ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Although the Los Angeles Angels gave Josh Hamilton 125 million reasons to switch sides in their lively rivalry with Texas, all that cash didn’t buy immediate comfort for the slugger.
Now that Hamilton has had an extra-long spring training to settle in, he’s ready to lead the Angels’ efforts to get back on top in the AL West and beyond.
“It’s a little awkward at first,” Hamilton said. “You’ve been going against them for five years, and at first it’s a little awkward. But the guys are the guys everywhere. It’s tough to find a clubhouse you don’t fit in. The more time I spend with the guys here, the more comfortable I get.”
Los Angeles owner Arte Moreno went on another offseason spending spree in hopes of ending their three-year playoff drought, signing one of the game’s best power hitters to play alongside Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout.
Hamilton’s presence in right field and the cleanup spot is among several significant changes after the Angels went 89-73 last year, winning more games than AL champion Detroit. They still extended their longest playoff drought under Mike Scioscia, the longest-tenured manager in baseball entering his 14th season.
“We have the same high expectations we have every year, so that doesn’t change,” Scioscia said. “We also realize it takes eight months of hard work every day to achieve the goals we set, so we can’t start looking at the finish line. We’re still at the start, and we need to play well consistently. Little inconsistent stretches are what cost us last year, and we need to eliminate them.”
The Angels’ lineup is undeniably fearsome on paper — and even with Pujols and Hamilton hitting 3-4 every day, perhaps no player scares opponents more than Trout, who finished second in MVP voting even after a late start to his breakout season. Trout spent the winter basking in the glow of his accomplishments and showed up to spring training looking a bit husky, but has been rounding back into form.
“Sosh has been joking around about how it’s my first full spring,” Trout said. “It feels good just to be here the whole time and be able to work on getting the timing down.”
Hamilton’s arrival came at a price: Los Angeles has lost Torii Hunter, the productive outfielder and unofficial team captain, who was unceremoniously allowed to leave for the Tigers. Scioscia is confident the Angels can fill the void of Hunter’s leadership — hopefully with Pujols, who should be more comfortable in April after a rocky start to the first season of his 10-year free-agent deal last spring.
The Angels made their biggest changes in their rotation, replacing three starters when they traded Ervin Santana, parted ways with Dan Haren and declined to write an enormous check to Zack Greinke. Enter Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton, three veteran pitchers expected to log heavy innings behind 20-game winner Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
The Angels will head into the season without Vernon Wells, which most fans will see as addition by subtraction. His disastrous two-year tenure in Anaheim ended with a trade to the desperate New York Yankees on Tuesday.
The 34-year-old former Toronto outfielder was an unqualified bust with the Angels, batting just .222 with 36 homers and 95 RBIs while missing significant time with injuries over the last two years. Although Wells was a good teammate, he’ll weigh on the Angels’ payroll for two more years.
Wells’ trade and Kendrys Morales’ offseason departure for Seattle has freed up more playing time for Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, chosen as the Angels’ center fielder and forcing Trout to move to left. Kole Calhoun is likely to take Wells’ spot as Los Angeles’ fifth outfielder to start the season.
The Angels didn’t come out of spring without injury concerns, either: Ryan Madson, signed in the offseason to be their closer, will start the season on the disabled list while recovering from elbow ligament replacement surgery last season.
None of the Angels’ concerns can trump the optimism around a team stacked with star power and seemingly overdue for a chance to play for another World Series title.
“We’ve got high expectations, obviously,” Trout said. “But everybody has to do their role. You can’t let expectations or other stuff get to your head and distract you from doing your job. I’m not that person who’s going to get distracted. I just go out and play.”