LA Angels try again to build a title team around Mike Trout
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Angels had the majors' best record last year, and they return this season with baseball's best player at the center of largely the same roster.
Yet the Angels accomplished none of their biggest goals last year when they were swept out of the division series, and their sky-high payroll makes those unmet expectations even more painful.
So are the Angels a legitimate power or an unbalanced, aging team with a rapidly closing window? Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and manager Mike Scioscia can only figure it out by going back to work to find the right combination to contend again.
The Angels are difficult to evaluate because everything depends on the window from which they're viewed.
They have an enormous payroll topped by some of baseball's highest-paid players at their positions - Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and Trout, the reigning AL MVP. For all that money, consistent winning and championship contention is expected, which means the Angels' inability to win a single playoff game in five seasons is a disaster.
Yet the Angels still won 98 games last season despite losing budding ace Garrett Richards to a knee injury in August, and general manager Jerry Dipoto has restocked his roster while breathing life into what was considered the majors' worst farm system in recent years. From the bullpen to the heart of the order, Los Angeles has an undeniably solid complement of talent around Trout, the best player in baseball at 23 years old.
But just when the Angels look sharp, new worries arise. One of them was Hamilton, who appeared to be facing a suspension until the announcement Friday that he will not be disciplined by Major League Baseball for his latest problems involving cocaine and alcohol. But he still won't play until at least May because of shoulder surgery.
Hamilton still has three years left on his $125 million contract, but at least his absence is cushioned by the grim fact that he has made no significant, consistent impact on the Angels' offense in two expensive seasons. Los Angeles acquired veteran Matt Joyce from Tampa Bay in the offseason, and returning outfielder Collin Cowgill also can fill in capably.
Some other things to watch when the Angels embark on their 55th season:
WHAT'S ON SECOND: The Angels' biggest problem is at second base, where Howie Kendrick leaves a gaping hole after nearly a decade entrenched in the job. With just a year left on Kendrick's contract, Dipoto traded him to the Dodgers to get promising young starter Andrew Heaney. But the lineup that led the AL in runs has lost its top hit producer - yes, Kendrick had even more than Trout - with no real plan to replace him. Josh Rutledge, Grant Green and Johnny Giavotella are among the light-hitting infielders getting a look in the spring, but none is likely to replace Kendrick's big bat.
RICH MAN: After leading the AL in RBIs and runs last season while winning the MVP trophy, Trout already has accomplished more than pretty much any 23-year-old in baseball history - and he's about to get paid for it. The outfielder's six-year, $144.5 million contract begins this year, albeit at a modest $5.25 million salary for 2015 before the deal skyrockets. Yet Trout hasn't shown any signs of complacency in the offseason, and he is working aggressively with hitting coach Don Baylor on limiting his strikeouts, which jumped to an AL-worst 184 last year.
WEAKNESS TO STRENGTH: After years of ineptitude, the Angels are confident their bullpen will again be among the majors' tops this season. Closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith are among the best in the business, while Mike Morin is expected to move into a bigger role with Kevin Jepsen's departure. Fernando Salas, Vinny Pestano and newcomer Cesar Ramos - Jered Weaver's college teammate - all are angling for innings, likely making the bullpen into a source of comfort for Scioscia.
GOTTA PITCH: The Angels' rotation has a high ceiling and a low floor - just like the rest of this team. Weaver and Wilson are on top of the rotation, but many believe both 30-something veterans took a step backward last season. Richards faces an uncertain mid-April return from a long rehabilitation, while Matt Shoemaker must prove he can replicate his shocking 16-victory performance that made him second on AL Rookie of the Year voting. Scioscia also must pick a fifth starter among Heaney, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano.