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Pitching is the key for Angels

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Angels do not have the same expectations surrounding them in 2014 as they did in 2013 or 2012.

And they're perfectly happy with that.

The truth is, if manager Mike Scioscia gets 2011-like production from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and anything approaching the last two years from 22-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout, the Angels will be in great shape in the American League West.

This spring has made that obvious, with a healthy Pujols looking a lot like his old self. When a bulked-up Hamilton missed three weeks due to a calf strain and then instantly changed the look of the Angels' lineup upon his return, it emphasized how much of an impact he could make.

"We did some nice things the last week or so before Josh came back," Scioscia said. "But all these guys were excited to see what we would become when we put him back in there, and with good reason."

With that power-hitting trio, plus new acquisition David Freese, the steady double-play tandem of Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar and upstart outfielder Kole Calhoun, the Angels might not have a below-average hitter in their lineup.

Even catcher Chris Iannetta closed out 2013 well.

But the problem is the pitching. The bullpen could be good if all the candidates are healthy, but they have not yet been healthy this spring, and the starting rotation is nothing if not young and inexperienced. If the Angels get solid performances from two of their three young starters in Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards, they can potentially squeak into a playoff spot, but they would be a lot better off if they could acquire a seasoned starter at some point this season.

And they certainly could: General manager Jerry Dipoto has repeatedly shown a willingness to take risks with trades. Heck, he made two deals last week, in the days leading up to spring training.

"I'm not nervous at all," Dipoto said of his young rotation. "I'm very excited for those players. A lot of what we will be will be relative to our pitching depth."

NOTES, QUOTES

--RHP Garrett Richards has showed a lot of promise this spring with his self-awareness. He possesses the pitch mix necessary to strike hitters out at a high rate, but he is now reluctant to waste pitches and instead tries to induce as much weak contact as possible. That has earned him praise from Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher.

--INF John McDonald appears on the verge of making the Angels' 25-man roster, largely on the strength of his defensive capabilities. Approaching 40, the journeyman has never been an offensive contributor, but his smooth glove work -- and versatility -- allowed him to beat out the younger Andrew Romine and Grant Green for the one available roster spot.

--LHP Jose Alvarez, acquired from the Detroit Tigers on Friday for Romine, made his Angels debut in a minor-league game over the weekend and could pitch next in a Freeway Series game against the Dodgers, March 27-29. Regardless, he is likely to be optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake City before Opening Day. But if any of the Angels' starting pitchers gets hurt, he might be the first-choice replacement.

--RHP Joe Blanton's apparent improvement after shifting his mound positioning is no more. The veteran right-hander gave up six runs in 4 1/3 innings Saturday and may not get another start in an Angels uniform. After he struggled all of last year and early in spring, he made some desperation adjustments and followed them with two good starts, but as of now he's a prime candidate to be traded or designated for assignment. The Angels still owe him $8.5 million for 2014 in any case.

--LHP Nick Maronde suddenly has a great chance to be on the Angels' Opening Day roster as the lone left-handed reliever, with Sean Burnett now not likely to return until mid-April and Rule V pick Brian Moran nursing a tender elbow for much of the last month. Maronde, a former top prospect, struggled in a brief big-league stint in 2013 but has had a good spring. "I definitely had my bumps in the road last year," Maronde said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'd be lying if I said no. So, yeah. But at the same time, it's something you can really try not to think about." -- Right-hander Joe Blanton, asked if this had been a weird spring because he was competing for a starting job.

ROSTER REPORT

ROTATION:

1. RHP Jered Weaver

2. LHP C.J. Wilson

3. LHP Hector Santiago

4. RHP Garrett Richards

5. LHP Tyler Skaggs

Weaver is the incumbent ace, despite missing more than a month due to a non-throwing arm injury a year ago. He is not the flamethrower he once was, but he's been a consistent performer for a half-decade now, and the Angels are counting on him to be a top starter in 2014.

Behind him is Wilson, who has been sneaky good for two seasons now in Anaheim. Neither Santiago, Richards nor Skaggs has completed a full season as a big-league starter, but all have potential. Skaggs, in particular, has increased his fastball velocity by four or five miles per hour this spring, which has Angels officials excited about the possibilities.

BULLPEN:

RHP Ernesto Frieri (closer)

RHP Joe Smith

RHP Kevin Jepsen

RHP Dane De La Rosa

RHP Fernando Salas

LHP Nick Maronde

RHP Joe Blanton

Frieri was not as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, but he was still good -- one of the only constants in a shaky Angels bullpen a year ago.

Smith, an offseason signee from the Indians, was dependable for several years in Cleveland. He had a couple rough outings this spring, but the Angels remain confident he will be their eighth-inning guy all year.

De La Rosa emerged last year and stands as the seventh-inning man now, despite a bout with forearm tightness this spring. Jepsen was just OK in 2013, while Salas, a former St. Louis closer, was relegated to Triple-A by the Cardinals.

If Blanton doesn't make the roster, that will create a spot for right-hander Michael Kohn, who had a nice first half in 2013 but faded as the year went on.

LINEUP:

1. RF Kole Calhoun

2. CF Mike Trout

3. 1B Albert Pujols

4. LF Josh Hamilton

5. 3B David Freese

6. DH Raul Ibanez

7. 2B Howie Kendrick

8. C Chris Iannetta

9. SS Erick Aybar

Calhoun is no veteran, but his first real opportunity to impress was a success last year -- so much so that he's going to be the Angels' leadoff hitter. Trout is Trout, arguably the best baseball player alive in 2014. Pujols and Hamilton could both be big-time run producers, as could Freese, but the third baseman has less of a track record.

Ibanez was great in April, May and June but awful in August and September, so it remains to be seen how he will be in 2014, but he does have power potential.

Kendrick consistently hits for a high average but tends to miss some time each year because of an injury. If Aybar can walk more this year, as he has in the spring, he could become very valuable. Walking's not an issue for Iannetta, but the veteran catcher struggled to make contact for a lot of last year. If he starts out struggling again, Hank Conger could seize his starting spot.

RESERVES:

C Hank Conger

INF John McDonald

OF J.B. Shuck

INF Ian Stewart

Conger is entering his second season in the same role, and he was solid in 2013, displaying some power in his switch-hitting bat. McDonald is on the team because of his defensive versatility. Shuck is there because of his breakout 2013, when he played lots of left field and hit well. His biggest question mark is his defense.

Stewart has not produced at the big-league level in years, but his defense at both third and first base is serviceable, and he has power, too.

MEDICAL WATCH:

-- LHP Sean Burnett (left elbow surgery in August 2013) experienced a minor setback with some forearm tightness over the weekend, but he is expected to resume throwing off a mound March 25 or 26. He began throwing off a mound March 10 and is on track to return to the majors sometime in mid-April.

-- RHP Dane De La Rosa (right forearm tightness) could pitch in a game late this week after throwing a successful bullpen session Monday. Angels manager Mike Scioscia said it is still possible De La Rosa will begin the season on the disabled list.
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