To many Angels fans, General Manager Jerry Dipoto is like the boy who cried wolf. Whatever Dipoto says, especially this time of year, they tend to believe the opposite.
Asked about free-agent Albert Pujols in November of 2011, Dipoto said the slugger was "not something we're going to aggressively pursue." A few weeks later, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240-million deal with the club.
At the 2012 winter meetings in Dallas, Dipoto insisted he was "focused 100% on pitching," while secretly meeting Josh Hamilton for lunch. A week later, the former Texas slugger signed a five-year, $125-million deal with the Angels.
So it's natural for fans to doubt Dipoto's claim this winter that he isn't pursuing high-end free agents Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields, even though any of the aces would provide a huge boost to a good but not great rotation.
"I don't want to rob them of dreaming big, but we're very comfortable with the team we have," Dipoto said on the eve of baseball's winter meetings. "This off-season is more about accent players — utility infielders, backup catchers, left-handed relievers — than marquee names."
Many still refuse to believe Dipoto. The Angels haven't popped up in many prominent rumors this off-season, but they're often seen as "lurking" on big-name free agents because of their deep-pocketed and aggressive owner, Arte Moreno.
But guess what? Dipoto sung a similar tune of restraint last winter, and his biggest "splash" was a three-year, $15.75-million deal for reliever Joe Smith.
And with the Angels having little room under the $189-million luxury-tax threshold for 2015 and Moreno reluctant to blow past it, their austerity program could continue.
Dipoto could clear payroll for a pursuit of a front-of-the-rotation starter by trading C.J. Wilson, but that will be difficult considering the two years and $38 million left on the underachieving left-hander's contract.
Wilson, who went 13-10 with a 4.51 earned run average last season and was knocked out of a division series-clinching loss to Kansas City in the first inning, can block trades to eight clubs.
"We're not looking at the top of the free-agent market right now," Dipoto said. "That does the opposite of making you younger and more flexible. We feel we have star power. We have balance between hitters and pitchers. We have a solid bullpen. We'll look for ways to get better, but we don't have any glaring needs."
The Angels return the bulk of a team that went a major-league best 98-64, so a major overhaul isn't required.
A lineup that led the American League in runs still features the league's most valuable player Mike Trout, Pujols, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. Garrett Richards is expected to recover fully from a left-knee injury and will boost a solid rotation that includes Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker, Wilson and Hector Santiago.
Most of a bullpen that emerged as a strength in the second half is back and should benefit from having closer Huston Street, acquired in July, for an entire season.
The Angels may have been the best team in baseball through September. They got cold at the wrong time and were swept by the Royals in the division series.
"We feel we have a pretty good team to start 2015," Dipoto said.
Dipoto has made several tweaks, trading backup catcher Hank Conger to Houston for pitching prospect Nick Tropeano, acquiring left-handed reliever Cesar Ramos from Tampa Bay, reserve outfielder Daniel Robertson from Texas and signing reliever Jeremy McBryde, 27.
The Angels also agreed to terms with 20-year-old Cuban infielder Roberto Baldoquin, a potential replacement for Kendrick or Aybar, on an $8-million bonus and should have the paperwork for Baldoquin to travel to the U.S. for a physical completed by late December.
The team needs a utility infielder who can play shortstop, catching depth and possibly a left-handed relief specialist. Dipoto could fill those needs through free agency or by trading from a surplus of right-handed relievers such as Kevin Jepsen.
"A lot of the things we're doing are kind of boring from where you sit, but we're working under the hood," Dipoto said. "I have a feeling it will look good during the season, when guys are down for two weeks and we have more depth than before."
Dipoto has been trying to stockpile young, cost-controlled starting pitching, not only as potential replacements for Weaver and Wilson, whose contracts expire after 2016, but to offset the massive contracts of Trout, Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver and Wilson, who consume $105.6 million of the team's luxury-tax payroll.
He has explored trading Kendrick or third baseman David Freese, but the acquisition of Tropeano has mitigated the need for such a deal.
"We've listened, we've been open to creative thought," Dipoto said. "But at the end of the day, we're not looking to make any drastic changes to the roster."