Hamilton ready to lead Angels back to playoffs

Although the Los Angeles Angels gave Josh Hamilton 125 million

reasons to switch sides in their lively rivalry with Texas, all

that cash didn’t buy immediate comfort for the slugger.

Now that Hamilton has had an extra-long spring training to

settle in, he’s ready to lead the Angels’ efforts to get back on

top in the AL West and beyond.

”It’s a little awkward at first,” Hamilton said. ”You’ve been

going against them for five years, and at first it’s a little

awkward. But the guys are the guys everywhere. It’s tough to find a

clubhouse you don’t fit in. The more time I spend with the guys

here, the more comfortable I get.”

Los Angeles owner Arte Moreno went on another offseason spending

spree in hopes of ending their three-year playoff drought, signing

one of the game’s best power hitters to play alongside Albert

Pujols, Mark Trumbo and AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout.

Hamilton’s presence in right field and the cleanup spot is among

several significant changes after the Angels went 89-73 last year,

winning more games than AL champion Detroit. They still extended

their longest playoff drought under Mike Scioscia, the

longest-tenured manager in baseball entering his 14th season.

”We have the same high expectations we have every year, so that

doesn’t change,” Scioscia said. ”We also realize it takes eight

months of hard work every day to achieve the goals we set, so we

can’t start looking at the finish line. We’re still at the start,

and we need to play well consistently. Little inconsistent

stretches are what cost us last year, and we need to eliminate

them.”

The Angels’ lineup is undeniably fearsome on paper – and even

with Pujols and Hamilton hitting 3-4 every day, perhaps no player

scares opponents more than Trout, who finished second in MVP voting

even after a late start to his breakout season. Trout spent the

winter basking in the glow of his accomplishments and showed up to

spring training looking a bit husky, but has been rounding back

into form.

”Sosh has been joking around about how it’s my first full

spring,” Trout said. ”It feels good just to be here the whole

time and be able to work on getting the timing down.”

Hamilton’s arrival came at a price: Los Angeles has lost Torii

Hunter, the productive outfielder and unofficial team captain, who

was unceremoniously allowed to leave for the Tigers. Scioscia is

confident the Angels can fill the void of Hunter’s leadership –

hopefully with Pujols, who should be more comfortable in April

after a rocky start to the first season of his 10-year free-agent

deal last spring.

The Angels made their biggest changes in their rotation,

replacing three starters when they traded Ervin Santana, parted

ways with Dan Haren and declined to write an enormous check to Zack

Greinke. Enter Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton, three

veteran pitchers expected to log heavy innings behind 20-game

winner Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.

The Angels will head into the season without Vernon Wells, which

most fans will see as addition by subtraction. His disastrous

two-year tenure in Anaheim ended with a trade to the desperate New

York Yankees on Tuesday.

The 34-year-old former Toronto outfielder was an unqualified

bust with the Angels, batting just .222 with 36 homers and 95 RBIs

while missing significant time with injuries over the last two

years. Although Wells was a good teammate, he’ll weigh on the

Angels’ payroll for two more years.

Wells’ trade and Kendrys Morales’ offseason departure for

Seattle has freed up more playing time for Trumbo and Peter

Bourjos, chosen as the Angels’ center fielder and forcing Trout to

move to left. Kole Calhoun is likely to take Wells’ spot as Los

Angeles’ fifth outfielder to start the season.

The Angels didn’t come out of spring without injury concerns,

either: Ryan Madson, signed in the offseason to be their closer,

will start the season on the disabled list while recovering from

elbow ligament replacement surgery last season.

None of the Angels’ concerns can trump the optimism around a

team stacked with star power and seemingly overdue for a chance to

play for another World Series title.

”We’ve got high expectations, obviously,” Trout said. ”But

everybody has to do their role. You can’t let expectations or other

stuff get to your head and distract you from doing your job. I’m

not that person who’s going to get distracted. I just go out and

play.”