As you can imagine, the Angels have some 'splaining to do after falling short of expectations and the playoffs four seasons in a row. A novel could be written about the many open questions they will have to address if they want to return to contention. Alas, there is only so much time at our disposal, so we will focus on just the three main quandaries the Halos will face in 2014.
What will the Angels get out of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton?
After spending the Gross Domestic Product of Micronesia on signing Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in the two previous offseasons, the Angels were hoping to get a whole lot of production. Instead, they got a whole lot of frustration. After showing decline in 2012, Pujols suffered through painful foot and knee injuries in 2013, turning in the worst numbers of his career before finally landing on the DL to end his season after just 99 games played.
As for Hamilton, well, he pretty much forgot how to hit. He doesn't know why. The coaches don't know why. Nobody knows why. The only thing anyone knows is that he was swinging and missing more than ever.
Alas, there is hope. Pujols claims that he is fully recovered from all of his maladies and able to go through his normal offseason preparation. While nobody realistically expects him to bounceback to his peak production, there is cautious optimism that Pujols can at least perform at an All-Star level and fill the void in the middle of the Angels lineup that he helped create last year.
Hamilton's fortunes are a bit murkier, but there are a few signs that he might also be able to turn things around. Josh's production in the second half of 2013 was much better than his first as he went 287/.341/.460 after the All-Star break. Those still aren't on the same level as his career norms, but it is still a step in the right direction.
The area of his game that didn't come around much in the second half was his power. While even he can't say for certain, Hamilton believes his dramatic weight loss before the 2013 season may have sapped him of his strength. He won't have that excuse this year as he packed on over 20 pounds in the offseason to get back to his old playing weight. Considering his average flyball distance dropped dramatically last season, the added bulk certainly couldn't hurt, but it by no means guarantees that he will return to being an elite homer threat.
If those two can even get back to being 85% of what they were before the joined the Angels, the Halo offense could easily be one of the best in all of the game since they will have that Mike Trout guy batting right in front of them. They could well need to be a high octane offense in 2014 because they might need to score a whole lot of runs in order to overcome the question marks on their pitching staff and return to the playoffs. That brings us to our next key question…
Can they get even average pitching this year?
Even with the poor seasons of Pujols and Hamilton last year, the Angel offense was still pretty decent. The real problem was their pitching. Both the rotation and the bullpen were just dreadful. The rotation had the 11th-best ERA in the AL while the bullpen was 12th in ERA
GM Jerry Dipoto did not want to see the season torpedoed by poor pitching again this year, so he made a point of bring in several new faces. Unfortunately, it looks like he went more for a quantity over quality approach. For the rotation, the best Dipoto could do was adding Hector Santiago, who has yet to spend a full season as a starter at any level, and Tyler Skaggs, who had been a top prospect before suffering through mechanical issues that caused him to lose velocity last year. Dipoto better hope those two workout because his fallback options are Joe Blanton, one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball in 2013, or unproven, low ceiling minor leaguers like Matt Shoemaker and Michael Roth. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise at all if they signed a veteran free agent before camp ends if only to have something resembling depth.
If the young arms, Santiago, Skaggs and on-again, off-again starter Garrett Richards, realize their potential, the Halos could have a pretty good rotation. If they all struggle, things could get real ugly, real fast in Anaheim.
Even if the rotation holds up though, the bullpen could once again be the team's Achilles heel. Early in Mike Scioscia's tenure, the team thrived due to dominant bullpens, but things have been at the other end of the spectrum the last few years. Dipoto tried to inject some new life into the relief corps this year by signing sidewinding setup man Joe Smith, who should provide some consistency in the late innings, but after that it is still pretty questionable. Southpaw Sean Burnett is a top lefty reliever when healthy, but he has yet to throw off a mound after offseason elbow surgery, so there is no telling what the Angels will get out of him. They also brought in Fernando Salas from St. Louis, but he fell so far out of favor with the Cardinals last year that he was demoted to the minors. As such, it is unlikely he will be a difference maker in a bullpen that is bringing back a lot of the same personnel otherwise.
Can everyone get along?
As much as the Angels struggled on the field in 2013, things weren't much better in the front office or clubhouse. The rift between manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto drew national attention for the second straight year. The two insist that they never had any real personal animostity but rather some philosophical differences around how to fix the team. They now insist, over and over and over again, that they are on the same page. There has never been a management team more on the same page. Other pages might as well not even exist.
What didn't get as much attention was the rumored tension amongst Angel players. Though things were never characterized as being toxic, rumors persisted that the Angel clubhouse had a generational split vying for leadership of the roster. Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver and Josh Hamilton led the faction of established veterans preaching a more professional and serious team personality while Mike Trout and the since departed Mark Trumbo headed up a contingent of young players seeking to bring some levity and looseness to a clubhouse that had gotten exceedingly up tight in recent years.
These, of course, are just rumors and reports from unnamed sources. These chemistry conflicts might be nothing more than overblown grumblings. For all we know, these are just the standard things that happen to teams that fall well short of lofty expectations two years in a row. It turns out that most professional athletes don't take too well to losing and being embarrassed. It might take nothing more than a hot start to the season to cure all of the ills in the Halo clubhouse.
Just to be safe though, Jerry Dipoto quietly made a number of moves to address the clubhouse chemistry issues. He signed Raul Ibanez to be their DH largely because of the power he showed last season, but also because of his reputation for being such a great clubhouse presence. He also made a very obvious effort to round out the bottom of the roster with established bench leaders like John McDonald, Carlos Pena and Chad Tracy. Add to that the acquisition of the energetic and amiable Hector Santiago and the Angel clubhouse is overflowing with both the steady wisdom of veterans as well as they exuberance and energy of young players.