With Pujols, C.J., Angels aiming high in 2012
Halos abuzz about potential of playoff return after two-year hiatus
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It seems silly to think rich, accomplished grown men would feel any more energized or rejuvenated about a couple of offseason acquisitions.
But spend some time around the Angels -- on the heels of adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to an 86-win team -- and you may feel a little differently.
Forget the increased merchandise sales, the additional media requests or the multiplying ticket demands from the outside. You can sense it in the players themselves. In how badly Mark Trumbo wants to fit in at different positions, or how hard Kendrys Morales is fighting to return from devastating injury, or how confident Jered Weaver and Dan Haren seem about their rotation -- or how Torii Hunter's eyes light up when thinking about what may be his best chance to finally reach the World Series.
"I think there was a different energy from Day One," center fielder Peter Bourjos said of what could be the most anticipated year in Angels history. "I think with Albert, C.J., it's been completely different. And it's exciting. And I can't wait for the season to start."
W: Weaver (1-0) L: Crow (0-1)
When that season does start -- on Friday night against the Royals, in a 7:05 p.m. PT game in Anaheim -- an Angels club that made the postseason six times from 2002-09 will look to return after a two-year hiatus. That process began in late October, with the hiring of rookie general manager Jerry Dipoto, and reached a whole new level on Dec. 8, when owner Arte Moreno invested more than $315 million to add the best hitter on the planet (Pujols) and steal the ace from the division rivals (Wilson).
World Series or bust?
"I wouldn't say it's a bust, but we have a good shot at winning a lot of games," said second baseman Howie Kendrick, who signed a four-year, $33.5 million extension 11 months before hitting free agency to ensure he'd be part of this for a long time. "Our ultimate goal is to make it to the World Series, but I think the first thing we have to do is win during the regular season. If we take care of business during the regular season, make that push to the playoffs, that's where you want to be at."
The American League, to quote Haren, "is stacked." The Yankees' rebuilt pitching staff makes them as potent as ever, the Tigers are even better now with Prince Fielder on board and the Rangers -- a team the Angels will have to match up with 19 times this season -- added Japanese sensation Yu Darvish to one of the deepest, most dangerous clubs in baseball.
But the Angels have two things going for them.
First, they're among the very best in the one element almost everyone considers the most critical to championship baseball -- starting pitching.
Is the foursome of Weaver, Haren, Wilson and Ervin Santana the best in baseball? That's up for debate. But the Angels ranked fifth in the Majors in starters' ERA last season, then simply added Wilson -- who put up 31 wins and a 3.14 ERA in 427 1/3 innings for Texas the last two years -- on a five-year, $77.5 million contract.
"We thought we had a pretty good rotation," Weaver said. "Now you add a guy like C.J., I think our rotation can match up with just about anybody out there."
Second, their offense will be better. How much better, exactly, is tough to say.
But better nonetheless.
The Angels ranked 17th in the Majors in runs and OPS last season. In 50 of their games, they were held scoreless in the first five innings -- a Major League high. And as the Angels finished 10 games out in the AL West, not a single member of their lineup even hit .290.
"I think there's a big part of our club that underachieved on the offensive end," manager Mike Scioscia said. "It definitely contributed to that gap."
With Pujols, the three-time National League MVP who's signed to a 10-year, $240 million contract, that all changes.
"He changes the dynamic of a lineup, man," Hunter said. "Just him being in there is going to change everything."
The Angels have added arguably the greatest slugger in baseball -- a man who posted a .906 OPS during a down year in 2011 and had an unmatched 10 straight seasons of at least a .300 batting average, 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 doubles before that -- to the No. 3 spot of their lineup.
But it's not just that. Now, Erick Aybar and Kendrick will see more pitches to hit in the top of the order. Trumbo and Morales will have more opportunities to drive in runs. Hunter and Vernon Wells won't be putting too much pressure on themselves.
And that dynamic starting staff can finally have a little breathing room.
"The potential is to be every bit as deep as we've ever been here, which is important," Scioscia said. "I think more importantly, I think it's a lineup that's going to support a premium pitching staff. That's something that we struggled with last year."
"I've liked the way we look as a team, even though it's just Spring Training," Haren added. "We've played well, we've pitched well, so I expect big things."
Spring Training may have only brought more optimism for the Angels.
It saw Trumbo make a relatively smooth transition to third base, giving Scioscia a crucial avenue with which to plug his bat in the lineup more often.
And it saw Morales return from a broken left ankle that sidelined him for nearly two full seasons, looking a lot like the player who was an MVP candidate in 2009 and can legitimately protect Pujols in 2012.
Questions linger, though. Like how the at-bats for Trumbo, Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis get split up. Or what happens to the aging, struggling, disgruntled Bobby Abreu. Or how a bullpen that isn't significantly different from one that blew 25 saves last season fares.
But that's like being upset over a lack of cup holders in your new Ferrari.
The Angels are going into the 2012 season with a championship team on paper.
How does that translate onto the field?
Soon enough, we can finally begin to find out.
"It takes a whole team to win a World Series; it's not just one guy that's going to carry a ballclub," Pujols said. "I'm a big believer in that. It takes 25 guys. We know what kind of ballclub we have. Our expectations are really high."
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.