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Deep Halos giddy for what new year might offer

Deep Halos giddy for what new year might offer

Deep Halos giddy for what new year might offer
ANAHEIM -- Big-ticket signings have a funny way of bringing optimism to a new calendar year.

Angels fans collectively groaned during the Winter Meetings of early December, when their team addressed a needy pitching staff moderately, adding two starters (Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton) and two relievers (Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson) at reasonable prices instead of splurging on Zack Greinke.

Then the Angels did it again, pulling off another offseason shocker by adding Josh Hamilton to a payroll that was seemingly maxed out and an outfield that's already full.

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Now the Angels, with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols already on board, sport one of baseball's deepest lineups, look like favorites in the American League West and have their fans giddy about Opening Day.

That was fast.

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"The depth of our lineup has increased exponentially now, and compared to some of the big offenses in our league," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after Hamilton was introduced. "To get a guy like Josh, and combine him with Albert, is going to give us building blocks, we hope, for years to come. We're very, very excited."

But the Angels still face a lot of questions as they head into a New Year and a new season. Below are the 10 biggest.

1. Can they win it all?

That's really what all this is about. It's why owner Arte Moreno decided to, in his words, "blow up the budget" once more by signing Hamilton, putting the payroll back at $160 million even though it was expected to be no higher than $145 million heading into the offseason. The Angels, at the very least, are expected to snap a three-year playoff drought by taking the division in 2013. Anything short of that will be a disappointment. The pressure is on, again.

2. Where does Trout go from here?

It's hard to really improve on one of the most impressive seasons in baseball history. Trout did it all in 2012, and did it astonishingly. Run? He led the Majors with 49 stolen bases (getting caught just five times) and 129 runs. Play defense? He robbed four homers and posted an 11.4 Ultimate Zone Rating. Hit for average? He batted .326, with an uncanny ability to hit with two strikes and go the other way. Hit for power? He belted 30 homers in 139 games -- seven more than he hit in 286 career Minor League contests. Trout's next challenge: Producing like this on a consistent, year-to-year basis.

3. Will Hamilton make $125 million worth it?

It'll take more than one year to know that for sure. But for the immediate future, the Angels are banking on Hamilton being healthy (he averaged 129 games in his five-year stint in Texas) and staying out of trouble. If he does that, they're certain that he can make the Angels' lineup an even bigger force than it was last year, joining Trout and Pujols to give them one of baseball's best lineup trios. But Hamilton will have to bounce back from a sub-par second half with the Rangers, which saw him bat .259 with 16 homers and 86 strikeouts in 69 games.

4. Will the starting rotation hold up?

The Hamilton signing not only gave the Angels a lethal lineup; it gave general manager Jerry Dipoto the flexibility to trade designated hitter Kendrys Morales to the Mariners for lefty starter Jason Vargas. By trading Morales, and keeping Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, the Angels have one of baseball's best defensive outfields and a very versatile lineup -- especially at DH. But the rotation is nowhere near as decorated as it was at the end of last year. The more accomplished trio of Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana has been replaced by two homer-prone innings-eaters (Vargas and Blanton) and a former standout coming off a rough year (Hanson). Their No. 2 starter, C.J. Wilson, had a rough second half while pitching with bone spurs in his elbow.

5. What will Pujols be like in Year 2?

Was 2012 the continuation of a gradual decline for the 32-year-old slugger? Or was it an anomaly, his numbers falling off track simply because of a rough start that was part of the adjustment process? Who knows. Here's one thing we do know, though: Pujols returned to prominence once he snapped his career-high 27-game homerless drought, batting .305 while ranking fourth in the Majors in RBIs (98), 10th in OPS (.932) and tied for 13th in homers (29) the rest of the year. He'll be a year older in 2013, but he'll be more comfortable in his surroundings and will probably have Hamilton protecting him.

6. How will Madson bounce back from Tommy John surgery?

The Burnett acquisition was a big one for an Angels bullpen that has blown an AL-leading 47 saves the last two years. But the big piece is Madson. Because if he re-establishes himself as the top-tier closer he was two years ago, then and only then will the Angels' bullpen finally be a strength. The good news is Tommy John surgery boasts a sparkling track record. The unsettling news is that it usually takes a while for a recovering pitcher to find his groove again (see: Nathan, Joe in 2011), and Madson is signed for only one year.

7. Who replaces Torii Hunter -- in the clubhouse and the lineup?

Hunter's bubbly, charismatic personality will no doubt leave a void in the clubhouse, which essentially fell under his leadership the last five years. But veterans like Pujols and Jered Weaver help ease those concerns. The more tangible void is left in that favorable No. 2 spot, where Hunter posted a .343/.376/.478 slash line in 85 starts in 2012. The Angels now don't have an ideal candidate to slot between Trout and Pujols. Erick Aybar (slow starts), Howie Kendrick (bad splits there), Alberto Callaspo (little production) and Bourjos (lots of strikeouts) are all considerations, but all have defects.

8. How will the Dipoto-Scioscia relationship evolve?

Losing has a tendency to stir negative press. And late in the season, as the Angels continued to fall short of expectations, reports circulated about the new-aged Dipoto and the old-school Scioscia being unable to co-exist, their relationship reaching a boiling point when Dipoto dismissed Scioscia's longtime hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, in May. But a source said recently that their relationship "gets better every day." With Dipoto an up-and-coming GM heading into his second year, and Scioscia signed through 2018, that will have to continue for the Angels to thrive.

9. Will the Halos get off to a better start?

The Angels will probably be more motivated than any other team coming out of the gate. Last year, their cold start was a big reason they missed the playoffs, making the oft-used cliché -- "It's not how you start, but how you finish" -- seem invalid. With a slumping, Trout-less offense and a thin, Ernesto Frieri-less bullpen, the Angels started 6-14, tying the worst record through the first 20 games in franchise history. They recovered, but fell off again. And in the end, when they fell four wins shy of a playoff spot, several players pointed to April as the reason they stayed home in October.

10. Can Weaver finally win the Cy Young?

The Angels' ace has finished in the top five in voting for the hardware each of the last three years, placing third in 2012. During that three-year span, he's ranked first in the AL in ERA (2.73) and WHIP (1.04), tied for third in wins (51), fifth in innings (648 2/3) and tied for seventh in strikeouts (573). Given the makeup of their rotation, the Angels may need a Cy Young-caliber year from Weaver more than ever.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read 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.

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