New-look Angels still face same questions

It was a transformative winter for the Angels.

Just days after the team missed out on the playoffs for the second consecutive year (finishing 10 games behind the AL West champion Texas Rangers each time), owner Arte Moreno fired general manager Tony Reagins. That set off a front-office housecleaning, overdue in many ways.

New GM Jerry Dipoto brought in a new set of decision-makers and a fresh vision. A month after his hiring, he rocked the baseball world by landing first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson as free agents, a $330 million commitment that has raised the excitement level and expectations around the Angels to new heights.

The additions of Pujols and Wilson return the Angels to serious contender status by addressing two obvious areas of need — adding punch to a lineup that has sagged since Kendrys Morales fractured his left ankle in May 2010 and adding depth to a starting rotation that already ranked among the best in baseball.

That rotation, fronted by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, figures to be the Angels’ greatest strength again in 2012. But the Angels are counting on the addition of Pujols boosting an offense that struggled to support the team’s pitching staff in 2011.

Pujols could use some help, though, and the Angels still have a number of questions surrounding their offense that could determine whether they can chase down the two-time defending AL champion Rangers.

First and most prominent is the status of Morales. The Cuban slugger has not played in almost two years and underwent a second surgery on his left ankle last spring. Reports from his rehab this winter have been positive, and the Angels are “cautiously optimistic” that he will be able to return at some point in 2012.

If Morales returns to his 2009 level (.306, 34 home runs, 108 RBI and a fifth-place finish in AL MVP voting), he would team with Pujols for a middle-of-the-order 1-2 punch as good as the Angels have had in years.

A bounce-back year from Vernon Wells would further lengthen the lineup. Wells was acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade last winter that backfired on the Angels in more ways than one. While Mike Napoli (traded away to the Jays and then flipped to the Rangers) became a valuable part of the Rangers’ success, Wells was dreadful — a .218 average and .248 on-base percentage. A rebound in 2012 would go a long way to lifting the Angels’ offense.

Another area of the team that remains a concern is the bullpen. The Angels’ relievers blew 25 saves in 2011 (tied for third in the majors and first in the AL), including 10 by rookie closer Jordan Walden (tied for the most in the majors).

But Dipoto’s only move to address the bullpen was the signing of veteran setup man LaTroy Hawkins. Walden returns as the incumbent at closer, and an improved offense figures to give all of the Angels’ relievers a wider margin of error than they had in 2011. Still, a shaky bullpen could be the difference in an AL West race that figures to go down to the wire.


   –C Chris Iannetta has a chance to be the first Angels catcher to start as many as 100 games in a season since Bengie Molina in 2005. Acquired from the Rockies in a trade to add offense at the position, Iannetta figures to be the Angels’ primary catcher in 2012 with Hank Conger and Bobby Wilson vying for the backup role. Iannetta started 105 games at catcher for the Rockies last season.
   –OF Mike Trout is considered the best prospect in baseball by many analysts. But he will find “a little bit of a crowded house in the outfield” this spring, as GM Jerry Dipoto put it. Trout, 20, jumped from Double-A to the majors last season and played 40 games with the Angels, but he is likely headed to Triple-A this year regardless of how he does in the Cactus League. It would likely take an injury to Peter Bourjos, Vernon Wells or Torii Hunter to clear a spot for Trout on the Angels’ big-league roster.
   –RHP Jerome Williams will have his best chance to secure a spot in a major league rotation for the first time since 2005 this spring. Williams was a combined 22-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 206 1/3 innings for the Angels, Triple-A Salt Lake, an independent team and the Venezuelan winter league during the calendar year 2011. Williams is the frontrunner for the fifth spot in the Angels’ starting rotation this spring.
   –RHP Kevin Jepsen opened the 2011 season in a prominent role in the Angels’ bullpen. A poor start landed him back in Triple-A, and he fell off the radar entirely at midseason when he underwent surgery to repair ligament damage in his right knee. Jepsen should be cleared to throw off a mound early in spring training and could compete for a spot in the Angels’ bullpen again this year.
   –Angels assistant equipment manager Shane Demmitt reached the quarterfinals of MLB Network’s quiz show “Baseball IQ.” The show pits representatives of each MLB team in a game show-formatted test of baseball knowledge. Demmitt earned $10,000 for the Angels’ team charity with wins over representatives from the Rangers and Mariners in the first two rounds. The show continues through spring training.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 — Players with at least 250 career home runs on the Angels if Vernon Wells hits at least two in 2012 (joining Albert Pujols, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu). No other team in MLB has four players with 250-plus home runs.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “This is the piece. This is the piece we’ve been looking for — this is the piece I’ve been looking for my whole career. I always said I wanted to hit in the same lineup with Barry Bonds. This guy is the Barry Bonds of our generation. He’s the best hitter of our era.” — OF Torii Hunter on playing with 1B Albert Pujols


   1. RHP Jered Weaver
   2. RHP Dan Haren
   3. LHP C.J. Wilson
   4. RHP Ervin Santana
   5. RHP Jerome Williams

Only one team in the American League got more innings or a lower ERA from its starting pitchers in 2011 (the Tampa Bay Rays on both counts) than the Angels. But it was a very front-loaded rotation. The Angels were 58-42 when Weaver, Haren or Santana started but only 28-34 when any other starter took the ball. Looking to address that lack of depth, the Angels signed Wilson, the best available starting pitcher on the free agent market this winter. The fact that it took a piece out of the rotation of their AL West rivals, the Texas Rangers, only made the move more beneficial.

The result is a rotation that should vie for recognition as the best in baseball in 2012. Weaver finished second to Detroit ace Justin Verlander in the 2011 Cy Young voting. Haren has been as reliable as any starter in the majors over the last seven seasons. Santana and Wilson could be the best No. 3-4 starters in the majors. Williams, a journeyman, will compete with top prospect RHP Garrett Richards and LHP Brad Mills (acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade for C Jeff Mathis) for the fifth starting spot.

   RHP Jordan Walden (closer)
   LHP Scott Downs
   RHP LaTroy Hawkins
   RHP Bobby Cassevah
   LHP Hisanori Takahashi
   RHP Rich Thompson

The Angels’ bullpen had 25 blown saves last season (tied for third in the majors and first in the American League), including 10 by rookie closer Jordan Walden (tied with Cubs LHP Carlos Marmol for the most in MLB). So the relief corps figured to be high on the offseason agenda to address. But new GM Jerry Dipoto fired his bullets in other directions (i.e., the big-money signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson). The only move to improve the bullpen was the signing of veteran setup man LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year deal.

That leaves Walden as the incumbent at closer, and the Angels are counting on a year of experience and added maturity to smooth over last season’s rough edges. Downs was superb in a setup role, and manager Mike Scioscia now has Hawkins as a right-handed complement. The rest of the bullpen is a muddle with only Cassevah having acquitted himself well last year. Thompson will have to compete with Michael Kohn, Kevin Jepsen (returning from knee surgery) and Francisco Rodriguez for the final bullpen spots alongside Takahashi.

   1. SS Erick Aybar
   2. DH Bobby Abreu
   3. 1B Albert Pujols
   4. RF Torii Hunter
   5. LF Vernon Wells
   6. 2B Howie Kendrick
   7. 3B Alberto Callaspo
   8. C  Chris Iannetta
   9. CF Peter Bourjos

The Angels have scored fewer than 700 runs in each of their last two seasons. but that offense got a major boost with the signing of Pujols this offseason. A successful comeback by 1B Kendrys Morales (out since fracturing his ankle on May 29, 2010) would transform the lineup even further. Another wild-card factor is the attempt to transform 1B Mark Trumbo into a multi-position role player capable of starting in the outfield and at third base. If Trumbo can handle third, that would give manager Mike Scioscia another way to get last year’s team leader in home runs (29) and RBI (87) into the lineup alongside both Pujols and (potentially) Morales.

Poor on-base percentage teamwide has also handicapped the Angels the last two seasons, and Scioscia might attempt to address that by mixing and matching his lineups based on the opposing pitcher. Look for Aybar, Bourjos and INF Maicer Izturis to rotate through the leadoff spot. Izturis, Callaspo and possibly Trumbo will share playing time at third base based on the team’s daily offensive and/or defensive needs. And the Angels are counting on the acquisition of Iannetta from the Rockies to provide at least some offensive production from a spot in the lineup that was woefully unproductive offensively last season.

TOP ROOKIES: OF Mike Trout made the jump from Double-A (where he hit .326 in 91 games) to the big leagues at age 19 last summer. Though he stumbled against major league pitching (.220 with five home runs and 16 RBI in 40 games), he was Baseball America’s Minor league Player of the Year in 2011, and his dynamic skill set could force the Angels to make room for him in their outfield soon. RHP Garrett Richards also made the jump from Double-A to the majors last season. Richards, 23, was 12-2 with a 3.15 ERA in Double-A and will compete for the fifth spot in the Angels’ starting rotation this spring though additional seasoning in Triple-A is probably in his immediate future.