Angels look to come together in spring
Team has exciting new additions, but also a few questions
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A predawn storm cleared out by the open of business Wednesday, but more clear are the Angels' goals for 2007.
They're ready to return to the top and set to assemble the pieces necessary to get there.
"The overall feeling is we've got some new players," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We've got an exciting team and we want to see that come together."
Heading the list of acquisitions that will grace the Spring Training clubhouse is Gary Matthews Jr., who will take over in center field. Shea Hillenbrand was added to fill the void left by the injury to Juan Rivera, while right-hander Justin Speier and left-hander Darren Oliver were added to the bullpen.
At the top of the agenda is reclaiming the division crown in the American League West. After a disappointing campaign that netted an 89-73 record and a second-place finish in their division without a playoff appearance in 2006, the Angels are primed to retake the title and will be faced with some challenges.
"There are a lot of areas that we're going to pay attention to in camp," Scioscia said. "Obviously, first base is one area, but also the starting rotation and getting Bartolo Colon healthy."
Colon won the AL Cy Young Award in 2005 but suffered two setbacks last year as he tried to work through what turned out to be a partially torn right rotator cuff. The right-hander may not be cleared to throw from a mound until the start of Cactus League games at the earliest, Scioscia said, but the remaining five principles in the rotation should be ready.
John Lackey is joined by fellow right-handers Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver and left-hander Joe Saunders. Like Weaver, Saunders proved he was ready for prime time last season and opened 4-0. Saunders finished the year 7-3 with a 4.71 ERA in 13 starts with the Angels after compiling a 10-4 record with a 2.67 ERA in 20 starts at Triple-A Salt Lake. Weaver went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 starts with the Angels.
Scioscia issued caution, though, given the first workout of the season is Thursday. He pointed out that Lackey, Escobar and Weaver all have experienced tendinitis to varying degrees during Spring Training.
The Angels ranked third in the AL last season behind Detroit and Minnesota with a 4.04 ERA. The rotation's rank was a tick higher as its 4.14 ERA put it second behind the Tigers while the bullpen's ERA of 3.78 was tied with Texas for fourth best in the league.
A key offseason goal was to upgrade the bullpen, and Thursday the Angels will get their first look at two of those additions in Speier and Oliver.
Speier will provide support to Scot Shields in a setup role as both bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez. Right-hander Hector Carrasco will be the swingman in the bullpen, with the sixth slot of the bullpen up for grabs on what should be an 11-man pitching staff.
The battle for the last chair in the bullpen begins Thursday with left-hander Phil Seibel and right-hander Chris Resop, a pair of newcomers, set to challenge familiar faces like right-handers Greg Jones, Matt Hensley and Chris Bootcheck.
Younger challengers include right-handers Steven Shell, Jose Arredondo, Marcus Gwyn, Matt Wilhite, Alex Serrano and Ryan Aldridge.
Position players are not scheduled to report until Monday, with the first full team workout on the docket the following day, but some issues have emerged.
The loss of Rivera has stressed the depth of the ballclub before it engages in its first spring workout. Hillenbrand will handle the designated hitter duties on most days but could also be asked to play third and first base on days that Scioscia needs to shuffle the lineup.
That pushes Chone Figgins back into his customary utility role. A year after being the club's primary center fielder, Figgins returns to third base but also will be the fourth outfielder until Rivera returns.
"He'll be at third, but that doesn't mean that occasionally he won't play [another position]," Scioscia said. "His versatility is there and we have to be able to tap into that."
The main question remaining at first base is whether or not Casey Kotchman has returned to baseball shape after missing most of last year with mononucleosis. Kotchman, whose competition will come from Kendry Morales, Robb Quinlan and Hillenbrand, spent the winter playing in Puerto Rico and said he's ready. The Angels view Kotchman, along with Matthews, as one of the solutions to the team's defensive woes last season.
"It was definitely frustrating, not being able to help and feeling that way the whole year," said Kotchman.
Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.