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Wary Angels enter season focused on fast start

ANAHEIM -- Immediately after another headline-grabbing December signing, oddsmakers pegged the Angels as favorites to win it all. And for a while now, the consensus around baseball is that the Halos -- with the blinding star power of Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver -- are stacked.

Excuse Angels fans if their excitement is a bit, well, tempered. It was just last April when their team, coming off a winter of big moves and a spring when everything clicked, inexplicably fell flat. The Halos hardly hit, couldn't hold leads and lost 14 of their first 20 games.

"It was ridiculous -- kind of baffling," designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. "Each and every day, the same questions came up as to what was going on, a lot of them centered on what's the one thing you have to get better at. It wasn't one thing. It was a lot of things."

You can argue that games at the start of the season mean the same as any others, and it's impossible to know how much expectations played a part in the Angels' mystifying slow start. All that matters is they were unable to complete their uphill climb, finishing four games back of the surprising American League West-champion A's and missing the playoffs for a third straight year.

"Everybody picked us to win," Weaver said, "and we took that into the season and thought that was the way we were going to go about it. It didn't quite work out that way."

Many are picking the Angels to win again, mainly because they've added Hamilton to a lineup that includes arguably the best player of the past decade (Pujols) and possibly the best player of the next decade (Trout). Even without their new $125 million right fielder, the Halos led the Majors in runs per game (5.06) from mid-May to the end of the regular season last year.

If healthy -- especially with Trout spending April in the Majors and Pujols probably not going on another 27-game homerless streak -- the Angels' offense should be among the best in baseball.

The prevailing question around this team is: Will they pitch enough?

"It doesn't matter who you have as far as hitters and players in general," said Hamilton, whose Rangers lost a five-game division lead with nine to play last year. "It comes down to pitching, how the arms do, how consistent they are. I see what we got and feel confident, as far as guys competing and getting out there, doing what they can to keep us close. That's all we want them to do is keep us in the game, three or four runs. Obviously we have the capability to score five or six runs a night."

Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson line up behind Weaver and C.J. Wilson in the rotation this year, replacing Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

The new trio (4.32 ERA in 583 innings) basically matched the production of the old trio (4.27 ERA in 567 innings) in 2012 and will cost about half the price in 2013 ($18.725 million to $37.45 million). But the track record and prestige pale in comparison, making it pretty clear that starting pitching is no longer the Angels' greatest strength.

They're hoping to counter that with a strong offense, dynamic defense and, perhaps most importantly, a deeper bullpen.

Ask skipper Mike Scioscia to boil down last year's shortcomings, and he'll give you this number: 22. That's the number of blown saves the Halos had, tied for first in the AL one season after doing the same with 25.

"When we formed well in our bullpen last year, we put up wins," Scioscia said. "And when we struggled with some things there, we lost."

Adding lefty Sean Burnett and potential closer Ryan Madson to a back end that already includes Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen was the boost the Angels' relief corps needed. Madson isn't fully recovered from Tommy John surgery yet, but the club is hopeful he will be by late April or early May.

Even without him, the Angels are expected to hold leads better.

"Without a doubt," Frieri said in Spanish. "We have a great group this year. We can't wait to get Madson back to make us complete, but even now, we're a lot deeper."

However they do it, the Halos need to find a way to play meaningful October games this year. The payroll once again exceeds $150 million and the expectations are once again sky high. They look like favorites in the AL West, a division the lowly Astros will join, and who knows what owner Arte Moreno has up his sleeve if his club falls short for a fourth straight time.

The players, as usual, will do their best not to get caught up in that.

"I've been on a ballclub where everyone was expecting us to get to the World Series, and we never made it, like last year, but on another ballclub no one was expecting anything and we ended up winning," Pujols said. "We look good on paper, but we still need to go out there and perform and stay healthy."

It starts at 1:10 p.m. PT on Monday at Great American Ball Park, under the National League rules of Cincinnati. That's where the Angels will begin their methodical quest to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

That's where they'll look to avoid another season-crippling slow start.

"Game 1 is the biggest game of the year for us," Trout said, speaking to the bigger issue of starting out strong and setting the tone early.

"You don't want to put yourself in a hole in April. Then you look back in August and September, and you're scoreboard watching. That's what happened last year. It wasn't a good feeling."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Jered Weaver