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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson make Angels better, but how much?

The signings of slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson raise expectations and should lift the team into baseball's elite, but there are still questions, particularly in the lineup and bullpen.

December 19, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Angels owner Arte Moreno, center, poses with Albert Pujols, left, and C.J. Wilson during a news conference at Angel Stadium on Dec. 10. The Angels are poised to be one of baseball's best teams in 2012, but the strength of their bullpen remains in question.
Angels owner Arte Moreno, center, poses with Albert Pujols, left, and C.J.… (Alex Gallardo / Associated…)

The $331.5-million free-agent splurge that netted slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson didn't merely transform the Angels from a second-place — and, in some ways, second-rate — club to a World Series contender.

It also sent expectations soaring, owner Arte Moreno delivering a clear message with his checkbook that he wants World Series championships, not just playoff berths.

That means the 2012 Angels shouldn't be measured next to the 2011 Angels, who struggled to score runs and hold leads and failed to reach the playoffs for the second straight year.

They should be compared to the deep and talented Texas Rangers, who won the last two American League pennants, and the perennially contending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

So, yes, the Angels added Pujols, one of baseball's most dangerous hitters, but can they provide enough lineup protection to force opponents to pitch to him?

The Angels have four players — Pujols, Mark Trumbo, Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter — with the potential to hit 25 homers, but will their predominantly right-handed lineup be vulnerable to dominant right-handed pitchers?

They added a nice veteran reliever in LaTroy Hawkins, and rookie closer Jordan Walden, with his 99-mph fastball, showed considerable potential in 2011.

But is this bullpen deep enough to handle the rigors of a pennant race and good enough to hold late leads in late October?

Here's an early look at the Angels roster:

The lineup

There are two ways to protect Pujols, who will bat third.

"One is to get guys on base in front of him," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "The other is to have depth behind him, guys who will take advantage when they walk him."

A 2009 version of Bobby Abreu, who had a .390 on-base percentage that season, would be perfect in front of Pujols. A Kendrys Morales 2009 model would fit behind Pujols — the switch-hitting Morales hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs that season.

But Abreu, 37, regressed in 2010 and 2011, and the Pujols signing will squeeze him out of an everyday role. There is also no guarantee Morales, who has missed 1½ seasons because of a broken left ankle, will return and regain his 2009 stroke.

That leaves Howie Kendrick, who could thrive on a diet heavier in fastballs, as the best option in front of Pujols and the veteran Hunter as the best option behind him.

Peter Bourjos and switch-hitting Erick Aybar will probably platoon in the leadoff spot, Trumbo and Wells will fill out the middle, and Chris Iannetta will be an offensive upgrade at catcher. Overall, the Angels appear deeper and more dangerous.

"The one thing that sets us up really well," Scioscia said, "is if Morales, with his presence from the left side, can come back."

The rotation

The Angels already looked strong, going with right-handers Jered Weaver, who went 18-8 with a 2.41 earned run average last season, Dan Haren (16-10, 3.17) and Ervin Santana (11-12, 3.38).

Weaver, 29, finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting; Haren, 31, finished seventh; Santana, 29, threw a no-hitter, and all are in their prime.

The addition of Wilson, a 31-year-old left-hander who went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA for Texas last season, should give them one of the best rotations in baseball, comparable to those in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tampa Bay.

Right-handers Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards will compete for the fifth spot.

"We have a very good five-man rotation," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said, "and more depth . . . than we've had in a few years."

The bullpen

Give Dipoto points for honesty in assessing his bullpen.

"I don't know if it's a strength or weakness," he said, "but we are deeper there."

Hawkins, who regained his velocity after an injury-plagued 2010 to go 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA for Milwaukee last season, should help.

Walden has plenty of fastball and a short memory, and should learn from last season's lumps. Scott Downs, who went 6-3 with a 1.34 ERA in 60 games, has been one of baseball's best bullpen lefties for years.

But Hawkins is 39, and Downs will be 36 next season, so their skills could erode. Walden was hardly a picture of efficiency, with 10 blown saves to go with 32 saves.

The bullpen could be strong, but is it World Series-caliber?

"We're going to find out," Dipoto said.

The bench

The reserve corps will change on a nightly basis depending on how Scioscia juggles the lineup, but Abreu and Alberto Callaspo will spend a lot more time on the bench.

Trumbo, a regular first baseman last season, will also get less time, moving between first, third, right field and designated hitter. Maicer Izturis is a solid utility infielder, and Hank Conger and Bobby Wilson will battle for the backup catching job.

To-do list

Once Trumbo, who is recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot, resumes baseball activities, the Angels must determine whether he can play third, a position he struggled to master after he was drafted in 2005.

If he can, even on a part-time basis, and if Morales is healthy, the Angels could field a power-packed lineup that includes Pujols (first base), Morales (DH), Hunter (right field), Wells (left) and Trumbo.

Dipoto will look to improve the bullpen, though with the payroll pushing $165 million, it's doubtful he'll add a closer such as Ryan Madson. And though Trumbo appears expendable, Dipoto is not looking to trade the young slugger for a closer.

"Ideally, we'd like to add another pitcher who could help get the last nine outs and a little more left-handedness to the lineup," Dipoto said. "It's more about small tweaks than major additions."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

twitter.com/MikeDiGiovanna

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