The bullpen was supposed to be a key strength for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2010.

All the talk about lacking a true No. 1 starter didn’t matter, because the relievers would be there to secure any lead.

That bravado hinged, in no small way, on the return of Scot Shields.

Shields has indeed returned, but his pitching form has not.

Once one of the brightest young pitching stars to emerge from the Angels’ farm system, Shields burst onto the scene like a supernova in 2001 before going on to help his team secure its first World Series Championship the following year.

That season, he posted a career-best 2.20 ERA and would follow it up with six consecutive years of sub-3.90 work. 

It was only because of a bum knee in 2009 that the ERA streak came to an end. Shields was forced to have season-ending surgery after posting a 6.62 ERA in just 20 appearances.

This year was supposed to be different.

The addition of Fernando Rodney, along with the emergence of both Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger, gave the Angels’ relief corps an effective mix of youth and experience to lock down those late-inning leads.

It also provided the perfect cushion to support Shields as he slowly worked his way back into his usual set-up role. With his knee fully healed and rehabbed, it was only a matter of time.

But after 10 appearances, that time has still not come.

Shields has lost his form entirely. He struggles to find the strike zone with consecutive pitches, and his misses aren’t even close.

Through 7.1 innings this year, Shields has allowed 19 baserunners, including 10 hits and nine unintentional walks, resulting in eight earned runs and a 9.82 ERA.

He’s only given up one home run, but considering it was a walk-off blast to Johnny Damon, who had not homered yet this season, it’s hard to look at that as a positive.

For the time being, manager Mike Scioscia has started to use Shields in situations where the game is not on the line. On Sunday, he was brought in with the Angels down by five. After loading the bases, he managed to escape without further damage.

But Shields is no mop-up reliever and his role as such will be limited. Scioscia is trying to do him a favor by using him in low-pressure situations to help regain his form. If he can’t do it, serious changes may be on the horizon.

What form that takes is anyone’s guess.

Ironically, the most sought-after player on the Angels roster at one time may no longer have any trade value. What can GM Tony Reagins hope to get in return for a 34-year-old reliever with nothing left in the tank?

Given his age and veteran status on the team, it is also unlikely the Angels will send Shields down to the minors to right himself.

At this point, all that Scioscia and the rest of the staff do is wait and hope he works out his mechanical issues at the major league level before the team is forced to cut him.

Because that’s exactly what will happen if he can’t turn things around in the next couple of months.

Amazingly, the Angels are still running in the middle of the pack with a 4.32 bullpen ERA. Jepsen has been a revelation this season, while Rodney continues to justify his $11 million contract.

Even newcomer Brian Stokes, while shaky at times, is still working on a 3.65 ERA.

With the starting rotation not yet in a groove, the Angels bullpen may indeed become the strength of the team, as so many predicted in spring. 

Whether that strength comes from the addition of Shields, or his subtraction, is still a question waiting to be answered.

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