- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton didn’t exactly fit in right away with the Los Angeles Angels after they accepted owner Arte Moreno’s lavish free-agent contracts.

Now that both sluggers feel much more comfortable and confident in Orange County, they know it’s time the Angels started getting more wins for their money.

The Angels’ four-year absence from the playoffs is embarrassing for an organization with a sky-high payroll and equally lofty expectations, but they seem capable of ending the drought if the club’s various pieces finally add up properly.

“We have a terrific club, and we have the makings of a championship team,” said Mike Scioscia, the longest-tenured manager in baseball entering his 15th season in Anaheim.

Pujols and Hamilton are full of spring optimism after those disappointing 2013 efforts, while superstar Mike Trout is back for the third full major league campaign in his already remarkable career. Throw new third baseman David Freese into a mix of dependable veterans and young talent, and the Angels appear to have a lineup capable of anything.

The question is whether Los Angeles’ pitching has improved enough to keep those hitters in contention. Last season’s starters were 22nd in the majors with a 4.30 ERA, but general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired young left-handed starters Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs for a fresh start.

Five reasons for anticipation in an unpredictable season at the Big A:

START AT THE TOP: Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are back as the one-two punch at the top of the Angels’ rotation, but they’re coming off remarkably different experiences. Weaver struggled with injuries and velocity declines while winning just 11 games last year, while Wilson had an outstanding 17-victory campaign with 188 strikeouts.

The Angels have almost no organizational depth with starting pitching, and these two veterans realize the responsibility on their shoulders this season.

FILLING THE GAPS: Dipoto had little budget to make big changes to the Angels in the offseason, yet he addressed their biggest needs with a minimum of financial outlay.

Santiago and Skaggs are young prospects with promise, and the Angels are really hoping they’re both ready to hold a job in the rotation.

After four seasons without a standout third baseman, the Angels acquired Freese from St. Louis, hoping he can recapture his World Series MVP form.

And a spotty bullpen should improve with the addition of submarining Joe Smith and right-hander Fernando Salas, acquired in the deal for Freese.

The Angels gave up strikeout-prone slugger Mark Trumbo and oft-injured outfielder Peter Bourjos in the trades necessary to make it all happen, but Dipoto thinks Scioscia should have all the pieces he needs now.

TROUT’S DEAL: The Angels appear determined to lock up their prize possession for the long term, but it’s not easy. They’ve already opened talks with Trout’s representatives during the spring on a lavish long-term deal. They even gave a $1 million deal to the 22-year-old outfielder for this season, much more than they’re strictly required to pay.

If the negotiations are a distraction to Trout, he certainly isn’t showing it while batting around .400 in spring training.

SMARTER ALBERT: Pujols turned 34 in January, and injuries limited him to 99 games last season. Scioscia thinks his star first baseman “looks rejuvenated” after a long offseason of rest and recovery.

With eight seasons left on his $240 million contract, Pujols is taking a long view.

“If I need a day off, I’ll take a day off,” Pujols said. “I wish I’d have done that more earlier in my career, because the last couple of years, I’m trying to be Superman and trying to play 162 games. It’s cost me the last couple of years.”

When he rests, don’t be surprised to see 41-year-old newcomer Raul Ibanez at first base on occasion.

DON’T WAIT: April might be the most important month of the Angels’ season.

They got off to miserable starts in each of the last two years, forcing them to play catch-up all summer long. Another slow start might be the end of Scioscia or Dipoto, and the Angels realize they can’t dawdle in their playoff chase.

“We’ve got to have better starts,” Trout said. “The last two years killed us. We’ve got to figure out a way to prepare ourselves to come out in a hot streak. I’ve always told myself and everybody that the first couple of weeks of the season can make or break your season.”

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