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Angels poised to make noise in second half

At 20 games above .500, Halos in position to challenge A's, return to playoffs

Angels poised to make noise in second half play video for Angels poised to make noise in second half

ANAHEIM -- The Angels didn't necessarily need a break.

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They're coming off their first four-game sweep of the Rangers, sport a Major League-best 26-9 record since June 6, boast the second-best winning percentage in all of baseball, have pulled within 1 1/2 games of the world-beating A's and, frankly, would probably just prefer to keep on going.

But alas, the All-Star break came and went, and the Angels -- a franchise-best 20 games above .500 by the end of the ceremonial first half -- unloaded with the comfort of knowing they're in prime position to return to the postseason.

Before their quest begins again on Friday with the start of a three-game series at home against the Mariners, here's a look back and a glance forward.

Five key developments so far

1. Richards, Skaggs develop ahead of schedule
Starting pitching was a big question mark heading into the year, but it has been a strength thanks in large part to the rapid development of Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs. The Angels go into the All-Star break with a 3.75 rotation ERA that ranks 11th in the Majors. At this point last year, it was 4.57.

2. Trout gets even better
Mike Trout continues to get better, even as it continues to seem impossible. His power has increased, and though his strikeouts have climbed right along with it, the 22-year-old is on pace to set a new career high in OPS (currently 1.005, after .988 in 2013 and .963 in his rookie season of 2012).

First-half awards
MVP: CF Mike Trout
The game's best all-around player continues to get better, while the world wonders how that's even possible.
Top starter: RH Garrett Richards
He's always had electric stuff, but the 26-year-old has put it all together to become one of the game's elite starters.
Top rookie: DH C.J. Cron
The Angels weren't necessarily counting on Cron this year, but the power-hitting prospect has contributed since his early May callup.
Top reliever: RH Joe Smith
Smith has been exactly what the Angels expected when they signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract this offseason.

3. Bullpen continues changing
The bullpen was an issue. Closer Ernesto Frieri was never right, lefty Sean Burnett was lost due to Tommy John surgery and the Angels struggled to find a consistent group in the back end, prompting the additions of veteran closer Jason Grilli and lefty specialist Joe Thatcher. They'll keep looking, too.

4. Pujols improves at midpoint
Albert Pujols was healthy, and he came on late. The 34-year-old was hot in April, slumped through most of May and June, then picked it up as the first half ended. Pujols went into the All-Star break with 30 hits, four homers and 20 RBIs in his last 19 games, giving him a solid .279/.325/.491 slash line for the season.

5. Cron takes over for Ibanez
The Angels started off old and then went young at designated hitter. They began the season with 42-year-old Raul Ibanez, who was released on June 21 after batting .157. That move was eased by 24-year-old rookie C.J. Cron, who has hit .278 with nine homers and 27 RBIs in his first 52 games.

Five storylines to keep an eye on

1. How does Dipoto improve the pitching?
Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto has already added Grilli and Thatcher to the bullpen mix, but is expected to keep looking for established closers before the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31. Will he also look to add a starting pitcher to shore up the rotation? And is it possible that Dipoto will get involved for someone like David Price or Cliff Lee?

2. What kind of second half will Hamilton have?
The sample size was relatively small in the first half because Josh Hamilton missed two months after undergoing surgery in his left thumb. But Hamilton looked a lot like the hitter of his Texas days, before and after the ailment, and went into the All-Star break batting .295/.373/.449. The second half will prove if he's completely back.

Players to watch in second half
SP Tyler Skaggs
He just turned 23, is on pace to top his career high in innings and will be relied upon heavily while pitching in his first pennant race.
1B Albert Pujols
Will Pujols continue his tear over the last few weeks of the first half, or will he break down and struggle once again with runners in scoring position?
RP Jason Grilli
Barring another bullpen move, the Angels are counting on Grilli to help anchor the back end, and they are hopeful that he can recapture some of the magic from 2013.

3. Does Pujols stay in the No. 3 spot?
He silenced those questions -- and made life a lot easier on Angels manager Mike Scioscia -- with a strong last three weeks. But if he goes on another dry spell, the questions will come again. As recently as June 10, Pujols was batting just .147 with runners in scoring position while leading the Majors in plate appearances in that situation. And if you're batting behind Trout, you have to produce.

4. Can Trout lock down his first AL MVP Award?
He's come oh-so close each of the previous two seasons, only to get beat out by the better offensive numbers -- and much better team -- of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. Once again, Trout is having an MVP-caliber season. And unlike the last two years, the Angels may actually make the playoffs to help Trout's cause.

5. Can the Angels catch the A's?
Oakland was the best team in baseball, then added starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to a rotation that was already loaded. Winning your division is at a premium -- the alternative, of course, is playing a Wild Card Game -- and the Angels will have their hands full in the American League West.

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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