New year brings great hope for retooled Angels
With Pujols, Wilson in fold, Halos turn focus to other matters
ANAHEIM -- Many will tell you the most efficient way to go about your business is to get the big stuff out of the way first, then worry about the little things.
Jerry Dipoto has certainly taken care of that first part.
In one fell swoop on Dec. 8 -- off one big assist from owner Arte Moreno -- the Angels' neophyte general manager secured two of the biggest free agents of the offseason, landing both slugging first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson to make the Halos an instant title contender and essentially change the dynamic of the American League.
Now, it's on to smaller matters.
Well, "smaller" is only a relative term here. The Angels still have lots of important issues to address as they head into the New Year and prepare for a 2012 season that will come with the highest of expectations.
Without further ado, here are the 10 biggest questions the Angels face:
10. What's the next roster move?
There's no question the Angels will eventually have to move somebody. But considering they won't know whether Mark Trumbo can handle third base or Kendrys Morales is fully healthy until Spring Training, those moves may not materialize just yet. If Trumbo can play third, Alberto Callaspo or Maicer Izturis is expendable. Bobby Abreu definitely appears to be the odd man out on this roster, but considering his 2011 numbers and his age, it's hard to see the Angels moving him without eating at least some of his remaining $9 million salary. As for dealing Morales and Trumbo? Several teams could still use a first baseman with pop, but every indication from the Angels suggests they're willing to hold on to them right now.
9. Who's the fifth starter?
Logic would tell you it's Jerome Williams, but that isn't set in stone and teams normally like to leave that fifth-starter spot open for Spring Training competition. Regardless, the journeyman Williams came on strong as a mid-August callup last year, going 4-0 with a 3.68 ERA in 10 games (six starts). But how he performs given a larger sample size remains to be seen. The 23-year-old Garrett Richards is another candidate, but he posted a 5.79 ERA in 14 Major League innings last year and has yet to pitch in Triple-A. Lefty Brad Mills, acquired from the Blue Jays in the deal for Jeff Mathis, may also factor in.
8. What can new catcher Chris Iannetta provide?
He should definitely bring more offense, which is why the Angels felt acquiring the veteran backstop from the Rockies was worth parting ways with young starter Tyler Chatwood. Iannetta appealed to Dipoto mostly because of his .370 on-base percentage in 2011, which he coupled with 14 homers and 55 RBIs. But his home/road splits raise some eyebrows. Iannetta hit .301 with 10 homers in 57 games in Coors Field's thin air, but only .172 with four homers in 55 games elsewhere. Defensively, those who watched him extensively in Colorado say Iannetta is as cerebral a catcher as they come, and vastly improved against the running game last season.
7. Who protects Pujols?
Teams are going to try to take the bat out of Pujols' hands no matter who hits behind him. But it'll be up to manager Mike Scioscia to make sure his cleanup hitter can consistently drive in runs. In an ideal world, that man would be Morales -- perhaps the only one who brings power from the left side -- but he's been out for nearly two years. Trumbo could be a logical choice given his rookie-year power numbers, but his 2011 OPS (.768) and overall experience raises doubt. The 36-year-old Torii Hunter, meanwhile, was the Angels' primary cleanup hitter last year. But he's past his prime. Barring trades, Spring Training could bring a lot more clarity to this situation.
6. Is this the year Mike Trout emerges?
Barring an unexpected trade, it doesn't look like Trout will be an everyday player as soon as 2012. But that doesn't necessarily mean he won't have a chance to fight for at-bats on the big league roster. Asked recently whether the 20-year-old Trout, who played his first season of Double-A last year and played in 40 big league games, would start the year in the Majors, Scioscia said, "We're going to take what's presented in Spring Training." The skipper then added: "In '09, when our offense was really firing on all cylinders, there were guys on the bench that you said, 'Hey, this guy could be in the lineup tonight and help us.' So if we get back to that, that's going to help us as a team." Trout still has rookie status, by the way.
5. Will the bullpen hold leads?
One Winter Meetings move that was lost in the shuffle of the Pujols/Wilson madness was the Angels' signing of right-hander LaTroy Hawkins, who could join lefty Scott Downs in the setup role. Dipoto hopes Hawkins' presence will help the bullpen improve on a season that saw it tie for the AL lead in blown saves. But make no mistake: That improvement will mostly hinge on 24-year-old closer Jordan Walden, who posted a 2.98 ERA but blew 10 of his 42 save chances as a rookie in 2011. Dipoto mentioned all along that the goal was to find a veteran bullpen arm who would complement Walden, not replace him. Now we'll see if the young right-hander is ready to take the next step.
4. Can Vernon Wells live up to his salary?
Well, if you're wondering whether Wells can produce like a man who will make $63 million over the next three years, then you may need to lower your expectations a bit. After a season that saw him post a slash line of .218/.248/.412, the Halos will take any sort of improvement from their expensive left fielder. Wells struggled mightily at his new home in 2011 and said recently that he fell into the mind-set of trying to hit home runs. But he vowed: "Next year, you're going to see the real me." Wells does have a history of bouncing back, like he did in 2010, and the Angels will surely need him to. It's not like he can be traded.
3. What happens to Morales and Trumbo?
For now, at least, it looks like the Angels will continue to roll with the first-base logjam the Pujols signing created. The organization has already had talks with Trumbo about playing third base, a position he tried but struggled at shortly after signing. Trumbo -- who could also see some time at designated hitter, first base and the corner outfield spots -- feels seven years as an infielder (at first base) will make him much better at the hot corner this time around. For Morales, it'll all hinge on whether he looks right in Spring Training. If healthy and productive, he could be an important piece to the middle of the order as a DH.
2. How many "elite" Pujols years will the Angels get?
For those who looked at Pujols' 2011 numbers and saw the beginning of his decline, consider this: He batted .318 with 28 homers from June until the end of the regular season, then posted a whopping 1.155 OPS in a playoff run that won him his second World Series title. Frankly, Pujols is still the greatest hitter in baseball and should have plenty of iconic years remaining if he stays healthy. There's little reason to believe otherwise. Will he be worth roughly $25 million a year toward the end of a contract that runs through his age-41 season? Probably not. But these days, a deal like this is what it takes to bring in someone like Pujols -- a player who can single-handedly elevate a franchise to a whole new level.
1. Can the Angels make it back to the World Series?
Now that Pujols is on board, and Wilson has joined him, that's the expectation. Will it actually happen? Who knows. But here's one thing that holds little doubt: The Angels' rotation foursome of Wilson, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana is arguably the best in the AL -- especially if the Rays part ways with James Shields -- and is definitely better on paper than that of the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Rangers. But don't count out Texas in the AL West, regardless of Wilson's departure. The Rangers still possess one of baseball's deepest lineups, have a stacked bullpen and -- considering how they bounced back from losing Cliff Lee, as well as their history for developing starters -- should be fine in the rotation with Nefali Feliz now on board. The Angels look legit on paper. But, as everyone knows, pennants aren't won on paper.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.