Cactus League countdown: L.A. Angels

The Los Angeles Angels were champions of the 2011-12 offseason, reeling in two big catches that made them instant World Series favorites in many quarters. Landing superstar first baseman Albert Pujols and former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson will do that.
Then they added another ace, Zack Greinke, at midseason. But even that somehow wasn’t enough to beat out the low-budget Athletics in the AL West or even finish second in a stacked division. So how did the Angels respond? They opened up their checkbooks again and got the prize of this offseason’s free-agent class, too, at the Rangers’ expense.

With the addition of outfielder Josh Hamilton, the Angels’ lineup just might be a modern-day Murderer’s Row.

Hamilton joins AL Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up Mike Trout and Albert Pujols as the centerpieces in what figures to be the most-feared offense in baseball.

Last season, the trio of Hamilton, Pujols and Trout combined for 103 home runs and 316 RBI. Mark Trumbo, who slides into the designated hitter position after being miscast as a third baseman, added 32 home runs and 95 RBI. And middle infielders Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar hit .287 and .290 with eight home runs apiece.

But history has proved that a dominant lineup on paper is no guarantee of wins on the field. Chemistry, strategy and sometimes a little luck all play a part. That said, it’s hard to imagine this group not being the team to beat in the West.

Of course, a potent offense doesn’t mean much without quality pitching, and in that regard the Angels have some proving to do. Greinke, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren all landed elsewhere in free agency, leaving the Angels with just Jered Weaver and Wilson from the 2012 rotation.
The Angels hit the trade market to bring in Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, who won a combined 27 games last season, and they filled out the rotation in free agency with Joe Blanton. By no means is that a terrifying group, but it’s deeper than many teams.

The Angels also shored up the bullpen with the additions of Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson, who missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery in April. Madson is hoping to be ready for Opening Day, and if he can claim the ninth-inning role, it would allow Ernesto Frieri to move back into the role of dominating set-up man.
There are a lot of new pieces to work into the puzzle, but most of those are on the pitching staff. Among the everyday players, only Hamilton is new. His signing made Kendrys Morales expendable, which freed up the DH spot for Trumbo and an outfield spot for Peter Bourjos, so there was a nice domino effect.

But Hamilton doesn’t come without risks. The 31-year-old has relapsed in his battle with alcohol addiction more than once in recent years, including shortly before spring training last year. He also slumped after a monster start last season and admitted it stemmed from his decision to stop chewing tobacco. With the Rangers, Hamilton had a familiar environment and an infrastructure of friends and teammates. Everything is new for him in Los Angeles, where he’ll have to establish a support system.

Hamilton is not the only concern, of course. Perhaps Pujols struggles early in the season again. Perhaps Trout suffers the dreaded sophomore slump. Or perhaps the rotation doesn’t work out as planned.

Spring training might not answer those questions, but there will be plenty of intrigue ahead of them in Tempe this year. With Hamilton’s arrival, the Angels might just be the biggest attraction of the Cactus League.

Who’s new: P Tommy Hanson, trade (Braves); P Jason Vargas, trade (Mariners); P Joe Blanton, P Sean Burnett, OF Josh Hamilton, P Ryan Madson, free agents; OF Scott Cousins, waivers; IF Bill Hall, IF Brendan Harris, IF Luis Rodriguez, P Mitch Stetter, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: P Zack Greinke (Dodgers), P Dan Haren (Nationals), OF Torii Hunter (Tigers), IF Maicer Izturis (Blue Jays), 1B/DH Kendrys Morales (Mariners), P Ervin Santana (Royals), P Jordan Walden (Braves); P LaTroy Hawkins, P Jason Isringhausen, free agents.
Battle ground: Barring injuries, the key spots are pretty much established. Andrew Romine, Brendan Harris and Bill Hall are the candidates for a bench spot as utility infielders. Ryan Brasier, Michael Kohn, Brandon Sisk and Stetter will try to work their way into the bullpen mix.
Health watch: Pujols underwent minor knee surgery in October but is expected to be healthy for the start of spring training. … Madson is still recovering from Tommy John surgery in April and says he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery. Whether that means he’ll be ready for part or all of spring training is still unclear. … Wilson had bone spurs in his left elbow cleaned up in the offseason but is reportedly already back on a normal throwing program.
Sneak preview: If his bat continues to develop and he can cut down on his free-swinging ways, third-base prospect Luis Jimenez could have a future in the major leagues. He hit .309 with 85 RBI and 16 home runs in Triple-A last season.
Spring training info: Tempe Diablo Stadium, 2200 W. Alameda Dr., Tempe. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb, 16 (full squad). First game Feb 23. Tickets: