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Good vibes for Angels as Opening Day nears

Feeling good chemistry, players point to pitching, defense as keys to success

ANAHEIM -- Maybe it won't make them pitch better, or facilitate a better start, or serve as the reason they finally get back to playing meaningful games in October. But there's a better vibe and a greater energy this year -- many of the Angels will declare -- and that certainly can't hurt matters.

"Team chemistry is big," Mike Trout says, perhaps to the relative chagrin of the sabermetricians who worship the ground he walks on. "Guys all like each other. There's not one guy in here who is a problem. Once Opening Day comes, we'll get all the jitters out. I think we're all anxious. We have expectations, obviously."

The expectations, once again, are to make the playoffs -- just like they were over the last four years in which they didn't, including the last two seasons in which they underachieved and a 2013 campaign in which they had a sub-.500 record every day after April 3.

The Angels aren't billed as a juggernaut this year, after a 78-win season that preceded a relatively quiet winter. The expectations are tempered, with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton coming off their respective worst seasons, Jered Weaver facing more critics than ever, Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto on the proverbial hot seat and three-fifths of the starting rotation unproven.

And the key to their success will be a lot more tangible than clubhouse chemistry.

"It's going to come down to if we pitch and play defense," catcher Chris Iannetta said. "If we pitch and play defense, we're going to be very good. If we don't, we're going to struggle. That was our issue last year -- we didn't pitch, and we didn't play defense."

On the mound in 2013, the Angels ranked 24th in the Majors in Fielding Independent Pitching, with a 22nd-ranked starting pitcher ERA and a 25th-ranked relief pitcher WHIP. On the field, they were 27th in Defensive Runs Saved, with the fourth-most errors and the third-lowest caught-stealing percentage

Talk all you want about Pujols bouncing back from an injury-plagued 99-game season, or Hamilton finding his swing again, or Trout continuing to establish himself as the best all-around player in baseball. But the Angels were tied for fourth in the Majors in OPS last year and could do even better offensively this year, with Pujols lighter on his feet and Hamilton driving the ball more freely.

"Our offense is fine," said Ernesto Frieri, the closer for a bullpen that should be deeper if healthy. "We need to pitch and play defense. That's it."

And so while Trout, Pujols and Hamilton are the three biggest starters, this Angels' season could come down to three young, talented and less-heralded arms -- Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.

The latter two were acquired in the three-team trade that sent popular hometown slugger Mark Trumbo to Arizona, and none of the three have spent an entire season in a Major League rotation. Now they'll be asked to support Weaver and C.J. Wilson and shore up the Angels' biggest problem area of 2013.

The upside is big, but the margin for error is small.

"The only reason we have the payroll we have is to win, not to develop," said Wilson, the only Angels starter to take every turn last year. "Our offense is really talented, and our pitching staff has to hold its weight this year."

Oh, and there's also that other thing.

"Our starts," Trout said. "The last two years, they've killed us."

The Angels had the fourth-worst April winning percentage in baseball from 2012-13. In April 2012, Pujols went homerless and the bullpen was in shambles. In April 2013, Pujols dealt with plantar fasciitis, Hamilton began a near-season-long slump and the starting rotation couldn't get deep enough into games.

"Our main goal is to try to jump out and turn this thing around," Pujols said. "Don't dig a hole that early in the month. You always hear, 'It's early, it's early.' But you don't want to be coming from behind. You want to have a good start."

Early in the offseason, pitching coach Mike Butcher called all of his pitchers to tell them they'd be pushed harder than ever in Arizona. Over the course of the spring, position players took more swings, focused heavily on situational hitting and honed in on defensive fundamentals. And throughout the year, the staff plans to implement more statistical data into the way it aligns the defense and attacks opponents.

The door is wide open for the Angels, no matter how much more star power resides in the American League West.

Starter Derek Holland (right knee), second baseman Jurickson Profar (right shoulder) and catcher Geovany Soto (knee) could all be out until midseason for the Rangers. A's Opening Day starter Jarrod Parker will miss all of 2014 after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. And righties Hisashi Iwakuma (right middle finger) and Taijuan Walker (right shoulder) of the Mariners -- the Angels' first opponent -- are slated to start the season on the disabled list.

"We're much better when our focus is in-house," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We have a terrific club, and we have the makings of a championship club, and that's what our focus is."

The new third baseman (David Freese), designated hitter (Raul Ibanez), eighth-inning man (Joe Smith) and utility infielder (John McDonald) have brought more energy. And a rebuilt coaching staff -- with Don Baylor in as hitting coach, Gary DiSarcina coaching third base and Rick Eckstein serving as the inaugural player-information coach -- has added a fresh perspective.

But, as Wilson said, "It only matters if we win."

Weaver is one of only four Angels players remaining from their last trip to the playoffs five years ago, along with Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kevin Jepsen.

"We gotta get back there," Weaver said. "It's been frustrating the past four years. There aren't too many guys in this clubhouse that were here when we were doing winning stuff. It comes to the point where you kind of have to tell people how we won, and what it took to win, to try to bring that Angel attitude back into the clubhouse."

Maybe that process has already begun.

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