Angels open camp with some question marks

Angels start spring training with unproven players at some positions

Washington had the best record in the National League and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last season. The team's go-for-it off-season response was to sign ace Max Scherzer for seven years and $210 million.

The Angels had the best record in either league, 98-64, and were also bounced in the first round. They barely glanced at the open market, signing one free agent to a major league deal, 27-year-old right-hander Jeremy McBryde, who hasn't thrown a pitch in the big leagues.

For a team that lavished nearly $500 million on Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton before the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it was a low-key and austere off-season for the Angels.

Their biggest expenditure was $15 million on 20-year-old Cuban infielder Roberto Baldoquin, who will be in minor league camp. They start spring training with a payroll of about $148 million —$7 million less than it was last season.

But General Manager Jerry Dipoto hasn't been sitting on his hands. He made eight trades involving 18 players, adding significant depth to the pitching rotation and athleticism and versatility to the bench.

He infused a weak farm system with some young talent and gained enough payroll flexibility to add a key player for a mid-summer playoff push.

How the moves play out on the field will begin to unfold when pitchers and catchers report to spring training Thursday and hold their first workout Friday, the start of a camp with a number of intriguing story lines:

On second thought

For the first time since 2006, the Angels will open a season without second baseman Howie Kendrick, who in December was traded to the Dodgers for pitching prospect Andrew Heaney.

Four players — Grant Green; Josh Rutledge, acquired from Colorado; Johnny Giavotella, acquired from Kansas City, and Rule 5 pick Taylor Featherston — will compete for the job, the runner-up likely claiming a utility role.

Not since 1996, when George Arias and Tim Wallach went head to head for the third base job, have the Angels had such a wide open spring battle for an infield or outfield spot.

Green, a .259 hitter in 88 big league games, and Rutledge, a .259 hitter in 266 games, hold a slight edge over Giavotella, a .238 hitter in 125 games, and Featherston, who hasn't played above double A. None of the four is a defensive whiz. All bat right-handed, eliminating any platoon options.

"Three of the four have between one and two-plus years of major league service time," Dipoto said, "so we're not talking about three absolute unknowns."

Recovery room

Pitcher Garrett Richards and left fielder Hamilton are rehabilitating from surgery, and how they progress could go a long way toward determining whether the Angels can repeat as American League West champions.

Richards suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee Aug 20, ending a breakout season in which he was 13-4 with a 2.61 earned-run average. He began jogging on his full body weight last week and threw off a mound for the first time Monday. If he's not activated for the season opener, he should be ready shortly after.

Hamilton is a bigger question. He sat out most of September because of a right-shoulder injury, thought he would heal with rest, aggravated the injury in late January and had surgery on a shoulder joint Feb. 4.

Hamilton hit .263 with 10 home runs and 44 runs batted in during an injury-plagued 2014 and the Angels hoped a bounce-back season from him would ease the loss of Kendrick. Now, it appears Hamilton will open on the disabled list.

Taking the fifth

Last season the Angels were so thin in starting pitching that they filled Richards' rotation spot for six weeks by shuttling in relief pitchers.

They shouldn't have to do that this season, with three viable candidates — Heaney, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano — competing to be the fifth starter behind Jered Weaver, Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Wilson.

Heaney, 23, was Miami's top prospect last season, a left-hander with a 93-mph fastball, strong slider and an improved changeup. Tropeano, a 24-year-old right-hander acquired from Houston for catcher Hank Conger, has a low-90s fastball, superb changeup and good control.

Santiago split 2014 between the rotation and bullpen, finishing 6-9 with a 3.75 ERA. He will be a long-relief candidate if he doesn't win a rotation spot.

New order

Manager Mike Scioscia has been reluctant to move Pujols out of the third spot in the lineup because the slugger has spent most of his career there.

But with Hamilton hurting, and providing little production when healthy, Scioscia may have no choice but to drop AL most valuable player Mike Trout from second to third and move Pujols to cleanup.

New designated hitter Matt Joyce could bat second behind Kole Calhoun against right-handers. Switch-hitting shortstop Erick Aybar could get a look. The exhibition season will give Scioscia time to tinker with different groupings.

"If we had a guy like Mike that would hit in front of Mike, I think you'd really see some opportunities," Scioscia said. "I'm sounding greedy. You want two Mikes."

Relief effort

The back of the bullpen, with closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith, is as strong and settled as ever, but the departures of Kevin Jepsen (traded to Tampa Bay) and Jason Grilli (a free agent) have muddled the middle.

There is no shortage of candidates, with Mike Morin, Fernando Salas and left-hander Cesar Ramos, acquired from Tampa Bay, probable locks. Vinnie Pestano, Cory Rasmus, Cam Bedrosian and Santiago will compete for the final two spots.

Once a pecking order is determined, the bullpen should be a strength.

"We've had our ups and downs," Dipoto said, "but we've progressively gotten better."

Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna

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