Three questions for Angels heading into 2014

Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton remain big question marks heading into the season.

Jim Cowsert

In nearly every way imaginable, the Angels had a quiet offseason.

There were no blockbuster free-agent signings or press conferences in front of Angel Stadium. Their biggest acquisitions were relief pitcher Joe Smith and 41-year-old Raul Ibanez. Their major move was trading away Mark Trumbo.

But maybe a quiet winter will translate to a fast start.

The past two seasons, the Angels slogged out of the gate, essentially putting them on a downward slope that made recovery difficult. Even their sizable payroll didn’t prevent them from losing 84 games last season.

So what’s different this time? For one, the Angels aren’t considered favorites to win the American League West, so the pressure is off. For another, they spent less, handing out $15.75 million to Smith over three years but opting out of the kind of deals that landed them Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton the previous two winters.

Their bullpen is deeper, their starting staff is strong up front and their offense should be able to produce runs in bunches, especially if wundekind Mike Trout continues his upward trend. But there are still questions to answer as pitchers and catchers begin workouts today in Tempe, Ariz.

1. Will Albert Pujols be at full strength this spring?

All indications are yes. Position players don’t have to report until next week, but Pujols is already in camp, looking trim and fit.

In retrospect, the smartest decision he made last season was to end his season early after being grounded by a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot. That gave him more time to recover and an early start on his rehab.

He arrives in camp ready to join workouts with no restrictions and showing no effects of his foot injury or his troublesome right knee. Those two injuries, he told recently, were "like playing with a flat tire and a broken rim."

Pujols is starting the third year of his 10-year deal with the Angels, and the expectation is that he will once again be the phenomenal player he was in his first 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. A full, healthy spring will give him a good start.

2. Can Josh Hamilton rebound after struggling in his first season in Anaheim?

No player was a more confusing study than Hamilton, who arrived to much fanfare after signing a $125-million, five-year contract before last season. But Hamilton never found his comfort level, at least not until the final few weeks of the season.

As it was, his final numbers — .250 average, 21 homers, 79 RBI, .739 on-base plus slugging – were sharp drop-offs from 2012, his final season with the Texas Rangers. He was hitting as low as .220 on Aug. 10.

Two things should help this season. First, Hamilton will be heavier, adding about 18 pounds that will put him near his playing weight in Texas of 235. He did some weight lifting in the offseason to add bulk rather than return to a natural-juice diet he tried last offseason, which left him at 217 when the season ended.

Second, he’s going to play left field, which should be a more comfortable spot than right, which he played in 2013. Hamilton was the Rangers’ center field, so the move will mark his third switch in three seasons.

"I’ve worked hard this offseason," he told MLB Network in January. "Albert’s worked hard, Mike has worked hard, and everybody on this team has worked hard, and we have a few new pieces to plug in, so we’re excited about that."

3. Do the Angels have a deep enough starting rotation?

If there’s a million-dollar question, that’s it. Up front, the Angels are solid with Jered Weaver and left-hander C.J. Wilson. Garrett Richards earned the No. 3 starting spot after producing a 5-4 record and 3.72 ERA in his final 13 starts last season.

Beyond those three, there’s little certainty. Left-handers Hector Santiago, 26, and Tyler Skaggs, 22, were acquired in the three-way trade that sent popular slugger Mark Trumbo to Arizona, so it’s reasonable to expect that one or both will start. But given their relative inexperience — Santiago was a part-time starter for the Chicago White Sox and Skaggs has just 13 big-league starts under his belt — they’ll have to earn their jobs.

Another lefty, veteran Mark Mulder, could be a wild card. He was signed after being out of the game for five seasons, but he believes he’s found the source of his problems that forced him into retirement. He’ll need a very strong spring to prove he’s capable of a comeback.

Is the rotation deep enough? Right now, the answer is no.