The Angels should be better than they were last year. Their lineup and bench appear to be stronger. But the health of the pitching staff was the club's downfall last season, and it would not be a surprise if the same was said this time next year.
First, the improvements: Left field has plagued the team since Josh Hamilton's controversial departure. General Manager Billy Eppler set out to fix that and acquired Cameron Maybin at the off-season's outset. Maybin has never regularly played left field, but he should be better there than Daniel Nava, Craig Gentry or Matt Joyce.
Second base was a problem position the last two years. Danny Espinosa, the new choice, is a better defender than Johnny Giavotella, and might be a better hitter, too. His 24 home runs last season show he certainly has more power.
Ben Revere, the new fourth outfielder, played competently for five consecutive seasons until an awful 2016. He provides previously unseen depth.
The Angels also still have Mike Trout, the reigning American League most valuable player. He solves a lot, but not everything.
The following are among the questions the Angels will attempt to answer in six weeks of spring training. The resolutions will begin to reveal themselves Tuesday, when the club's pitchers and catchers convene for physical examinations at Tempe Diablo Stadium. On Wednesday, they will all work out for the first time. On Saturday, the club will conduct its first full-squad workout of 2017.
What is the new normal for Angels pitchers?
The potential exists for a successful Angels rotation: Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker have been, at times, top-line major league pitchers. Plenty of people within baseball believe in Tyler Skaggs' potential. Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez are steady, if uninspiring, veterans.
Behind them, Eppler has assembled a litany of once-prized prospects, among them John Lamb, Alex Meyer and Bud Norris. Perhaps one of them will prove early observers right.
The problem is that Richards will pitch with a tenuous ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, repaired by his own stem cells. Shoemaker is coming back from a skull fracture he sustained in September. And Skaggs is still easing his way back from elbow ligament replacement surgery. In 20 combined major league seasons, Nolasco and Chavez have registered two 200-inning campaigns, both by Nolasco.
Success may then require several strokes of good luck. Eppler acknowledges that injuries are likely to happen — with any pitching staff — but says he has confidence in the depth he acquired.
"I think it's important to understand what history tells us, and history tells us we're gonna use a number of starters," he said Monday. "You hope that when those situations happen they're not happening because of catastrophic injuries."
Who’s on first?
In December, after months of persistent pain, Albert Pujols underwent surgery to relieve plantar fasciitis in his right foot. His availability for opening day is in question. If he is available, he's likely to be the designated hitter.
C.J. Cron was the club's primary first baseman in 2016. He is unlikely to be in 2017, because Luis Valbuena is now in the fold. Most plausible is a platoon at first base, with Valbuena starting against right-handed pitching and Cron facing left-handers.
The club will refrain from designing a playing-time plan for Pujols until later in spring training, after taking measure of him. But the 37-year-old has already reported to camp, and he will surely insist on his readiness. He always does.
"The best-case scenario is Albert's ready to go when we start to play games," Eppler said.
In a similar situation last year, Pujols played on opening day but started slowly. He later said his abbreviated spring affected him for most of the season.
How to spell relief?
The enormous free-agent contracts anticipated across the sport did not come to fruition, and some skilled relievers with pedigrees remain unsigned.
The Angels don't have a set closer, and their biggest bullpen move of the winter was bringing back Andrew Bailey — who had a 6.40 earned-run average with the Philadelphia Phillies last season but converted six of six save chances with a 2.38 ERA after joining the Angels in August — on a one-year, incentive-laden deal.
Longtime closer Huston Street is coming off the worst year of his career, and one that ended in August with knee surgery. Upstart right-hander Cam Bedrosian missed the last month with a worrisome blood clot near his armpit. Mike Morin and Jose Alvarez had inconsistent seasons. If there's upside, it may source from the flexibility of multiple-inning types J.C. Ramirez and Yusmeiro Petit.
"We're happy with the group we have," Eppler said. "Every guy we went out and acquired had a background of both starting and relieving. Oftentimes, you can improve a bullpen by looking at all available pitchers."