ANAHEIM -- There's a discernible difference as this year's Angels prepare to take the field for Spring Training -- hype, or lack thereof.
Four consecutive playoff absences, back-to-back underachieving seasons and a much better division around them -- with the Rangers having added Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the Mariners breaking the bank for Robinson Cano and the two-time defending American League West-champion A's still a threat -- have a way of tempering expectations.
For the Angels that might be a welcome breath of fresh air.
Two years ago the Angels were deemed a juggernaut after coming out of nowhere to sign Albert Pujols. Then Pujols slumped for the first month and a half, the bullpen never got right and the slow start sealed their fate. Last year they were considered World Series favorites after adding Josh Hamilton, then both high-priced sluggers struggled, the rotation fell apart and they had a losing record every day after April 3.
What followed was a busy offseason, but also a relatively subtle one.
Manager Mike Scioscia's coaching staff was reconstructed, with Don Baylor in as hitting coach, Dino Ebel promoted to the bench, Gary DiSarcina brought in to coach third base and two positions created. Third base was filled, a new setup man was added, two cost-controlled starting pitchers came via trade, a veteran designated hitter rounded out the lineup, an assortment of veterans were signed to Minor League deals and -- in sharp contrast to the past two winters -- no blockbuster contracts were handed out.
The Angels still have the best player in the game in Mike Trout, a formidable top of the rotation in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, two of baseball's premier sluggers in Pujols and Hamilton, and a payroll that suggests they should contend for a title.
But the hype, for better or worse, has faded.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Cubs, Feb. 28 at 12:05 p.m. PT
Home vs. Mariners, March 31 at 7:05 p.m. PT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. Can the three young starters step up?
The Angels passed on Masahiro Tanaka, couldn't re-sign Jason Vargas and did not land Matt Garza. The Angels would still like to add a free-agent starter, but once you get past Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana -- not in their plans, because they're expensive and tied to Draft-pick compensation -- none of the remaining candidates really jumps off the page. So it'll be mainly up to Garrett Richards (25), Hector Santiago (26) and Tyler Skaggs (22) to support Weaver and Wilson and fortify the rotation.
2. What will Pujols and Hamilton provide?
Pujols and Hamilton are owed a combined $196 million over the next four years, with Pujols' back-loaded deal guaranteed for four years after that, and are coming off seasons in which they posted a combined 2.6 Wins Above Replacement. But there's reason for optimism. Pujols is fully healthy after plantar fasciitis in his left foot sidelined him for the final two months of 2013. Hamilton has put on nearly 30 pounds, getting back to his normal check-in weight, and he batted .329/.392/.518 in his final 45 games of 2013.
3. How will the bench be configured?
This offseason the Angels signed seven position players who have appeared in a combined 5,247 games to Minor League contracts: catchers Luis Martinez and Yorvit Torrealba, first baseman Carlos Pena, third baseman Ian Stewart, corner infielder Chad Tracy, utility infielder John McDonald and outfielder Brennan Boesch.
Torrealba and Martinez will likely go to the Minors, with Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger making up a platoon behind the plate, but the rest will be fighting for three bench spots. They'll get plenty of competition from the likes of J.B. Shuck, Collin Cowgill, Andrew Romine and Grant Green.
78-84, third in the AL West
Projected batting order
1. RF Kole Calhoun:
.282 BA, .347 OBP, .462 SLG, 8 HR, 58 G in 2013
2. CF Mike Trout:
.323 BA, .432 OBP, .557 SLG, 27 HR, 33 SB in 2013
3. 1B Albert Pujols:
.258 BA, .330 OBP, .437 SLG, 17 HR, 99 G in 2013
4. LF Josh Hamilton:
.250 BA, .307 OBP, .432 SLG, 21 HR, 79 RBI in 2013
5. 2B Howie Kendrick:
.297 BA, .335 OBP, .439 SLG, 13 HR, 54 RBI in 2013
6. DH Raul Ibanez:
.242 BA, .306 OBP, .487 SLG, 29 HR, 65 RBI in 2013
7. 3B David Freese:
.262 BA, .340 OBP, .381 SLG, 9 HR, 60 RBI in 2013
8. C Chris Iannetta:
.225 BA, .358 OBP, .372 SLG, 11 HR, 39 RBI in 2013
9. SS Erick Aybar:
.271 BA, .301 OBP, .382 SLG, 6 HR, 12 SB in 2013
1. Jered Weaver, 11-8, 3.27 ERA in 2013
2. C.J. Wilson, 17-7, 3.39 ERA in 2013
3. Garrett Richards, 4.16 ERA, 47 G (17 GS) in 2013
4. Hector Santiago, 3.56 ERA, 34 G (23 GS) in 2013
5. Tyler Skaggs, 6-10, 4.59 ERA in 2013 (Triple-A)
Closer: Ernesto Frieri, 37/41 saves, 3.80 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Joe Smith, 2.29 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 2013
LH setup man: Sean Burnett, 0.93 ERA, 13 G in 2013
The new guys
Skaggs: General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired Skaggs in the Dan Haren deal while serving as the D-backs' interim GM in August 2010, then reacquired him as part of the three-team deal that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona on Dec. 10. Skaggs struggled last season, posting a 5.12 ERA in seven Major League starts and a 4.59 ERA in 19 Triple-A games (17 starts), but he's very young and still has upside.
Santiago: Santiago, a left-hander, came to the Angels along with Skaggs, via the White Sox, and the master of the screwball has been a solid contributor in two full seasons in the big leagues. He had a 3.33 ERA in 42 games (four starts) in 2012, and a 3.56 ERA in 34 games (23 starts) in 2013, but he's walked 4.6 batters per nine innings in that two-year span.
Smith: The Angels targeted Smith early in the offseason because they felt the sidearming right-hander would be the perfect eighth-inning man for their bullpen, and signed him to a three-year, $15.75 million deal on Nov. 27. With the Indians the past three seasons, Smith has posted a 2.42 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in 213 games.
Ibanez: Shortly after trading Trumbo to the D-backs, the Angels zoned in on Ibanez and signed him to a one-year, $2.75 million, incentive-laden contract on Dec. 27. In his age-41 season in 2013, Ibanez boasted a .793 OPS (46 points higher than Trumbo's). For his career, he's a .349/.407/.522 career hitter at Angel Stadium.
Freese: Acquired in exchange for center fielder Peter Bourjos on Nov. 22, Freese -- two years away from free agency -- is coming off a down year. He was MVP of the 2011 National League Championship Series and World Series, batted .293/.372/.467 in 2012, then saw his slash line drop to .262/.340/.381 this past season. His Ultimate Zone Rating on defense was minus-16.5, second lowest among qualified third basemen in 2013.
RP Fernando Salas: Right-hander Salas, 28, acquired alongside Bourjos, had a 3.16 ERA in 133 combined appearances in 2011 and 2012 but had no role on a loaded Cardinals bullpen this past season. He finished with a 4.50 ERA in 27 Major League games and a 1.90 ERA with 12 saves in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
RP Brian Moran: The Angels acquired the 25-year-old lefty from the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 Draft in early December and feel that he has a good chance of sticking with their Major League club. The reason: He's effective against left-handed hitters, a crucial skill in a division that now has Cano and Fielder.
SP Mark Mulder: The 36-year-old lefty hasn't pitched competitively in six years and hasn't won a Major League game since 2006. But Mulder -- a two-time All-Star and a former member of Oakland's famous "Big Three" -- found a delivery that worked for his beleaguered shoulder in October and truly believes he has a shot at an improbable comeback. The Angels were very impressed with his bullpen sessions and gave him a shot via a Minor League contract.
1B Pena: Pena, 35, struggled mightily with the Astros last season, batting .209 with eight homers before being released on July 31. But he averaged 32 homers from 2007 to 2012, bats left-handed, has a high walk rate and is a skilled defensive player. He has a good shot at making the bench as Pujols' backup.
INF McDonald: The 39-year-old slick fielder was signed to a Minor League deal on Jan. 16 and will compete with Romine -- who is out of options -- for the utility-infield spot after spending last season with the Pirates, Indians, Phillies and Red Sox.
Prospects to watch
1B C.J. Cron: The 24-year-old right-handed slugger -- and the Angels' most recent first-round Draft pick, from 2011 -- had an up-and-down season in Double-A, batting .274/.319/.428, but he posted a 1.167 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. If he carries that into Triple-A this season, he could be a DH option for the Angels down the stretch.
SP Hunter Green: Many believe that Green -- 18 years old and plucked out of high school in the second round of last June's First-Year Player Draft -- is already the best prospect in the Angels' system, or at least has the potential to be. The lanky left-hander will get a chance to show off a bit in his first Spring Training.
3B Kaleb Cowart: Cowart is still the No. 1-ranked prospect in the Angels' system, per MLB.com, but he is coming off a rough first season in Double-A that saw him bat .221/.279/.301. To aid a turnaround, he added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason.
SP Mark Sappington: Sappington, ranked fourth in the Angels' system, posted a 3.38 ERA in 22 starts at Class A Advanced, earned a late-season promotion to Double-A Arkansas, then finished the year with a 3.86 ERA in five starts. He will probably be a starter for Double-A in 2014, but some believe that his future may be in the bullpen.
OF Zach Borenstein: The 23-year-old came out of nowhere to scorch at Class A Inland Empire last year, batting .337 with 28 homers and 95 RBIs to capture the California League's Most Valuable Player Award. He'll likely graduate to Double-A this year.
2B Taylor Lindsey: Lindsey, 22, ranked third among prospects, batted .274/.339/.441 in Double-A and will be the starting second baseman for Triple-A Salt Lake in 2014. He is a solid slap hitter and needs to continue improving his defense.
RP Mike Morin: The 22-year-old right-hander has great command of a changeup and put that on display the entire calendar year. He posted a 1.93 ERA and 23 saves for Class A Advanced and Double-A, then gave up three runs in 13 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League. Don't be surprised if he's in the Angels' bullpen in August or September.
On the rebound
Pujols: Two years ago, Pujols was dealing with new surroundings and shouldering the weight of a $240 million contract, and went 27 games before his first home run. Last season he nursed plantar fasciitis and a surgically repaired knee, batted .258/.330/.437 in 99 games and sat out the final two months. This year, for the first time with the Angels, he should be pain- and distraction-free.
Hamilton: Hamilton's OPS went from .912 with the Rangers from 2008 to 2012 to .739 with the Angels in 2013, a mystery given the fact that he was healthy enough to play in 151 games, his most since 2008. The Angels are hopeful that a strong finish, 20 additional pounds of muscle, a new hitting coach in Baylor and more familiarity can get him back on track.
Freese: The 30-year-old Freese started last season on the disabled list with a strained back and ended it by batting .179/.258/.268 in three playoff rounds. The middle wasn't all that great, either -- at least not by his standards. The Angels took on an additional $4.72 million in the four-player deal of Nov. 22, and they're hoping for improvement.
Burnett: The 31-year-old left-hander averaged 71 appearances from 2009 to 2012, but made only 13 of them in his first season with the Angels. He battled forearm issues for four months, was shut down for good with a partial tear of his flexor tendon on July 31, had surgery in August and has spent a good part of the offseason rehabbing. He will be a bit behind schedule in Spring Training but is targeting an Opening Day return.
SP Joe Blanton: To say the 2013 season was a struggle for Blanton doesn't do it justice. A 2-14 record, 6.04 ERA, 1.61 WHIP and 29 homers allowed in 132 2/3 innings do a little better. Blanton is now owed $7.5 million in the final season of his two-year contract (there's also a club option for 2015). Barring injury, the Angels will probably spend Spring Training looking to trade him.
Trumbo: Trumbo led the Angels in home runs in each of the past three seasons, gracefully handled uncertainty over which position he'd play and became an exemplary figure for the young guys. In the end, though, he was their best shot at attaining cost-controlled starting pitching.
Bourjos: Bourjos, 26, showed what he was capable of in 2011, batting .271 with 12 homers, 22 steals and 11 triples, but he fell out of the lineup in 2012 and struggled to stay healthy in 2013. He is one of the game's fastest players and among its best defensive center fielders, but the Angels already have a pretty good player at his position.
SP Vargas: Acquired in exchange for Kendrys Morales in December 2012, Vargas was pretty much what the Angels expected in 2013, going 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA in 150 innings despite missing nearly two months with a blood clot. Dipoto wanted to bring him back but was not willing to match the four-year, $32 million contract he ultimately got from the Royals.
SP Jerome Williams: The Angels plucked the 32-year-old right-hander out of independent ball three years ago as he was trying to revive his career, and he quickly became a versatile starting pitcher and long reliever, posting a 4.46 ERA in 351 innings since coming over in June 2011. But rather than pay him the $4 million or so he was owed via arbitration, the Angels non-tendered him in December, freeing him up to join the Astros.
SP Tommy Hanson: The 27-year-old right-hander was acquired from the Braves for former closer Jordan Walden on Nov. 30, 2012, and never regained his prime form with the Angels. He posted a 5.59 ERA in his first 13 starts, allowed 20 stolen bases in 67 2/3 innings during that span, was optioned to the Minor Leagues in early August and was nontendered in December.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.