TEMPE, Ariz. — And now, the sequel.
The Angels vanquished Barry Bonds, the New York Yankees and four decades of curses, hexes and jinxes last season on a magical ride to their first World Series championship. The 2003 season awaits, demanding the Angels identify themselves as one-year wonders or perennial contenders.
Baseball fans will now have to look for their scrappy underdogs elsewhere. This year, the slogan "The Hunt for Red October" evokes the burden of expectation, not the lightness of hopes. If the Angels do not return to the playoffs, this season could be considered a failure and last season a fluke.
Recent history offers the Angels reason for cheer. Since the major leagues split into six divisions in 1994 and adopted an eight-team playoff format, every World Series champion returned to the playoffs the following season, with the exception of the Florida Marlins, whose owner pushed the money-saving "self-destruct" button.
But, in the 111 days since Darin Erstad caught the final out of Game 7 and Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson took the World Series trophy on victory laps around Edison Field, the Angels have made no significant moves to improve their team.
The Yankees' foreign exchange program -- their cash for your stars -- bought pitcher Jose Contreras from Cuba and outfielder Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui from Japan. The Chicago White Sox acquired 20-game winner Bartolo Colon. The Oakland Athletics added Erubiel Durazo, Keith Foulke and John Halama. The Boston Red Sox picked up Jeremy Giambi, Ramiro Mendoza, David Ortiz and Todd Walker. The Seattle Mariners traded their manager for All-Star outfielder Randy Winn.
The Yankees followed fall championships with such winter supplements as starting pitchers Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and David Wells. Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman tinkered with his reserve outfielders, replacing Orlando Palmeiro and Alex Ochoa with Eric Owens and a rookie to be named.
That's it. Clearly, Stoneman does not buy the theory that a team not getting better is a team that is getting worse.
"If you're old, that's good thinking," Stoneman said. "We're not old."
The Angels are a better team, they reason, because a relatively young core of players survived -- and even thrived -- in their first October baseball. The Angels also are better, they believe, with John Lackey in the rotation and Francisco Rodriguez and Scott Schoeneweis setting up closer Troy Percival.
When they broke camp last season, Schoeneweis was in the rotation, Lackey in triple-A and Rodriguez in double-A. Lackey won Game 7 of the World Series, the first rookie to do so in 93 years. Rodriguez had five postseason victories and a stream of strikeouts. Schoeneweis sputtered as a starter, dazzled as a reliever.
"You might say there were no changes made," Manager Mike Scioscia said, "but I think we have the ability to have an even deeper club."
The Angels' projected roster includes no one older than 35. In an organization weak in depth among position players, Salmon is the only everyday player older than 30.
The pitching staff includes five over 30 -- Percival, starters Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele and relievers Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber -- but the Angels have depth in Mickey Callaway, Scot Shields and Matt Wise and prospects aplenty in Chris Bootcheck, Rich Fischer, Bobby Jenks, Johan Santana, Joe Saunders, Steven Shell and Derrick Turnbow.
By the end of the long season, Appier, 35, had deteriorated into a five-inning pitcher. But he has two years -- and $23 million -- left on his contract, and Stoneman dismissed the notion that Appier's September and October exhaustion could herald a season of exhaustion this year.
"A lot of guys were tired at the end of the season. Appier was one. But so was [ace Jarrod] Washburn," Stoneman said.
"Our starters were worn out. Thankfully, so were everyone else's."
Stoneman also dismisses the notion that the Angels won because several players performed beyond reasonable expectations.
"I heard that more than I expected to hear it," he said. "Nobody had a career year."
Erstad had a career year -- in 2000, when he hit .355. But Erstad, Anderson, Salmon, Appier, Percival, third baseman Troy Glaus, catcher Bengie Molina and designated hitter Brad Fullmer all had 2002 seasons well within, or worse than, their career norms. Washburn, starter Ramon Ortiz, shortstop David Eckstein, second baseman Adam Kennedy and first baseman Scott Spiezio haven't played long enough as regulars for anyone to know whether last season was atypically good or just typical.
And, in case of injury and/or poor performance, Stoneman set aside plenty of money for midseason acquisitions. Disney approved an $84-million player payroll; Stoneman has assembled a roster at a projected $76 million.
"If you happen to find yourself in good shape, like we did last year, then you can go out and add someone like Ochoa," Stoneman said. "To have that cushion is going to be awesome. It looks like most clubs aren't going to have that. Most clubs are still looking to shed payroll."
For all the Angels did last year, they did not win their division. With the schedule heavy on intra-division games, the Angels and their American League West rivals could beat up on each other, allowing the wild card to emerge from the AL Central or East. If the Angels do not win their division, no matter how many games they win, they might lose the opportunity for an October encore.
"There's nobody here looking backward," Scioscia said. "They see the challenge in front of them. That's what we're looking toward -- to become perennial contenders -- and that's a goal I think is realistic."