Los Angeles Angels: David Freese

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Angels knew a long time ago this day would come.

The 95 baseballs affixed to the wall of their clubhouse for every game they have won this season guaranteed it would happen sooner or later.

[+] EnlargeLos Angeles Angels
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMike Trout, second from left, congratulates Howie Kendrick after scoring a run Wednesday. The Angels clinched the AL West, sending Trout to the playoffs for the first time.
The 18 games they won over the past 22 all but cemented it would be the former rather than the latter.

In the end, the Angels were finally able to celebrate their first AL West Division title since 2009 after huddling around the television sets in their clubhouse, watching the Texas Rangers' improbable six-run ninth inning comeback win over the Oakland A's to seal the championship.

It was, of course, the Rangers and the A's over the past four seasons that ruled the division the Angels controlled from 2004 to 2009, winning the AL West five times in six years. A lot has changed over the past four years. The Angels went from a small-ball team to big-league spenders that were in the mix for every big name free agent, winning their fair share of battles by adding Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson.

With those big names and big contracts came big expectations that they failed to match over the past four years. But along the way they added young players who would turn into young stars who would eventually outshine their overpaid teammates.

And no player has shined brighter over the past three seasons for the Angels than Mike Trout, who was selected with the 25th pick in the 2009 draft when he was only 17 and the team was a postseason regular. Five years later, Trout closed his eyes tight as champagne was poured over his head. He was in left field attempting to high-five every Angels fan who reached out of the stands.

"I can't explain it, it's an unbelievable feeling," Trout said as he wiped champagne out of his eyes. "It feels awesome. I'm speechless."

While Trout, who turned 23 last month, is already regarded as the most talented player in baseball, he has picked the brains of older players since he came into the league. He has been talking to Pujols for the past three seasons about playing in the postseason. This year he has added Pujols' former teammate with St. Louis Cardinals, David Freese, to the conversation. Freese was the World Series MVP in 2011.

"I picked their brains every once in a while," Trout said. "Albert has been there and Freese has been there. They'll lead us the right way. It gives us all in the clubhouse an edge."

Pujols, 34, was expected to be the leader of the Angels on and off the field after signing a 10-year, $254 million contract following the 2011 World Series victory, but he understood quickly the Angels have something special in Trout. As Trout enjoyed his first champagne celebration, Pujols smiled from afar.

"Trout is a special player," Pujols said. "I said it over the last couple of years. Players like Trout don't come around often; maybe once every 30 or 40 years. This city is really blessed to see a young player like Trout and hopefully he wins the MVP this year. I'm pretty sure we're going to continue to talk, but I'm going to make sure he understands that this is just a little taste of what's better for us in the future when we hopefully get to a World Series and win it."

Angels 2014: Could this be the year?

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
8:00
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The other day, a reporter asked Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto to assign blame for the acquisition of pitcher Joe Blanton, the occasion being the Angels’ unconditional release of the, ahem, struggling right-hander. Dipoto’s answer was refreshing.

“It’s a mistake on my part. There’s no one else to blame,” Dipoto said.

That little bit of accountability had to be music to Angels fans ears. For four long years, a team with three of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, a strong manager and one of the best starting pitchers in the game has been shut out of the playoffs, and the atmosphere in Anaheim has been a bit more drab with each passing season.

It should be noted, by the way, that owner Arte Moreno didn’t do Dipoto any favors in recent seasons by jumping in on the big-splash signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, leaving Dipoto scant resources to build a pitching staff.

Jered Weaver
AP Photo/Jim CowsertJered Weaver still has the deception, movement and savvy to serve as a legitimate No. 1 starter.
Perhaps Angels fans didn't realize how spoiled they had become by the team’s run of excellence under Mike Scioscia from 2002 to 2009, a stretch that included a World Series title, three trips to the ALCS and six trips to the postseason.

Did the release of Blanton and Dipoto’s frankness signal a new era for Orange County’s baseball team?

The Angels' offseason makeover wasn't all that different from what the Boston Red Sox underwent going into the 2013 season. It was a bit of a reboot, with an emphasis on quality, low-impact moves rather than the big winter meetings splash that winds up weighing the team down.

Dipoto has certainly been making every effort to improve the team’s pitching, which -- even more than underperformance and injuries from Pujols and Hamilton -- has been this team’s demise. Presuming even a marginal uptick in those two sluggers’ production, the Angels look like a team with vast potential to improve. Who wouldn’t take a lineup that includes Mike Trout, Pujols and Hamilton?

This pitching staff has potential. When Jered Weaver first arrived in the major leagues, he could touch 95 mph and, combined with his off-speed pitches and funky delivery, made for one of the more uncomfortable at-bats in baseball. He’s different now, with the years of heavy workloads reducing his fastball velocity to the sub-90 range most games. But he’s still got the deception, the movement and the savvy to serve as a legitimate No. 1 starter.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Howie Kendrick
BA HR RBI R
.293 7 75 85
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Trout 36
RBIM. Trout 111
RM. Trout 115
OPSM. Trout .939
WJ. Weaver 18
ERAG. Richards 2.61
SOJ. Weaver 169