01/30/2003 6:02 pm ET
Angels Spring Training preview
Defending champs confident with bulk of team returning
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
MLB Radio preview
Tempe Diablo Stadium
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- "Repeat, repeat, repeat ..."
Sure, it's the refrain that fans of Scott Spiezio's rock band, Sandfrog, were heard chanting during a set break in the Angels first baseman/lead singer's recent Anaheim gig, but it's also the mantra for the club as the World Series champions hit Arizona for Spring Training.
With most of the team's major missions accomplished last year, now is the time for deciding what they do for an encore.
It's pretty simple, according to hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.
"How about doing it again?" Hatcher says. "We'll go out there and play the same game we played last year. I have a lot of confidence in these guys and they got a taste of what it was like last year. I think they're gonna be excited about trying it again. I got Christmas cards from guys holding the World Series trophy, so I know they know what it's like now."
Hatcher, of course, is the man who turned a laissez-faire approach to hitting instruction into postseason results that have never been seen before. After a slow offensive start in 2002, the Angels started pounding the ball in May and never looked back.
They led the Major Leagues in hitting with a .282 average, clubbed the Yankees in the American League Division Series with a .376 clip, battered the Twins in the ALCS and outslugged Barry Bonds and the Giants in the Fall Classic.
Three months later, just about all of the pieces are in place for Anaheim to try to recapture the magic, this after an eerily quiet offseason.
The club let some reserve players (outfielders Orlando Palmeiro and Alex Ochoa) and seldom-used relief pitchers (Al Levine, Lou Pote and Dennis Cook) walk away as free agents or outright releases.
They added one proven big leaguer, former Marlins outfielder Eric Owens, and invited others to camp, including veteran left-handed reliever Rich Rodriguez, but the message from GM Bill Stoneman and his staff was clear: It ain't broke, and we sure as heck ain't gonna fix it.
"We're so well-balanced that it would be pretty tough to improve the balance of this club," Stoneman says. "It would be pretty tough to improve the chemistry. And we're well-talented at so many positions that it's pretty much an ideal position to be in. You always should say you can improve, but I'm not sure I'd point to an area right now."
The Angels do not need to improve anywhere, but maintaining their performance level of 2002 will be a big challenge. Most fans seem to think the area of starting pitching is where the club should start.
The team decided not to pursue any of the available arms on the free-agent market and will instead go with the five-man rotation that carried them through much of the second half of 2002: staff ace Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier, Ramon Ortiz, John Lackey and Aaron Sele.
Questions abound, of course.
Appier appeared to get very weary late in the year, particularly in the playoffs. Lackey was good as a rookie, but there's always the chance for a sophomore slump. Sele wasn't pitching well and then blew out his rotator cuff. He'll be trying to prove that he's healthy in Spring Training.
But one thing on which the Angels can rely is their potent bullpen, which could be even better than the unit that ranked tops in the AL last year.
Barring injury, with phenom Francisco Rodriguez on board for the whole season in the setup role, closer Troy Percival coming off the lowest ERA of his career, and upstarts like Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber and lefty Scott Schoeneweis ready to fill in the gaps, this could be a frighteningly powerful group, the kind that shortens a starter's game to five or six innings routinely.
Stoneman realizes this and puts it all in perspective. As he sees it, the Angels' goals for 2003 are simple.
"We just have to maintain the focus we kept for all of '02 and keep that focus through '03," Stoneman says. "We're going to start Spring Training and the season with a lot more people looking at us, saying, 'These guys are somebody to beat,' where they didn't do that last year. But this group took every game as a challenge this year, and we got through all of our challenges in pretty good shape."
For those wondering what kind of team attitude to expect when they head down to Tempe Diablo Stadium to see the Angels working out this spring, look no further than the recent comments of leadoff man David Eckstein, who has been working out in Georgia as if his starting shortstop job is in jeopardy.
"I have to keep working hard and find a way to become a better player, especially on defense," Eckstein says. "As a team, we need to just keep getting better, working harder. The goal is to play hard and win another World Series."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.