There's a different feeling around Tempe Diablo Stadium this spring.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have veered from their carefully crafted and mostly successful franchise model for the first time in the Arte Moreno/Mike Scioscia era. The heightened sense of excitement that shift has created comes with expectations and urgency attached.
That's what happens when you drop $317.5 million to sign a once-in-a-generation Hall of Famer, and steal away a top starting pitcher from your leading division rival. Add Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to a team that won 86 games last season, and it doesn't take a sabermetrics guru to project a jump to 90-plus wins.
And with an extra wild card spot as added wiggle room, there's every reason to believe the Angels will be back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. But just getting there won't be enough.
This season ultimately will be measured by how deep the Angels go in October. They have three Division Series and two ALCS losses since 2004. Welcome to the American League-elite world of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Tigers.
Throw in the potential free agencies this winter of longtime star and clubhouse leader Torii Hunter, and emerging Gold Glove shortstop Erick Aybar, plus a decision on a $13-million club option on Ervin Santana, and you can see how much is riding this season on Moreno's big financial roll of the dice.
The good news is Pujols has come as advertised; the change in shades of red uniforms couldn't be going any better. The unquestioned professionalism and work ethic has made the transition to a new clubhouse, and a .500 batting average, 1.063 slugging percentage and a two-homer game in his first 16 Cactus League at-bats speak volumes about his impact on the Angels' sometimes-lacking run production.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
"I'm sure there's a flaw in there, we just haven't been able to figure out what that might be,'' new general manager Jerry DiPoto said about Pujols.
"At the end of the day, there are very few players in the situation he's in. But he put himself in this situation, and he's been that guy for a while. That's who he is. That's how he's wired.''
Wilson's engaging and somewhat off-the-beaten-path personality also is fitting in. He's a Los Angeles-area kid and has had his interactions over the years with new rotation mates and fellow California natives Jered Weaver and Dan Haren.
But more importantly, what to keep in mind here is that, postseason woes notwithstanding, Wilson won 16 games last season, logged 223.1 innings and posted a 2.94 ERA pitching half the time in a hitters' park, while facing other teams' No. 1-2 starters. Now, he's slotted as the Angels' fourth starter and will pitch half the time in a pitchers' park. So it should be a big year for the Angels' big four starters, and for Wilson as well.
"I was kinda surprised (about the Angels' interest), but why not jump into the mix here and have a good foursome?'' Wilson said.
With the unquestioned help of Moreno's decision to spend big, Dipoto is as enthusiastic as anybody. But he also freely admits, ''every team has their degree of imperfections. We're just like everybody else in that regard.''
And so midway through camp, the Angels aren't sure about all of their roster parts — including ones that undoubtedly will help determine their fate this season.
There may be no bigger key than Kendrys Morales, and he still hasn't played in a Cactus League game. That could happen as soon as this weekend, and Dipoto still remains optimistic Morales will be the Opening Day DH.
At his peak a couple years ago, there were few more-productive switch-hitters in the game than Morales. In 203 games in 2009-10 before a horrific ankle injury, he hit .301 with 48 doubles, 45 HR and 147 RBI, and finished fifth in the 2009 AL MVP voting.
Even at something close to that level, Morales' left-handed presence behind Pujols, in Dipoto's words, ''makes us that much more potent. He'll let us know when he's ready. We know he's not going to play 160 games.''
Elite prospect Mike Trout also hasn't played in a Cactus League game yet, as he's battled a flu bug. But his return also is imminent, and in the perfect scenario of everybody being healthy, there is one too many DH/corner infielder/outfielder type from among Morales, Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu and Trout.
Trumbo is playing some third base to add to his versatility, but is anything but a finished product there. At best, the hope is he can be adequate enough defensively to get his bat in the lineup more often, especially against left-handed pitching. Because you know he's not going to playing much first base, as he did last year.
Abreu's $9-million salary will force the Angels to eat much of that number if they can find a taker. Abreu also could be released. Either way, that would allow Trout to stick as the fourth outfielder. If not, he'll start the season at Triple-A Salt Lake, and will return when needed, or if he forces his way onto the big-league roster by dominating at the Triple-A level.
The bullpen questions are limited to the right side, as lefties Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi are proven-quality left-handers. Beyond second-year closer Jordan Walden, Dipoto, a former reliever who knows something about bullpen construction, sees power, versatility and different looks and deliveries, if not household names.
"I'm not sure where our weakness is going to be,'' DiPoto said. "We're going to have one, and we'll figure that out. And then it's our job to figure out how best to deal with it.''
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