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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Angels went out and got Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They might end up having the youngest MVP in baseball history and a Cy Young winner.
They’ve also got plenty of time to ponder how it all went wrong after the most anticipated season in franchise history ended with a fizzle.
The Angels finished third in the AL West at 89-73, a record good enough to win the AL Central or to earn a wild-card berth in the NL. Instead, the franchise with Pujols, Mike Trout, Jered Weaver and a payroll north of $155 million will be home in October for the third straight year, the longest playoff absence of manager Mike Scioscia’s 13-year tenure.
The Angels were very good, but just not quite as good as the AL’s best — including Oakland and Baltimore, who stunningly blew past Los Angeles with a fraction of the Halos’ star wattage or spending power.
“Failure is a relative term,” said Jerry Dipoto, the Angels’ first-year general manager. “I don’t want to call that a successful season, but I don’t know I would deem that a failure. We came up short. That is for certain. Now we have to go figure out how not to be short next time.”
With big decisions to make on the futures of veteran players, Dipoto and owner Arte Moreno could choose several paths to retool the Halos. Torii Hunter, Dan Haren, Zack Greinke and Ervin Santana are just a few of the regulars who might not return.
Los Angeles was among the majors’ elite except for two stretches: A 6-14 start to the season while Trout was still in the minors, and a 5-13 skid in the first 19 days of August. The first slump left the Angels playing catch-up in the division race, and the second knocked them too far back to get into wild-card contention.
It’s not what anybody expected when the Angels signed Pujols and Wilson to hefty free-agent deals last December, capped by a joyous pep rally outside Angel Stadium. It’s certainly not what seemed possible after Trout got rolling in his sublime rookie season and Weaver proved nearly unhittable for long stretches of his first 20-win season.
“After we got C.J. Wilson and Albert, what we did in spring training was awesome,” said Hunter, the Angels’ unofficial team captain and a pending free agent. “But the first six weeks of the season were bad. If we had those six weeks back and just played average baseball, I don’t think we would be in this position.”
Their offense bumbled through that early-season stretch, only starting to work consistently when Trout arrived from the minors. But when the bats got going, the pitching stumbled: Everybody except Weaver hit a rough stretch, from top-line starters Haren and Santana to the back of a bullpen that blew an AL-worst 22 saves, an astonishing number for an 89-win team.
“To not control our own destiny down the stretch is not what we sought after,” Haren said last week. “But the way we played in April and then a stretch after the All-Star break left us in this situation.”
After batting .190 with no homers in April, Pujols eventually recovered from that horrific start to the first season of his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels. The three-time NL MVP batted .285 with 30 homers, 50 doubles and 105 RBIs, posting respectable numbers while learning the intricacies of a new league.
But El Hombre was overshadowed by Trout, the 21-year-old speedster who burst onto the AL scene with one of the greatest rookie seasons in major league history. He led the AL in runs (129) and stolen bases (49), hit 30 homers with 83 RBIs, finished second in the batting race at .326 behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera — and the numbers still can’t capture the excitement he injected into nearly every game he played.
Weaver had a remarkable season despite two brief injury absences, throwing a no-hitter and finishing 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA with 142 strikeouts while holding batters to a .214 average.
Wilson pitched well at times during the first season of his five-year, $77.5 million deal, but struggled through an 11-start winless stretch. The left-hander later revealed he had been pitching with bone spurs in his elbow that will require offseason surgery.
The rest of Los Angeles’ 2013 rotation is uncertain. Contract options on Haren and Santana both seem likely to be declined by the Angels after the veterans struggled down the stretch, although Haren would consider returning for less money.
Greinke largely pitched well as a midseason acquisition from Milwaukee, going 6-2 with a 3.53 ERA, but still wasn’t enough to push the Angels over the top. He’s a free agent who will get a huge payday this winter, likely forcing the Angels to pay top dollar if they hope to keep him.
Yet Orange County seems to be an ideal place for Greinke, the introverted former Brewers and Royals hurler who reportedly balked at playing in big cities in the past. The Angels offer all of the benefits of major-market franchises, including top-dollar contracts, but few of the drawbacks, such as a media microscope or supercritical fans.
And then there’s Hunter, the beloved 37-year-old outfielder who just finished an outstanding fifth season in Anaheim. He batted .313 with 16 homers and 92 RBIs, repeatedly coming up big down the stretch while chasing his first World Series ring.
Moreno realizes fans are eager for Hunter’s return, and he seems fond of the veteran slugger. But the Angels haven’t tipped their hand on his fate before beginning an offseason that could change the Halos yet again.
“This is an organization that I really came over to be with, and thought I would retire here,” Hunter said. “If it doesn’t work out, I had a lot of fun here. I love these guys. Hopefully we can get something done. They have a lot of things to try and clean up before they even think about offering me a deal, and I understand that. So if I have to, I guess I have to go elsewhere.”