Angels banking on Pujols, Hamilton to rebound
Make no mistake: The Angels' shortcomings in 2013 revolved around pitching. It's the foundation of every championship club, and while their offense ranked seventh in the Majors in runs during this just-completed 84-loss season, their pitching staff was 24th in ERA.
But that does little to hide the fact that their highest-paid players have yet to live up to expectations -- albeit for vastly different reasons.
Consider: In 2013, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols combined to make up close to 23 percent of the payroll at a combined $31 million. Their combined fWAR was 2.6 -- or, about three percent of the club's win total.
The Angels will spend their offseason scouring the Earth for starting-pitching help, and that will probably require them to part ways with some offensive pieces, with the likes of Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo expected to be dangled as trade bait.
That will only heighten the importance of Pujols and Hamilton moving forward.
"Very clearly, there's no doubt in our minds that you're going to get a better Albert Pujols and a better Josh Hamilton next year, no doubt. Both for different reasons," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said toward the end of the regular season. "These guys are very motivated. Albert will be rejuvenated because he'll be able to do a lot of the things we haven't seen him do in a couple years, both at the plate and in the field. And Josh has grown a comfort level that has grown through the year. I think he's turned the corner on that. And I think he'll be what we expect next year."
It's part of Scioscia's job to project positive vibes throughout the organization, but there's some merit to his reasoning.
With Pujols -- owed $212 million over the next eight years -- it's all about health. The Angels' first baseman morphed into a designated hitter for the first four months of 2013 -- before a partial tear of his left plantar fascia ended his season on July 26 -- and was never close to full strength.
Plantar fasciitis crept up on Pujols in Spring Training. And though he had few issues dealing with the condition earlier in his career, age, gradual wear and tear and a surgically repaired right knee, which occasionally swelled up as he tried to compensate for his left foot, considerably sapped his power and led to an uncharacteristic .258/.330/.437 slash line in 99 games this past season.
If there was one glaring positive from Pujols' injury-shortened season, though, it's that he can now have a normal offseason in anticipation of entering Spring Training at full health.
As Pujols said the day he was officially shut down, "At least now I have in my mind that I'm definitely not going to come back this year, so I can pace myself knowing I don't have to come back right away."
"It's going to give you some energy, just to know that Albert will be there [next year]," Mike Trout said. "Seeing him battle the whole year, you have to give him credit. He's one of the toughest players I've been around, him going out and walking and limping and still playing and still putting up decent numbers for being hurt. It's going to be fun to watch him next year and see what he can do fully healthy."
Hamilton -- owed $110 million over the next four seasons -- was fully healthy in 2013 and still posted career worsts across the board, batting .250/.307/.432 with 21 homers and 79 RBIs.
The reassurance comes with how he came on late.
Over his last 45 games, Hamilton batted .329 with five homers and 28 RBIs, raising his batting average by 33 points. He had more success against lefties, started putting together better at-bats and noticeably found a comfort zone, an aspect the Angels are hopeful will spill into 2014.
"You start to feel a little more comfortable, whether it's in the box or in the field or in a new stadium, fans, organization, all of the above," Hamilton said. "And I feel like the last month I got to that place."
Last offseason, Hamilton started a natural-juice diet -- or "lifestyle change," as he calls it -- and entered at an estimated 227 pounds, which is roughly 20 pounds lighter that normal and, some observers believe, may have impacted his ability to drive the ball.
Hamilton's goal for next spring is to add more muscle and enter at his traditional 245 pounds again.
Asked how confident he is that he'll be productive from start to finish next year, Hamilton said: "Confident, because when you go through a season in a new place, you get used to things. I didn't expect it to take nearly as long as it did to settle in, but you live and learn. So, next year is a new season. I can't do anything about this season. It's all about how you prepare and how you go about getting ready for the next. But, I can't tell you how I'm going to do next year."