Angels embark on most anticipated season

Angels embark on most anticipated season

Angels embark on most anticipated season
ANAHEIM -- The four months that made up the Angels' offseason have been dominated by drastic change.

All of it -- at least at first glance -- has been for the better.

It began with the appointment of a new general manager in Jerry Dipoto -- the sharp-minded, personable, enthusiastic, up-and-coming executive plucked out of the Arizona Diamondbacks' baseball-operations staff.

Then Dipoto went to work, improving at catcher with the addition of Chris Iannetta on Nov. 30, then altering the dynamic of the Angels and the entire American League nine days later.

On the morning of Dec. 8, the Angels and owner Arte Moreno committed more than $300 million to bring in the best hitter of this generation, Albert Pujols, and the former ace of the division-rival Texas Rangers, C.J. Wilson.

With that, the Angels secured their most successful offseason in franchise history, put themselves in a collision course with the back-to-back AL-champion Rangers and set up what's probably their most anticipated season.

"It's been an exciting offseason," said Dipoto, who also signed reliever LaTroy Hawkins and gave second baseman Howie Kendrick a four-year extension. "I'm very much looking forward to Spring Training and seeing everyone on the field."

Once they are, several lingering concerns will be addressed.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 19

Full squad reports

Feb. 26

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Athletics (split squad), March 5 at 12:05 p.m. PT

Opening Day

Home vs. Royals, April 6 at 7:05 p.m. PT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. What can be done about the clutter at first base?
That'll hinge on what Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales can do about it. It's the Angels' hope that Trumbo can adapt to third base well enough to at least be a part-time option at the hot corner, and that Morales can be a force at designated hitter despite not playing since May 2010. If that happens, the Angels will have a deep, versatile lineup with suitable protection for Pujols.

If it doesn't? Well, Dipoto may have to get creative.

Trumbo, who couldn't handle third base upon being drafted eight years ago, is recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot, one that hasn't allowed him to get as much offseason work at third base as he would've liked. Morales, of course, is trying to bounce back from a broken left ankle that has idled him for the last 1 1/2 seasons. His rehab is reportedly going well, but for Morales -- and for Trumbo -- Spring Training will be the ultimate test.

2. Who will become expendable?
That, again, hinges on Trumbo and Morales.

If Trumbo does become an option at third base, and Morales does become an option at DH, then you have to think somebody would become expendable. The easy answer here is Bobby Abreu, but because of his age and contract status, he probably wouldn't bring anything back besides a little salary relief.

A multitude of trade options could exist here -- from Abreu, to infielders Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis, to possibly even Trumbo and Morales themselves -- depending on what shakes out this spring. If the Angels can put themselves in a position where they're dealing from an overcrowded position to address a relative weakness (aka, the bullpen), they'd be in an ideal situation.

3. What does the immediate future hold for Mike Trout?
A lot of eyes this spring will be fixated on Trout, the five-tool outfielder and the third-ranked prospect in baseball by MLB.com. With Peter Bourjos in center field, $39 million owed to corner outfielders Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter in 2012 and so many factors surrounding Trout's experience -- zero games in Triple-A, struggles in the Majors last season and not even turning 21 until August -- all signs point to more seasoning in the Minors for the Angels' top prospect.

Trout can start the season playing regularly in Triple-A, come up for the stretch run and then start 2013 in the Majors when an outfield spot comes open (Hunter is in his last year before free agency). But if Trout has a great spring and shows he belongs in the big leagues -- a la Atlanta's Jason Heyward in 2010 -- can the Angels deny him a spot on a roster that's trying to win it all now?

2011 record
86-76, second in the American League West

Projected batting order
1. SS Erick Aybar: .279 BA, .322 OBP, .421 SLG, 10 HR, 59 RBIs in 2011
2. 2B Howie Kendrick: .285 BA, .338 OBP, .464 SLG, 18 HR, 63 RBIs in 2011
3. 1B Albert Pujols: .299 BA, .366 OBP, .541 SLG, 37 HR, 99 RBIs in 2011
4. DH Kendrys Morales: .306 BA, .355 OBP, .569 SLG, 34 HR, 108 RBI in 2009
5. 3B Mark Trumbo: .254 BA, .291 OBP, .477 SLG, 29 HR, 87 RBIs in 2011
6. RF Torii Hunter: .262 BA, .336 OBP, .429 SLG, 23 HR, 82 RBIs in 2011
7. LF Vernon Wells: .218 BA, .248 OBP, .412 SLG, 25 HR, 66 RBIs in 2011
8. C Chris Iannetta: .238 BA, .370 OBP, .414 SLG, 14 HR, 55 RBIs in 2011
9. CF Peter Bourjos:  .271 BA, .327 OBP, .438 SLG, 12 HR, 43 RBIs in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Jered Weaver, 18-8, 2.41 ERA in 2011
2. Dan Haren, 16-10, 3.17 ERA in 2011
3. C.J. Wilson, 16-7, 2.94 ERA in 2011
4. Ervin Santana, 11-12, 3.38 ERA in 2011
5. Jerome Williams, 4-0, 3.68 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jordan Walden, 32/42 saves, 2.98 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: LaTroy Hawkins, 2.42 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Scott Downs, 1.34 ERA in 2011

The new guys
1B Albert Pujols: There's no doubt Pujols will improve the Angels' offense. The question is how much? Enough to make a 10-year, $240 million base salary worthwhile? Or, even more important at this point, enough to make the Angels the best team in the AL when it's all said and done? Pujols, probably a Hall of Famer if he retired today, is 32 and coming off the worst season of his career. But he did finish that 2011 campaign with a .318 batting average and 28 home runs in the last four months of the season, then posted a 1.155 postseason OPS en route to his second World Series championship with the Cardinals.

SP C.J. Wilson: The Angels ranked second in the AL in starting-pitcher ERA last year, then added arguably the best free-agent pitcher via a five-year, $77.5 million contract. On Dec. 8 -- the same day Pujols agreed to terms -- Wilson joined a rotation that already boasted the lights-out trio of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, giving the Angels one of the best and deepest staffs in baseball. You can argue the merit of giving a free-agent-eligible pitcher a long-term deal, but considering he's only been a big league starter the last two seasons -- combining to go 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in 427 1/3 innings for the division-rival Rangers -- Wilson isn't your typical 31-year-old arm.

C Chris Iannetta: Angels catchers ranked 28th in the Majors in OPS last season, so Iannetta -- acquired from the Rockies in exchange for young starter Tyler Chatwood in late November -- is a big upgrade offensively. Also one of the most cerebral catchers in the game, Iannetta has hit 57 homers with 199 RBIs in 370 games over the last four years and posted a .370 on-base percentage last season. But the 28-year-old's on-base percentage was just .321 on the road, compared to .419 at hitter-friendly Coors Field.

RP LaTroy Hawkins: Hawkins, signed to a $3 million contract in December, bounced back nicely from shoulder surgery in 2011, posting a 2.42 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP in 48 1/3 innings out of the Brewers' bullpen. Dipoto identified Hawkins as a target in the very early stages of the offseason, because the 39-year-old filled the need of the versatile, experienced right-handed arm he wanted for his bullpen. The question is whether his addition is enough to shore up a 'pen that had its struggles last season.

Prospects to watch
OF Mike Trout: The 20-year-old blue-chip prospect had another fine season in the Minors in 2011 -- batting .326 with a .414 on-base percentage, 11 homers and 33 steals in 91 games for Double-A Arkansas -- but struggled in the Majors. In two stints with the Angels, he hit just .220 with five homers in 40 games.

C Hank Conger: Conger's future got really hazy with the addition of Iannetta, who also has a club option for 2013 and could eventually be an extension candidate. Conger, the former first-round Draft pick who hit .209 with six homers in a 59-game sample size with the Angels last year, will compete with Bobby Wilson for the backup-catcher job this spring. But, as with Trout, the Angels need to decide if it's ultimately better for the 24-year-old to instead get more seasoning in the Minor Leagues -- and, ultimately, whether he still has a future in this organization.

SP Garrett Richards: Williams has been perceived as the favorite for the fifth spot of the rotation, but Richards could make a push this spring. The 23-year-old right-hander boasts a mid-90s fastball with solid movement, can near the triple-digits with his four-seamer on occasion, and can also come at hitters with a 12-to-six curveball, slider and changeup. Richards posted a 5.79 ERA in 14 innings during his first year in the Majors last year, but continued to dominate the Minor Leagues, going 12-2 with a 3.15 ERA at Arkansas.

On the rebound
DH Kendrys Morales: Perhaps no player is more important to the fate of the 2012 Angels than Morales, who has missed the last 1 1/2 seasons with a broken left ankle. Morales, who had a setback last spring that prompted a second surgery, has been recovering nicely under the cautious care of the Angels this spring. If he can be anything close to the guy who finished fifth in MVP voting in '09, he'd be a huge asset as the only member of the Angels lineup who can provide power from the left side, making the switch-hitting Morales a candidate to protect Pujols.

LF Vernon Wells: Wells had a nice bounce-back season for the Blue Jays in 2010, then the worst of his up-and-down career with the Angels in 2011. In his first year in the West Coast -- one in which he felt he was uncharacteristically chasing home runs -- Wells ranked last in the Majors among qualified players in batting average (.218) and on-base percentage (.248). The Angels owe him $63 million over the next three years, so they need a big improvement.

CL Jordan Walden: It's tough to say a 24-year-old pitcher needs to bounce back from a season that saw him finish seventh in Rookie of the Year voting. But despite finishing his first season with a 2.98 ERA and 32 saves, Walden blew 10 of those chances and posted a 4.35 ERA in September. Minus the Hawkins signing, the Angels have done nothing to address a bullpen that finished tied for first in the AL in blown saves last season, so it'll be up to Walden to take the next step forward.

DH Bobby Abreu: The aging Abreu is looking to bounce back from the worst season of his career. But with Morales and Trumbo both without a position after the Pujols signing, the question is whether he'll even get a chance to. If Trumbo can play a little bit of third and Morales can be a fixture at DH, there doesn't seem to be any room left for Abreu. But he won't be easy to move. He turns 38 in March, is owed $9 million this season and is coming off a year in which he hit .253 with a .353 on-base percentage and eight home runs.

Long gone
SP Tyler Chatwood: Chatwood, who went to Colorado as part of the Iannetta trade, was the price the Angels paid to upgrade at catcher. The righty went 6-11 with a 4.75 ERA in 27 games (25 starts) as a rookie last year, but he's only 22 and should get better -- if Coors Field allows him to.

SP Joel Pineiro: The 33-year-old right-hander had a down year in his second season for the Angels in 2011, posting a 5.13 ERA, a 1.510 WHIP and a career-low 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings before hitting free agency. The Phillies gave him a shot to bounce back via a Minor League deal in mid-January.

C Jeff Mathis: That frustrating seven-year tenure Mathis had with the Angels finally ended on Dec. 3, when Dipoto cleared some space behind the plate by sending him to the Blue Jays in exchange for lefty Brad Mills. Mathis was beloved in the clubhouse, had a good rapport with his pitchers and was known to call a good game. But his career slash line of .194/.257/.301 made him tough to watch with a bat in his hand.

RP Fernando Rodney: Rodney missed nearly two months with a back injury last season and finished the year with a 4.50 ERA in 32 innings before hitting the open market. The 34-year-old right-hander, who has posted a 4.42 ERA over his last five seasons, then signed a $2 million contract with a 2013 club option with the Rays.

1B Russell Branyan: Acquired on May 26, five days after he had been released by the D-backs, the lefty-hitting Branyan finished off the 2011 season batting just .185 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 37 games for the Angels. The Yankees recently signed him to a Minor League contract.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.