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Angels appear stronger than last season

Albert Pujols says he believes the Angels' roster has improved over last season

Albert Pujols has played on enough championship-caliber clubs to know what one looks and feels like. As he surveyed the Angels clubhouse in the waning days of spring training, the first baseman liked what he saw.

"I think we have a better team this year than we did last year," said Pujols, who won World Series titles with St. Louis in 2006 and 2011. "Everything is better, the starting pitching, the chemistry, the bullpen … we're ready to go."

Pujols did not mention the offense. Whether it was an intentional or inadvertent omission was impossible to tell.

If the Angels are to improve on a season in which they had a major league-best record of 98-64 but were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Kansas City, they'll need to overcome the loss of productive second baseman Howie Kendrick, who was traded to the Dodgers, and left fielder Josh Hamilton, who will open the season on the disabled list.

"I don't think there will be one guy who steps in and replaces them," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Like when Josh got hurt last year, you saw a combination of things."

Replacing Hamilton shouldn't be difficult. He has been a shadow of the five-time All-Star he was in Texas, hitting .255 with 31 home runs, 123 runs batted in and 266 strikeouts in two unremarkable and injury-plagued seasons in Anaheim.

Matt Joyce and Collin Cowgill form a capable left-field platoon, and Joyce and improving young slugger C.J. Cron should provide solid production at designated hitter.

Replacing Kendrick, a .293 hitter in nine years, will be a challenge. Johnny Giavotella, 27, won the second base job over Josh Rutledge and Grant Green, but he's a .238 hitter in 125 big league games and isn't as polished defensively as Kendrick.

"I don't know that we'll have one guy at second who will play 150 games like Howie," Scioscia said. "But in some combination, you have to bring some of that offense with the defensive stability Howie brought us."

There is still plenty of firepower in the batting order. Mike Trout, the reigning American League most valuable player, was the scourge of the Cactus League, hitting .451 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in 19 games. His more aggressive approach early in counts — an effort to reduce his AL-leading 184 strikeouts — is paying dividends.

Pujols appears to be in great shape after battling left foot and right knee injuries for two years. He sprayed so many line drives around Arizona that hitting coach Don Baylor thinks he could lead the league in RBIs.

Kole Calhoun is one of baseball's most productive leadoff men, switch-hitting shortstop Erick Aybar has a knack for delivering in the clutch, and third baseman David Freese believes his more sleek physique will lead to a better season.

Catcher Chris Iannetta doesn't typically hit for a high average but has a knack for getting on base, and Cron batted .415 with three home runs, 10 doubles and 14 RBIs in 23 Cactus League games.

"This team is predicated on pitching and defense, it just so happens we have a really good offense too," Iannetta said. "If we pitch and play defense, we'll probably follow the same pattern we did last year.

"Hopefully, we delay that big hot streak for a couple of weeks and carry that into the playoffs instead of peaking in early September and trailing off at the end."

Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago form a rotation that should have more depth at triple A with Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano and will receive a significant boost with the return of Garrett Richards in late April.

Richards looked like a Cy Young Award candidate before he underwent season-ending surgery on his left knee in August. He has been dominant in his minor league starts in Arizona.

"The most encouraging thing on the pitching side is where Garrett is," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. "He's looked terrific. He's throwing the ball well. He hasn't missed a beat."

Veteran closer Huston Street, setup man Joe Smith and Mike Morin lead a deeper and more balanced bullpen that keyed the team's second-half surge in 2014.

Chemistry also appears to be a strength, though it's always difficult to know how that translates to the field.

"It just feels like a group that loves each other," Street said. "And when I say love, I mean it in the truest sense of the word. Guys get mad at each other, they stay on each other. We demand a certain level of responsibility from each person, and that, to me, is much more powerful than just liking each other."

Street has played for four teams, three of which made the playoffs, in 10 years, and he likes the way this club goes about its business.

"We're not planning for September or October, this team plays for today," Street said. "That's the grind approach that makes the best teams great. Because they don't look ahead, they don't look behind, and it's difficult to do that."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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