Improved Angels look to regain control of AL West

April 5, 2012

In the Old West, they would have settled this thing on Main Street with a couple of six-shooters. But in today's world, the Angels and Texas Rangers will spend the next six months parrying for position in American League West, a 162-game grind in which only one of them will be left standing. 

It's been the Rangers for the past two seasons, but the Angels loaded up in last winter, and starting Friday night, we'll find out what $331 million can deliver. 

That's what owner Arte Moreno spent to sign free agents Albert Pujols (10 years, $254 million) and C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5 million), whose additions understandably make the Angels favorites to win the West. But the difficult part is still ahead.

As the Angels pull back the curtains on the regular season and take on the Kansas City Royals at Angel Stadium on Friday, they know they'll be scrutinized from Opening Day to their last at-bat in October. It doesn't change their goals, but it does make them everyone's primary target. 

"Internally, from within our organization, we always feel we have a championship-caliber club as you go into spring training," manager Mike Scioscia said. "This year, obviously, there's a little more focus, a little more energy, around our team with some of the additions of the offseason. But our goal is the same; our challenge is the same." 

Last season, the Angels finished 10 games behind the Rangers, who advanced to the World Series for a second consecutive season before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. Between them, the Angels and Rangers have won seven of the past eight AL West titles. There's no reason to think that trend will change. 

The Angels' problems in 2011 came down to one area: offense. Strange but true. 

They were one of just five American League teams to score fewer than 700 runs, and they scored three runs or less 76 times — that's 47 percent of their games. Their record in those games was 17-59.

The signing of Pujols will make a significant difference, but it can't be measured in just his singular production. It's his impact on the entire lineup. 

No. 2 hitter Howie Kendrick, for instance, will see more fastballs; look for him to at least contend for a batting title, if not win one. And given what Pujols has done in the past — he's the first hitter in major league history to total 30 or more homers in each of his first 11 seasons — the hitters behind him with have more chances to drive in runs.

"For our offense to go, we need to feed the middle of the lineup with opportunities," Scioscia said. "When you have a player like Albert, you definitely want to set the table for him as much as you can. It's going to be something we want to pay a lot of attention to. We have some good hitters we can put ahead of him. There are things we can do with our lineup to give him more of a look with guys on base. We'll see how it evolves." 

In a sense, the Angels added two power hitters to their lineup: Pujols and Kendrys Morales, who returns to the lineup after suffering a broken left ankle almost two years ago when his celebratory home-run leap on home plate went awry. Such demonstrations are now banned by Scioscia. 

The switch-hitting Morales had a spectacular spring, hitting .367 in 30 at-bats and showing no lingering effects from his injury. He'll bat fourth in the order behind Pujols against right-handed pitchers and will drop below either Torii Hunter or Vernon Wells against left-handers. 

With Mark Trumbo also in the lineup, the Angels will have a kind of Murderers' Row of sluggers — but only if each can duplicate or surpass his previous big year. Pujols is good for 30 or more and has topped 40 six times; Morales hit 34 in 2009, his last full season; Hunter has hit 23 in each of the past two seasons; Wells slumped last year but still had 25; and Trumbo, runner-up in voting for AL Rookie of the Year, delivered a team-high 29. 

In the Angels' final spring training game, Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, Pujols crushed a fastball from Dodgers starter Nathan Eovaldi 441 feet to the back of the bullpen in left field. Trumbo came up later and sent a ball 444 feet to center. Opposing pitchers cringe at those kinds of Ruthian shots. 

"It's a team concept that we have confidence in all the pitching, we have confidence in all the hitters because they can score from sacrifice bunting, stealing bases, hitting a couple of singles or hitting home runs," lefty C.J. Wilson said. "There's a lot of different ways we can do it. It's really exciting to watch guys like Albert and Trumbo hit those mammoth home runs." 

Morales was undeniably a spring surprise, driving the ball as soon as he began playing and sliding into bases without fear of injury. His durability could be an issue, although it didn't seem to be one in Arizona. 

"If he shows the durability that he can go out there and DH for 145, 150 games, whatever it will be, he'll get his opportunities and he should be fine," Scioscia said. "If he needs rest, it's tough to put up those same numbers when you're chopping off 150, 200 at-bats from where you might be if you're playing every day. 

"But if this spring is any indication, he's been very resilient and he should be out there enough that he should be swinging like he can and we can see a similar production." 

Pitching wasn't a problem in 2011, but Wilson gives Scioscia one more dependable starter. Last season, the Angels ranked second in the league behind Tampa Bay in ERA by starting pitchers (3.59). 

To be sure, the Angels have a formidable rotation: Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Wilson, who was 16-7 last season for the Rangers with a 2.94 ERA and 206 strikeouts. 

Wilson made a few mechanical alternations in his delivery this spring and picked up another mile or two on his fastball, but perhaps just as important, he fit in well with his new teammates.

"It was a big learning experience for me, trying to get on the same page with all the catchers and kind of ingratiate myself with my new teammates," he said. "But overall, I pitched pretty well and made a lot of improvements over last year, especially from spring training to spring training as a starter, getting a feeling for what I need to do to prepare myself a little bit better." 

The Angels aren't without questions, however. For one, Trumbo still is learning the nuances of playing third base. The Angels want his bat in the lineup, but if he begins to cost them runs defensively, he could be relegated to occasional play in the outfield and at DH. 

"He's a guy we have every confidence is going to make the routine play," Scioscia said. "As long as he gets the outs he's supposed to, he'll get playing time down there." 

Relief pitching is another area. Closer Jordan Walden, who had 10 blown saves in 2011, finished the spring with a 6.48 ERA. Veteran Jason Isringhausen, who considered retiring before signing a one-year deal, had an 11.25 ERA. 

Scioscia dismisses spring numbers because other factors are involved. A pitcher might be developing a new pitch or working on his location. But the relievers will bear watching as the season unfolds. 

Even with questions, the Angels appear ready to meet all challenges. They'll get them, too. They make their first trip to New York next weekend and take on the Rangers for the first time in May. 

They also face Texas six times in late September in what could be a race for first place. 

Without question, both teams are taking aim at each other.