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2014 Preview: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Big Question: After two years of disappointments, do the Angels have a shot?

There has been no bigger disappointment in baseball over the past two years than the Angels. After signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson before the 2012 season and after signing Josh Hamilton a year ago, the Angels missed the playoffs both years. By a wide margin last season. And while Wilson has been solid, the two biggest bats on the market in those two seasons have been busts. Apart from promoting Mike Trout and watching him dominate baseball and apart from nearly single-handedly scaring teams away from long-term contracts for big sluggers, the Angels haven’t done anything of significance over the past two seasons.

But there is at least some reason to hope this year. It’s only modest reason, and it’s based more on unscientific things like the law of averages than anything truly tangible, but at the very least it’s too early for Angels fans to throw in the towel.

Simply put: it’s really hard to imagine Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton putting up two more dreadful seasons between them. Pujols was famously hampered by injuries last year and is supposedly healthy again. Hamilton was less famously aggravated by injuries. While it’s entirely possible that each of them has hit a Dale-Murphy-in-1989 kind of wall, it would be maddeningly improbable for a future Hall of Famer and a recent MVP to both do so at once. It could happen, but for me to believe it will require me seeing it. And if they do bounce back — even part of the way back, to respectability if not dominance — the Angels offense should be in fantastic shape.

Mike Trout is the best all-around player in the game and should continue to be so for a long time. While they lost Mark Trumbo’s homers, they also lost his nearly unprecedented out-making abilities. David Freese fell off a bit last year, but is capable of solid contributions. Kole Calhoun hit well in 58 games last season and has a nice minor league track record. Raul Ibanez can’t be expected to go on forever, but he had a fantastic season in 2013 and should contribute as well.  The upshot: the Angels were third on-base percentage, fifth in slugging and sixth in runs in the American League last season with Pujols and Hamilton doing close to nothing for them. It’s not hard to imagine the offense being among the best in the league with even a reasonable rebound from those two and expected contributions from the rest of the lineup.

So many ifs, obviously. And the “they look good on paper” thing hasn’t worked out too well for the Angels in a while. But the Angels could very easily have a playoff-caliber offense. And that’s reason to hope.

What else is going on?

  • Obviously offense isn’t everything. What really sunk the Angels last year was the pitching. The Trumbo trade did a lot to address that, bringing in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, who should help bolster the back end of the rotation, which was hideous last season. Neither should light the world on fire — and while Skaggs has some upside, we pretty much know what Santiago is — but after the Joe Blanton experience in 2013, Mike Scioscia will probably welcome modest expectations reasonably-met.
  • The top end of the rotation is nominally OK with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — they’re big stars and at times have been among the best starters in baseball — but Weaver’s diminished velocity and some late-season forearm issues have to be cause for concern.He’s lost a good four miles per hour off his heater since he came up and has become more hittable. While there’s no reason to panic, if he declines more quickly than expected, all bets are off for the rotation.
  • The bullpen sucked eggs last year too, but it should be improved. Bringing in setup man Joe Smith from Cleveland is a big help. And, while Sean Burnett and Dane De La Rosa will likely start the season on the disabled list, their presence for most of the season will represent a big improvement over last year. More generally, Jerry Dipoto brought in a ton of organizational bullpen depth via minor league signings that, unlike last year, won’t require him to repurpose starting pitchers and generally scramble if and when the relievers who start the season in Anaheim falter.
  • Hot seat watch: It’s been a long time since a major league manager did less with more than Mike Scioscia has done over the past two seasons and not paid for it with his job. Not that the Angels’ problems have been his fault — who bet on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton forgetting how to hit? — but managers do usually pay for such struggles. If the Angels limp out to a slow start for a third straight year, it’s going to be hard for Scioscia to avoid the hot seat. In his favor, though, are the lack of 2012 or 2013-size expectations.

Prediction: They could surprise and, for once, exceed expectations. But with the Rangers and A’s as stocked as they are, it’ll be hard to see the Angels finishing above Third place, American League West.

Josh Hamilton leaves camp with a tweaked knee

SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers poses during a spring training photo shoot on February 28, 2016 in Surprise, Arizona.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Josh Hamilton was already a long shot to make the Texas Rangers roster, but his shot got even longer today, as he left camp to have his reconstructed left knee examined after experiencing pain.

As Jeff Wilson reports, Hamilton felt discomfort in the knee during the Rangers’ first full-squad spring training workout yesterday. Hamilton has had 10 knee operations in career. Which is a lot of knee operations in case you were unaware.

You have to wish good luck to Hamilton, but at the same time you have to be realistic. The guy has not played in the major leagues since 2015 and even then he didn’t play well, hitting .253 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs in 50 games. He appeared in one game last year for Double-A Frisco, on April 30. He’ll be paid $24 million this year, mostly by the Angels. One suspects that this will likewise be his last spring training.

Colby Rasmus looks very special this year

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Dearest Martha,

When I and the men with whom I share this most noble cause settled in this corner of the Wyoming Territory, we did so in the name of freedom. In the name of our righteous calling from Our Creator. While my love for you is deathless as is the love of the men under my command for their wives and mothers, it pales to our commitment to The Cause. It comes over us like a strong wind and bears us irresistibly into conflict.  

Word comes that President Grant has mustered a thousand troops to disrupt our work and, as I write this, they march westward. Soon they will be upon us. But though they may be blessed with superior arms and numbers, our resolve is unmatched by any force, on Heaven or on Earth. 

If, dearest Martha, I do not survive the coming conflagration, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Know, though, that should I perish, I do so in the name of righteousness. In the name of the establishment of a land where all Men can experience liberty in the way God Almighty intends for us to experience it.

Yours in love, forever,

Colby

Editor’s Note: Colby Rasmus was killed in The Battle of Thermopolis on July 10, 1871 when Federal troops successfully put down the insurrection he and 17 other men mounted, the objective of which was to establish an independent nation in which a willing man could marry a willing bison without the interference of the United States government.

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18: Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
PORT CHARLOTTE, FL – FEBRUARY 18: Colby Rasmus #28 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

UPDATE: I was not aware of the fact that some folks at SB Nation had done this bit with Andrew Luck. They do it better, even if Colby Rasmus looks worse than Luck. We all bow to Ken Burns, of course.