Halos head into uncertain season

Halos head into uncertain season

Ten questions for the Angels' 2010 season:

1. Who will emerge as the ace of the staff with John Lackey gone?

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Mike Scioscia's primary strength as a manager is understanding pitching inside out. He's confident that Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir are all capable of emerging as top-shelf starters. All have shown the stuff and demeanor to lead a staff, and each is just now coming into his peak years.

With Lackey and Santana out for the first six weeks last season, Weaver and Saunders showed they could shoulder the burden of leading a staff. Weaver never got credit for it, but he was clearly a legitimate ace, deserving of All-Star recognition, until Lackey put it all together in July.

Rather than focusing on what the Angels don't have, as so many fans seem to be doing, maybe they should pause and realize that there are probably 25 general managers who would swap their rotations for the Angels' in a heartbeat.

2. OK, so who will be the fifth starter?

There's certainly nothing wrong with Matt Palmer, who was 9-1 with a 4.66 ERA in 13 starts. He isn't overpowering, but he gets hitters out. The toughest pitcher in the American League against right-handed hitters in 2009 happened to be Palmer, who held them to a .197 batting average. Weaver was third, at .208.

Palmer also flourished in long relief, and that's ideally where Scioscia would like to have him, especially now with Darren Oliver gone. There are some intriguing names left in free agency. One that hasn't drawn much attention is Vicente Padilla, the right-hander who is probably best known to Angels fans for dropping Vladimir Guerrero so often while dealing for the Rangers.

Padilla, 32, flourished down the stretch with the Dodgers, going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in seven starts. Durable and tough-minded, he has top-quality stuff and would bring an attitude the staff could use.

3. Can Brandon Wood handle third base on a regular basis?

There's only one way to find out. Send him out there and let him relax and allow his considerable talent to flow. Wood has waited patiently for his opportunity, and the feeling here is strong that he will produce at a high level.

If he's struggling heading into the heart of the season, Maicer Izturis, Mr. Versatile, is available to move in and handle third capably. Departed Chone Figgins is Izturis' biggest fan, marveling at his remarkable hands and natural talent. Izturis is an ideal safety net, but I don't think he'll be required for Wood.

4. How can they replace Figgins at the top of the order?

Erick Aybar gets first crack, and if his development continues at the rate he showed in 2009, he'll handle the leadoff role capably. Izturis is the other option, and he'll get enough starts at three positions -- at least 100, most likely -- to be the No. 1 hitter, with Aybar sliding to second or ninth.

Figgins will be missed, for sure. The little big man was a force. But Aybar can be just as explosive when his confidence level matches his talent, and Izturis is rock solid.

5. Where does Hideki Matsui fit in the lineup? And why was he preferred over Vladimir Guerrero?

The Angels clearly felt they needed another left-handed power hitter to complement Kendry Morales, which is why they opted for Matsui over Guerrero. It also explains why they decided Matsui was a better option than Mike Napoli as the primary designated hitter.

Matsui can hit anywhere from third to sixth. Where he slots in will depend on Scioscia's gut feeling that day.

6. Can Scot Shields return to his old form coming off knee surgery?

Shields, the game's premier setup man for five seasons, should benefit from the year off, basically, his arm was given. He's intensely competitive, and that drive will be his ally. He just needs to ease into it, not try to do too much too soon. There's no reason to believe he can't be a force again at 33.

7. Who will be the closer -- Brian Fuentes or Fernando Rodney?

Fuentes led the Majors in saves with 48. Outside of the Bronx, and maybe Boston and Minnesota, fans everywhere worry about their closer. They tend to dwell on one bad night and forget the nine good ones. Fuentes had some rocky moments and isn't the prototypical finisher with blazing heat, but he gets results. He had a better success rate in saves than esteemed predecessor Francisco Rodriguez in his debut season with the Mets.

Rodney provides a completely different look with his premium gas. He's a proven ninth-inning alternative should Fuentes falter or get arm weary. Going in, Rodney figures as a seventh-inning guy, maybe eighth, depending on how recovered Shields is. Kevin Jepsen is poised to take the ninth inning one of these days. He has the stuff and the demeanor to excel in that role, and the time will come when it will belong to him. With Jepsen, Jason Bulger, Rodney and Shields, the Angels have a lot of solid options behind Fuentes.

8. How do you see the catching situation playing out?

This is the toughest of all these questions. Jeff Mathis is among the best in the game defensively, and he showed in the postseason that he can hit under pressure. He's a premium athlete, smart and tough, and it's evident in everything he does.

Napoli is a born hitter, capable of hanging up big numbers. His defense, however, simply does not measure up to Mathis'. Bobby Wilson is a smart, sure-handed receiver who will hit enough if given an opportunity. If the Angels can't find a spot for Wilson, who has no Minor League options left, somebody will have a job for him.

9. How big a distraction will Gary Matthews Jr. be if he's not traded?

Matthews certainly won't be happy, but he wasn't happy the past two seasons and still made significant contributions. Hey, it's not his fault the Angels gave him $50 million for five years. Hopefully, something will be done to satisfy both Matthews and management. The guy can still play quality center field, but the Angels have the best there in Torii Hunter.

10. At the moment, given their improvements, should the Mariners be the favorites to win the American League West and end the Angels' three-year run?

Seattle certainly will get a lot of play from the national media, and few, if any, clubs have done more to improve. Figgins and Ichiro Suzuki will form a dynamic tandem atop the lineup, and Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee are a 1-2 perhaps without equal.

But let's not get too carried away here. It was just two years ago that the Erik Bedard acquisition made Seattle the popular pick of critics heading into the 2008 season. Those Mariners fell flat and never were in contention.

The Angels are still the team to beat -- until someone proves otherwise. They have more offense than Seattle or Oakland, and Texas' offense becomes ordinary on the road. The Mariners have an edge on the mound on paper, but it remains to be seen how significant that advantage will be when the games are played.

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