ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - Mike Trout and Joe Maddon both think the Los Angeles Angels’ playoff breakthrough would have already happened if the 2020 season had been a normal length.
With a long, beautiful summer stretching out in front of the Angels this year, it’s time to find out whether the three-time AL MVP and his indefatigable manager are right about this long-struggling team’s potential to pop.
“At the end of last year we had, I think, a great month,” Trout said. “I think we had one of the best records in baseball, but the season was shortened. Obviously, we needed to come out hotter at the start, but the last few weeks of the season, man, we played good baseball. And now, we’ve added a few guys, so I think we can build off that.”
The Angels did appear to be a team on the verge of something good last season during that 17-9 surge down the stretch. Their high-priced lineup was clicking around Trout and Anthony Rendon, while Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney and Mike Mayers led a long-miserable pitching staff to competence.
Nearly everybody who contributed to that successful stretch last season is back, while many players who struggled are gone. The Angels then added complementary veterans at several positions, and they hope the result is a team that will end their six-year postseason drought - tied for the third-longest in the majors.
“These guys are totally absolutely invested in the team and in their future,” said Maddon, the bench coach for the Angels’ only World Series championship team in 2002. “I was part of the first group that won it all for the Angels, and we want to do it again.”
The Angels’ biggest offseason change was in the front office, where first-time general manager Perry Minasian took over for first-time GM Billy Eppler and attempted to fix the problems that have kept the Angels far from the championship race for Trout’s entire career.
Minasian’s plan included a severe limitation of the Angels’ financial obligations beyond 2021 while acquiring veterans who can patch the obvious holes in LA’s pitching staff. With Albert Pujols’ albatross of a contract also finally coming off the books this year, the Halos are in position to make big moves next winter - but Minasian also believes this team can win now.
Minasian’s additions include two starting position players - shortstop José Iglesias and right fielder Dexter Fowler - and veteran hurlers José Quintana and Alex Cobb. Angels fans were hoping for bigger names, particularly on the mound, but Minasian avoided long-term commitments to mid-career veterans - a favorite vice of Angels owner Arte Moreno. The Halos also added closer Raisel Iglesias to lead a bullpen that got a significant overhaul.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Eppler’s reconstruction of the Angels’ once-miserable farm system is finally producing results without him. Jo Adell struggled when he was rushed to the majors last year, but the Halos remain committed to developing his ample potential either in Anaheim or Triple-A Salt Lake. Jared Walsh is likely to be the primary starter at first base as he looks to build on his remarkable September. Top prospect Brandon Marsh could make an impact in the outfield this season, while left-handed starter Reid Detmers looks like he could reach the majors this year.
The 41-year-old Pujols is the oldest player in the majors as he begins his 21st big league season and wraps up the 10-year, $240 million contract that has hamstrung this franchise. Pujols says he won’t decide whether to retire until after the season, but he’s no longer an everyday starter at first base, and he had a minus-0.7 WAR over the past four seasons while making $110 million. The Angels hope Pujols can hit enough homers as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter to put a graceful cap on a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career, despite its disappointing second decade in Anaheim.
Shohei Ohtani had a miserable 2020 on the mound and at the plate, but the early results this spring are promising. The two-way star batted .579 with four homers in his first seven spring training games, while his velocity and control both look encouraging during his mound work. He will be the Angels’ designated hitter between his once-a-week mound starts, and Maddon is growing increasingly confident the Angels will get Ohtani’s 2018 form.
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