Last spring training, things were looking up for the Angels with sluggers… (Gregory Bull / Associated…)
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Doomed from the start. No phrase better captures the last two playoff-free seasons for the Angels, who were 18-25 and eight games back in the American League West by mid-May 2012 and 15-27 and 12 games back by mid-May 2013.
After lavishing $240 million on Albert Pujols before 2012 and $125 million on Josh Hamilton before 2013, the Angels spent modestly this off-season, their only free-agent splurge on reliever Joe Smith for three years and $15.75 million.
Expectations are lower for 2014 — most projections have the Angels finishing third in the division — but if they are to contend, they must hit stride opening day, a mission they hope to accomplish by infusing spring training with a keener focus and greater sense of urgency.
Pitchers and catchers report to camp Thursday, and the starters will be stretched out earlier in spring so they have more endurance to start the season. Relievers will throw more often and with more intent.
The full squad is due in Feb. 18, and the position players will focus more on situational hitting — bunting, hit-and-run plays and advancing runners with grounders to the right side.
"Guys are going to get after it more, absolutely," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "We've talked to them about being more aggressive. Spring training will be more about guys putting their best foot forward and getting their game together than trying to make the club."
Avoiding a sluggish start will be the overarching theme this spring, but there are several other storylines:
The team's fortunes could hinge on how Pujols, Hamilton and David Freese bounce back from subpar seasons.
Pujols, 33, hobbled his way through 2013, hitting .258 with 17 homers and 64 runs batted in before succumbing to a left foot injury in late July.
The injury was a blessing in disguise for the out-of-contention Angels — it gave Pujols a two-month head start on rehabilitation and virtually assured he'd be 100% this spring.
A career .321 hitter with 492 home runs, Pujols seems to play better with a chip on his shoulder, and with health concerns added to doubts about his worth relative to his massive contract, he'll have plenty to prove.
Hamilton and Freese remain huge questions because neither had a major injury in 2013. Will Hamilton resemble the guy who hit .217 in his first 106 games or .329 in his final 45 games? Will Freese, acquired from St. Louis, reprise his 2012 season (.293, 20 home runs, 79 RBIs) or 2013 season (.262, nine home runs, 60 RBIs)?
Three to make two
The first three rotation spots appear set with Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, a 25-year-old right-hander who secured a spot with a 5-4 record and a 3.72 earned-run average in his final 13 starts of 2013.
Three left-handers — Mark Mulder, who is attempting a comeback after a five-year retirement, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, acquired in the three-team Mark Trumbo trade — will battle for the final two spots.
Santiago, 26, who mixes a 93-mph fastball with a slider and screwball, was 4-9 with a 3.56 ERA for the Chicago White Sox last season but struggled with command, walking 72 batters in 149 innings.
Skaggs, 22, has only 13 games of big league experience with Arizona. Mulder seems like a longshot, but the Angels are very encouraged by his throwing sessions and believe he can make the team.
The Angels risked alienating their best player last March when they unilaterally renewed Mike Trout's contract for $510,000, a salary the outfielder's agent called "well short of fair" after Trout's historic 2012 season.
Trout, 22, responded with a monster 2013, batting .323 with 27 home runs and 97 RBIs and finishing second in AL most-valuable-player voting.
There's a good chance the Angels will renew Trout's contract again in March, but it won't have the sting of last spring's renewal because it will be done amid negotiations for a multiple-year extension that is expected to make Trout one of baseball's highest-paid players.
The sides hope to reach a deal after the season starts. Any disappointment over a renewal should be erased by the prospect of what could be a record-setting contract likely to include a signing bonus far exceeding Trout's 2014 salary.
The ancient ex-Mariner
The Angels don't expect Raul Ibanez, 41, to replace Trumbo's team-leading 34 home runs and 100 RBIs, but they need a chunk of that production. Ibanez hit .242 with 29 home runs and 65 RBIs for Seattle last season, and he had a higher on-base-plus-slugging mark (.793) than Trumbo (.747).
However, Ibanez slumped badly in the second half, hitting .203 with five home runs and nine RBIs in 51 games, perhaps succumbing to the physical demands of playing 832 innings — about 92 games — in the outfield, far more than he anticipated.
"If I didn't think I could still perform at a high level and exceed the level I was at last year, I wouldn't play," Ibanez said.
If Ibanez struggles, new backup first baseman Carlos Pena could see more time at designated hitter.
It might be asking a lot of Kole Calhoun, 26, to bat first in his first full big league season, but unless Scioscia returns Trout to the top spot — a move he seems reluctant to make — Calhoun is the most logical choice.
Calhoun took over in right field in July and hit .282 with a .347 on-base percentage, eight home runs and 32 RBIs in 58 games, making him a more attractive leadoff candidate than Erick Aybar, who has a career .317 OBP and drew 45 walks over the last two seasons.
If Calhoun struggles, Scioscia could drop him to second and move Trout, who has a .404 OBP in two-plus seasons, to leadoff, where he'd have more opportunities to run. Trout, who stole 49 bases in 2012 and 33 in 2013, seemed chained to the bag when he was on first base with Pujols or Hamilton up last season.