New faces, same title aspirations for Angels
Expectations remain high as pitchers and catchers report for Spring
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Angels camp officially opened Monday, when pitchers and catchers report for their physicals four days in advance of the first full-squad workout at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
And while a lot of the faces are new, the sentiment is eerily similar to that of last February: Coming off a postseason absence and a headline-grabbing offseason, the Angels sport a championship-contending roster and shoulder the expectations of winning.
Gone are Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, Jordan Walden, LaTroy Hawkins and Maicer Izturis; in are Josh Hamilton, Ryan Madson, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Sean Burnett; back are superstars Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver.
On paper, with a payroll that will top $150 million yet again, the Angels should be good enough to, at the very least, end a three-year playoff drought.
But last year taught us that "on paper" means nothing.
It also taught us this: There's very little you can tell from Spring Training.
The Angels couldn't have asked for a better camp last year. Everyone came through it in relatively good health, Morales found his form after missing nearly two years to injury, Pujols posted a 1.287 OPS, and Haren and Santana combined to notch a 2.06 ERA in 43 2/3 Cactus League innings.
Then, the regular season happened. Pujols went 27 games before hitting his first home run, Haren and Santana began what would be among the worst seasons of their careers, the bullpen was a mess and the Angels began the year 6-14, putting themselves in a hole they were never able to dig themselves out of completely.
"We were flying out of Spring Training," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We were running great, we were hitting, and then we just didn't swing the bats at all for 20 games. That put us a little behind."
The end result -- an 89-73 record that was five games behind the surprising, first-place A's in the American League West -- prompted a lot of change this offseason.
Hunter (signed to a two-year, $26 million deal by the AL champion Tigers) and Haren (a one-year, $13 million deal by the Nats) were not retained. Santana was dealt to the Royals, Greinke left to sign a $147 million deal with the Dodgers, Walden was flipped to the Braves for Hanson, Madson was signed to an incentive-laden, one-year contract, and Burnett ($8 million) and Blanton ($15 million) were inked to two-year deals at the Winter Meetings.
Then, when it looked like they were done, the Angels made yet another big splash, plucking Hamilton from the division-rival Rangers with a five-year, $125 million contract -- a deal that came almost exactly one year after the Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings, and one that led to a Morales-for-Vargas swap with the Mariners.
"I think he's going to be tremendous to our lineup from a balance standpoint, having a left-handed power bat in there," Wilson said of Hamilton, his former teammate in Texas. "Also as a defensive outfielder, he's really, really good, and I don't think a lot of people realize how good he can move out there in the outfield and catch balls in the gaps."
With Hamilton, Pujols and Trout -- the unanimous AL Rookie of the Year who's now the most talked-about player in the game -- the Angels' offense is arguably the best in baseball. Defensively, especially in the outfield, they're elite. And with five legit options in the back end of the bullpen -- Madson, Burnett, Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen -- the relief corps should be much improved from the last two years.
Now, it's the rotation that replaces the 'pen as the biggest question mark heading into Spring Training.
Hanson, Vargas and Blanton are replacing Greinke, Haren and Santana. And though the two trios finished 2012 with very similar numbers -- 4.32 ERA in 583 innings for the former, 4.27 ERA in 567 innings for the latter -- the track records aren't comparable.
"I know we have three really good competitors," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "Not saying we didn't have three competitors last year, but I know these guys know how to compete. I know they're going to take the ball, they're going to grind it out and they're going to give us a chance to win. That's all we can ask for out of a starting rotation."
The division? Seemingly more winnable, with the Rangers doing little to improve over the offseason.
The roster? Definitely a lot clearer.
Last spring, with Pujols coming on board and Morales getting healthy, there was a lot of clutter. Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells and Peter Bourjos were all fighting for playing time in a crowded outfield, Mark Trumbo was trying to figure out third base in order to stay relevant, and Izturis and Alberto Callaspo weren't sure how much time they'd get.
This spring, the Angels' lineup, rotation and bullpen is pretty much set.
But there are still a few things to figure out in camp. Like...
• Who fills the void left by Hunter, both in the No. 2 spot in the order and the leadership role?
• How does Madson progress from Tommy John surgery? His rehab schedule is expected to have him pitching in games by the middle of March, which could be just in time to enable him to start the season with the team.
• Who fills out the roster? Back-up catcher, back-up infielder and the final bullpen and bench spots will all be up for grabs.
• How does Bourjos, now the starting center fielder, look after a season in which he mostly sat? And what about Trumbo and Wilson, both of whom are trying to recover from a rough second half?
"We're still going to have some guys fighting for at-bats," Scioscia said, "but there's no doubt that we could put a lot of our focus into some of the pitching decisions that are going to be up in the air. … Some decisions last year were made for us, because of the lack of depth and some guys who were hurt. But I think this year, on the pitching side especially, we're pretty deep."
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.