Angels' underdog role drives confident Hunter

Angels' underdog role drives confident Hunter

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Torii Hunter doesn't miss a thing. He tracks the media like a fly ball headed for the gap.

Keenly aware of the many pundits and insiders who have the Angels pegged for the bottom half of the American League West four-pack, the nine-time Gold Glove Award winner believes they are in for a big surprise.

"We're supposed to be third," Hunter said. "I like being the underdog. My first year here [2008] everybody had us third and we won 100 games. Everyone was on Seattle. Now it's Texas and Oakland. That's something we love, to prove everybody wrong.

"The only way we could finish third last year [at 80-82 they trailed the Rangers and A's] was injuries and things not clicking. That's what happened. I don't see that happening again.

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"I love our chances. I liked our chances last year, and I love them this year. I'm not talking about the division. I'm talking about the whole thing."

He means the World Series. That's his obsession. Hunter hasn't won one, hasn't played in one, and it drives him every day.

Vernon Wells, his new teammate, hasn't even appeared in a postseason series. Bobby Abreu, the third wise man in the Angels' clubhouse, also is seeking his first World Series title.

"We want that ring," Hunter said. "When you've been around as long as we have -- I call us the Shaolin [Warrior] Monks -- we've accomplished all the personal goals. It's about the ring now. We want it, and we want it bad.

"I believe we're good enough to do it."

It starts with starting pitching. Hunter believes the Angels are locked and loaded with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir.

"We have four great starters," Hunter said, "and one guy [Kazmir] who's been an All-Star. If he finds it, you're in trouble."

The bullpen was in disarray much of last season, but Hunter sees it coming together nicely around Fernando Rodney, complemented by Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn and southpaw additions Scott Downs (who will open the season on the disabled list with a toe ailment) and Hisanori Takahashi.

"We've got young power arms and these two lefties will give us what we had with 'Every Day' Darren Oliver, guys who can go out and shut you down," Hunter said.

Needless to say, Hunter is psyched about the newly designed outfield. He's in right and Wells is in left, the two sage vets counseling ultra-swift Peter Bourjos in center. Abreu will be the designated hitter and swing outfielder in support.

"I love our athleticism," Hunter said. "We'll have a lot more speed and aggressiveness than last year. A guy like Bourjos, you're on the other team and you see him run and you panic. He's going to force a lot of mistakes. That's game-changing speed.

"We've got a lot of guys who can run. We'll be going first to third, forcing the action. We won't be sitting back waiting for something to happen."

The defense sagged last year, creating fallout in the pitching staff by forcing starters out early, as they didn't get the brand of support they'd received in previous seasons.

"Defensively, it's like night and day in the outfield and the infield," Hunter said. "The infielders are more mature. They made errors last year we won't see this year. Those guys are all young still. And our catchers are solid. I'll take those guys [Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson and Hank Conger] any time."

The offense figures to be significantly more explosive -- especially when Kendrys Morales returns.

"We have guys who can run, hit for power, hit for average," Hunter said. "Kendrys is coming back real soon -- maybe two weeks after the season starts. With him and Vernon Wells, we're going to have guys who can drive the ball.

"Vernon and I are pushing each other. We go back to 2000, 2001 when we worked out together in North Dallas and became friends. Every morning we'd get up and go work out, and now we're here as teammates.

"I know what this guy can do. We're similar type guys in a lot of ways -- body types, center fielders moving to the corners, guys who can do a lot of stuff offensively. It's exciting."

Wells, resting a tight left hamstring for a few days, is thoroughly enjoying his first camp in Arizona.

"It's an easy clubhouse to come into and get comfortable," Wells said, alluding to the relaxed atmosphere manager Mike Scioscia creates with his unpredictable morning sessions. "I made some friends early paying for lunches and dinner."

Hunter senses a closer clubhouse dynamic and higher energy level this season. His self-styled Shaolin Monks -- Abreu calls them the "three compadres" -- are taking younger players under their wings, infusing them with knowledge.

"We're veterans, but we're not bitter veterans," Hunter said. "I've been around guys like that. We help guys. Bobby, myself and Vernon, we want to see them become better, more mature players.

"That's leadership. I saw that from guys like Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield when I was a young kid. Now here I am, 12, 13 years later, doing that with Bobby and Vernon.

"We all have the same goal: play the game right, to win every day, make the playoffs and go to the World Series. We don't care about your fantasy teams and numbers. We're in it to win it."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.