Successful on the field and at the gate the past six seasons, Mike Scioscia and the Angels are the consensus choice in the AL West again this year.  Can they win more than a division?

There wasn’t a lot of work for GM Tony Reagins this winter because, quite frankly, the need just wasn’t there.  Coming off their third AL West title in four years, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim-Orange County-California went shopping for some extra offense, signing free agent center fielder Torii Hunter to a five-year deal, and replaced a starting pitcher they really didn’t have last year (Bartolo Colon) with Jon Garland in a trade with the White Sox.

Prior to their World Series Championship in 2002, the Angels had visited the postseason just three times since coming on board in 1961.  The team consistently played runner-up in the media, in the standings and with the fans in the LA area to the Dodgers who only arrived on the Left Coast a few years before the Halos.  That started to change in the 1980s when, ironically, current manager Mike Scioscia was playing across town in Dodger Blue.

Gene Autry’s AL cowboys started to make gains in the standings and at the gate in the early 1980s, and appeared on the verge of their first AL Pennant before disaster struck in the 1986 ALCS.  The franchise immediately dived back into the ranks and suffered at the gate before beginning the slow climb back to respectability – not to mention profitability – leading up to their ’02 title.  Though LA fans might take a lot of heat for being laid back, the Angels do have a lot of fan support, make no mistake about that, finishing second in AL attendance only to the Yankees four consecutive years.

Now with four playoff trips the last six seasons, Scioscia and Company want more than just extended play this year.

One of the first things you hear about the Angels these days is their pitching, and deservedly so.  Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher have built a solid staff that  has finished worse than fifth in AL ERA just once since 2002.  People will immediately think of Colon as anchoring those staffs, and they’d be wrong since the Dominican right-hander only had the one dominating season (2005) and hasn’t done a damn thing since then due to injury.

The Angels do have a better-than-average rotation led by John Lackey (19-9, 3.01 in 2007) and Kelvim Escobar (18-7, 3.40).  With Jered Weaver (13-7) coming on since his call-up in 2006, and a closer with the ability of Frankie Rodriguez down in the pen, it’s a group that likely leaves many managers a bit envious.

But the staff enters this season with a couple of cracks.  Lackey has been slowed this spring by a sore shoulder.  It’s not supposed to be serious, but you never can tell.  And Escobar won’t even begin throwing in earnest until mid-March with a projected late-April, early-May return for him.  So it was imperative that the Angels land another arm such as Garland, even if it did cost them a shortstop the caliber of Orlando Cabrera (more on that later).

Lackey, Garland and Weaver should fill the first three spots in the rotation coming out of spring, and keeping those three healthy all season is going to be important to say the least.  Joe Saunders should grab the fourth spot with Ervin Santana in the five-hole until Escobar gets into action.  Look for Santana to then move to the pen.  As it stands now, the only other viable starter on the roster is Dustin Moseley. So if Escobar doesn’t come back as soon as expected and another member of the rotation goes down, the depth of this staff is going to really be tested.

Rodriguez has been a super reliever for five years running now, and this is the final year of his contract with the Halos so you know he’ll be bringing it from Day 1.  But the wear and tear on K-Rod’s right arm started to show up a little last season when his ERA jumped over a run from 2006 and his WHIP hit an all-time high at 1.25.

Getting the ball from the starters to Rodriguez should be the same foursome that did the job a year ago.  Scot Shields has been getting the setup job done for six seasons now and people still don’t know his name.  Darren Oliver shocked me the last two seasons with quality relief work, and the 37-year-old lefty is back to try again.

Justin Speier turned in a sub-3.00 ERA last season for Angels, his third consecutive season below 3.00 in that column.  And Chris Bootcheck – the youngest of this quartet at 29 to open the season – did a pretty fair job in his first full season last year, with the former first round pick (2000) working over 77 innings in 51 middle relief appearances.

Rich Thompson and Jason Bulger will get the most looks this spring to fill out the pen.

When the Angels dealt Cabrera to Chicago for Garland, they were dealing from strength as they had at least two strong candidates to take over at shortstop this year.  That also opened up the only real battle entering Spring Training between Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis.  Recently when asked about when he might name his starting shortstop, Scioscia balked.

"Our decision might be not only do they play 50-50 here (in Spring Training) but they play 80-80 (games) during the season," Scioscia said.

Izturis has the more proven stick at this point in his career, but Aybar has the edge defensively. And my gut tells me that Scioscia will choose defense the majority of the time since the Angels weren’t as bad offensively a year ago as many might think, finishing fourth in the AL with 822 runs.

Whoever is at short, their DP partner at second will be Howie Kendrick who is off a .322 average a year ago in 88 games and is still just 24.  Casey Kotchman will be at first after finally getting things going with his bat last year, hitting near .300 and poking 37 doubles to go with 11 homers.

Over at third will be Chone Figgins who seems to have finally found a home at the hot corner after years of shifting all over the field defensively.  Izturis is the primary midfield backup most likely, also backing up Figgins at third, with Kendry Morales or Robb Quinlan spelling Kotchman at third.

Brandon Wood looks to once again be headed back to Triple-A and moving back to shortstop as well.  Keep an eye on him as a possible early call-up if Aybar doesn’t cut the mustard at short.

The outfield and DH slots appeared set coming into spring with Vladimir Guerrero in right, Gary Matthews Jr. moving from center to left, Torii Hunter taking over in center and Garret Anderson drawing DH duties and playing a little left field.  But Guerrero is still reportedly bothered by elbow/forearm woes that came to a head towards the end of last season.  Guerrero has said he doesn’t want to DH, but I’d expect to see him in that spot with Anderson resting against left-handers.

Outfield backups will go to speedy Reggie Willits and Juan Rivera.  Rivera could also be the Plan B for right field if Guerrero suffers through the arm injury too long.

Mike Napoli is penciled in as the starting catcher, but he’ll give way to Jeff Mathis – picked by many as a leading AL Rookie of the Year candidate last year – often as Scioscia goes with the hot stick.

Key Player(s): Getting Escobar back as soon as possible will be huge since it not only obviously strengthens the rotation, but also could add a little to the pen assuming Santana can make that transition.  Hunter will also be out to prove he deserved his big contract, so he can’t put too much pressure on himself.

Futures: The Angels went shotgun style through my simulations, ranging from 79 wins (in the worst-case scenario) to 93 wins (best-case).  I am a little concerned about the starting pitching, and have logged them down for 89 wins, assuming Escobar does make it back by early-May at the latest.

The Greek is currently listing the Halos with an O/U of 91½ wins, both priced at -110, while BetCris puts their number at 92, -115 on both sides.  Personally, I like the Under on both.  Over at 5Dimes, the Angels are -220 to take the AL West, way too much chalk for me, especially with the Mariners at +220.  Winning the AL Pennant, 5Dimes has the Angels at +600 and lists them at +1100 to win their second World Series.

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