With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 13, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2014 roster. This is the fourth of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: Outfielders.
ANAHEIM -- This is the section featuring baseball's biggest star, its most fascinating case study and one of its oldest players. Herein lies the Angels' greatest certainty (Mike Trout), their biggest enigma (Josh Hamilton), their potential breakout player (Kole Calhoun) and their most experienced player (Raul Ibanez).
Outfield is this team's deepest and most talented department heading into the 2014 season, never mind its most interesting.
And now, with center fielder Peter Bourjos in St. Louis, the Angels enter a season with a clear outfield configuration for the first time in three years. Hamilton will be in left, Trout will be in center, Calhoun will get a chance to play every day in right, and Ibanez -- signed to a one-year, $2.75 million contract with incentives -- will settle in as the designated hitter, occasionally getting spot starts in left field.
In the end, this offense could go as far as Hamilton takes it.
Trout has been so good these last two years that, even at 22, the Angels can pretty much bank on an MVP-caliber season. And even though he's now 34, it isn't naïve or impractical to believe that a healthy Albert Pujols will be a very productive one.
But Hamilton is the great unknown, because he fell off so abruptly last year -- .912 OPS with the Rangers from 2008-12, .739 OPS with the Angels in 2013 -- despite being healthy enough to play in 151 games, his most since 2008.
"I'm as real as it gets when it comes to talking about faith and my relationship with the Lord, and He told me, 'You've struggled in areas of your life, and this is one spot you've never struggled before,'" Hamilton told MLB Network last month. "And so I had a couple different options - I could be really [ticked] off and have a bad attitude, or I could stay positive, work hard, encourage my teammates and try to come to the park every day and help them win. That's what I chose."
Hamilton also chose to change it up this offseason.
While watching video of his swing in August, he noticed his hips -- surgically repaired twice before -- weren't driving through the ball like they used to, so he started working with a functional movement coach. And as the season wore on, he noticed how much power he lacked. So he's put on about 20 pounds to put himself at 235, which is a lot closer to the weight he used to report at while in Texas.
The Angels are hopeful that those steps, plus a new hitting coach in Don Baylor and a solid finish to the regular season - he batted .329/.392/.518 over his last 45 games -- will finally make Hamilton the force the Angels expected.
"I do feel, from the way he finished up the second half of last season and made some adjustments, that he understands what his role is a little more, what our team is about and what he can bring," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said during the Winter Meetings of early December. "Josh is going to have a big year for us."
The Angels want Hamilton to put his rough 2013 season behind him, and they're counting on Calhoun to build off his.
The 26-year-old lefty mashed down the stretch last season, batting .282/.347/.462 in 58 games after hitting .354/.431/.617 in Triple-A Salt Lake. A big reason why general manager Jerry Dipoto was so willing to trade Bourjos for third baseman David Freese on Nov. 22 was because he believes Calhoun is ready to play every day.
"Kole's a good baseball player," Dipoto said. "He does a lot of things well. He defends, he throws, he throws accurately, is a good baserunner, he's got patience, he gets on base, he's got power. Last year, he was able to show that those were skills that translated at the Major League level. In order for Kole to improve, Kole has to get the opportunity to play, and this will be a good opportunity."
It's the injection of a player like Calhoun, coupled with a healthy Pujols and a revived Hamilton that prompts the Angels to believe they don't need Ibanez to singlehandedly fill the void of Mark Trumbo, who was dealt to the D-backs for starters Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago on Dec. 10.
Ibanez, 42 on June 2, probably won't replicate the 32 homers and 94 RBIs Trumbo averaged the last three years. But Ibanez had a higher OPS while in Seattle last year (.793 to .747), and he's a career .349/.407/.522 hitter at Angel Stadium. Spending the vast majority of his time at DH, rather than the 832 1/3 innings he spent in Seattle's outfield last year, will no doubt help his production, too.
"If I didn't think I could continue to perform at a high level and [surpass] the level I played at last year," Ibanez said, "then I literally would not even play."
If age finally catches up to Ibanez, or Calhoun isn't ready for an everyday role, or Hamilton slumps again, the Angels have the great elixir: Trout.
He has easily led the Majors in Wins Above Replacement each of the last two years, finishing runner-up to Miguel Cabrera for the American League's Most Valuable Player Award each time, and he probably hasn't even hit his prime yet.
Thanks mostly to Trout, who followed up a .326/.399/.564 slash line in 2012 with a .323/.432/.557 mark in 2013, the Angels' outfield ranked third in the Majors in OPS (.799) and second in WAR (15.1) last year.
If everything goes right, they could do even better this year.
Beyond the active roster: The left-handed-hitting J.B. Shuck and the right-handed-hitting Collin Cowgill will spend the spring fighting for a spot on the Angels' bench, and given all those Minor League contracts handed out to veteran players this offseason, it isn't out of the question that both could start the season in Triple-A. … Brennan Boesch, who bats left-handed and plays the corners, was one of those signed to a Minor League deal and trying to carve out a niche. … Zach Borenstein, ranked 12th in the Angels' system by MLB.com, was the Cal League MVP in 2013 and is expected to graduate to Double-A Arkansas this year. … Eighteen-year-old Natanael Delgado, an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic, is the Angels' 19th-ranked prospect after batting .271/.311/.422 in rookie ball.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.