very hard," Frieri said. "I never lose. I either win or learn. I learned in that moment. The box score says I lost a game or blew a save, but I learned. Now I'm stronger physically and mentally."
Frieri took a step back, started handling lower-leverage situations for a little while, and refocused, posting a 1.66 ERA with 29 strikeouts and four walks in 21 2/3 innings the rest of the way.
Frieri's ERA (2.32 to 3.80), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched, 0.99 to 1.24) and strikeout rate (13.4 to 12.8) fell off from his phenomenal 2012 season. But the 28-year-old right-hander has been one of the best bargains at closer these last two years, ranking 12th in saves (60) and eighth in save percentage (89.6) while posting a .623 opponents' OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that would rank third in the Majors if he qualified.
Over the offseason, the Angels didn't look for another closer, only pieces to put around Frieri. They committed to him and, in his mind, showed him as much on Jan. 17 by signing him to a $3.8 million contract for 2014.
"Those are things that calm you down, give you a little peace," Frieri said. "Once things like that are finalized, it's easier to focus more on what you need to do on the field, and you stop thinking about how much it is I'm going to sign for. That's over, thankfully we came to agreement, and I'm really happy about how quickly we were able to agree on something. They were really flexible with me, and that says a lot. It shows that they want me here and that they like what I've been doing. But I have to keep showing them that they're right, that they made the right decision."
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.