Spring Training: Los Angeles Angels

Skaggs making strides this spring

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Angels were 24th in the majors with a 4.23 ERA last season, leaving their pitching depth as much of an issue as Albert Pujols' plantar fasciitis was last year. Hoping to boost their pitching, the Angels traded Mark Trumbo to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Tyler Skaggs in the offseason.

Skaggs was one of the Diamondbacks' top prospects last spring, but he pitched poorly and didn't even make Arizona's roster out of spring training. He did get called up in late May and ultimately made seven starts, finishing with a disappointing 2-3 record and a 5.12 ERA.

He is determined to get back on track with the Angels and says one small but crucial difference he has made is lengthening his stride during his delivery.

[+] EnlargeTyler Skaggs
AP Photo/Morry GashTyler Skaggs is in the running to earn a spot in the Angels' rotation to begin the season.
"Last year just happened to be where I shortened up my stride and everything seemed to be out of whack," Skaggs said. "You couldn't tell there's a difference [in my stride] if you watched it on TV. Everything is very minimal. But the one thing I can say is I'm a lot smoother than last year, mechanics-wise. I'm not so herky-jerky. And that's due to me going back to how I used to pitch early, early in the minors, like in Double-A and the first year of Triple-A. I think it's working out for me.

"For me, it's noticeable because I'm the one doing it. For me, it feels drastic. I like it. I feel like I'm getting over the ball and throwing harder."

And that means he's back throwing in the 90s. "Last year was like 86, 87. Not the greatest," Skaggs said. "I don’t know what the last game was, but it definitely feels better than 86, 87. It makes every pitch a lot better. You feel like you're throwing the ball downhill more."

"His velocity has been really good, and his ability to repeat a delivery has progressed as the spring has gone along," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "During his bullpens and as he started to throw BP, he was just trying to find himself. But his last couple outings on the mound, he's thrown some bullets."

Skaggs, 22, allowed five baserunners and two runs in 2 1/3 innings in his first start this spring but held the Reds to one hit and no runs while striking out three in his last outing on Sunday.

Unlike what happened last year, the lefty has a good chance at cracking the Angels' rotation when the season opens. He said losing the fight for the fifth spot in the Diamondbacks' rotation last spring has changed his approach this year. "Once you lose a fist fight, that's pretty much the worst feeling there is," he said.

"Once you've lost out on a fifth-rotation spot, you come in with a different mindset," he said. "Especially last year, which was a disaster in spring training. I think I walked like 15 to 20 guys. I still had two walks last time, but they were tough at-bats [against Joey Votto] and not four-pitch walks. I think it's really helped me coming into this year with no expectations. Just come in and getting work in and staying healthy.

"It's a great situation for my career. I just have to come in here and capitalize on my opportunities."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- After trading Mark Trumbo to Arizona for an infusion of pitching in the offseason, the Los Angeles Angels are hoping to replace some of his 34 home runs with a one-man combination of Julio Franco and Benjamin Button.

Raul Ibanez faded after the All-Star break in Seattle last season, but still hit 29 homers and posted a .487 slugging percentage. Ibanez tied Ted Williams for the most home runs by a 41-year-old, and became the 137th member of MLB's 300-homer club with a solo shot off the Angels' Ernesto Frieri in late September.

[+] EnlargeRaul Ibanez
AP Photo/Morry GashRaul Ibanez, 41, will be the Angels' primary DH to begin the season.
True, it's only spring training, but the Angels had to like what they saw Tuesday when Ibanez went deep against Rangers ace and reigning American League strikeout champion Yu Darvish. Ibanez is physically ripped, a workout warrior and extremely diligent with his diet and nutrition, so he's going to maximize his athletic gifts until the day he retires.

"He's shown he still knows his way around the batter's box," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "His power is very evident. He's not as dangerous as he was 7-8 years ago, but he's made adjustments in his game to compensate. He's still a very good offensive player."

Ibanez also has a reputation as a terrific teammate, and he's not the only new player in Angels camp who fits that description. The Angels also brought in Carlos Pena, Chad Tracy and John McDonald, 30-somethings who've played for winning teams, understand their roles and always bring a little extra to the team dynamic.

Although Scioscia likes what the veterans provide, he's not one to get carried away with the whole "clubhouse chemistry" thing.

"The first thing is the on-field chemistry -- how your lineup flows, what a guy can bring offensively, what the pitcher catcher-relationship is, the defensive chemistry. That's the most important thing," Scioscia said.

"The sidebar to that is, guys like Raul Ibanez and John McDonald have tremendous makeup. They understand the game and they love the game. There's no doubt that rubs off on the practice field. It rubs off sitting next to somebody as they prepare for their day, and it rubs off while they're playing games. That's a very positive thing."

While Ibanez will be the Angels' primary DH and back up Josh Hamilton in left field, the other veterans are all trying to win jobs. McDonald is competing with Andrew Romine, a homegrown product who is out of options, for a spot as a utility infielder. Along with Pena and Tracy, the Angels also have Brennan Boesch, Ian Stewart, Collin Cowgill, J.B. Shuck, Luis Jimenez and former Oakland A's first-rounder Grant Green in the mix for bench roles.

Throw in the offseason acquisition of David Freese, and general manager Jerry DiPoto has assembled a deeper, more balanced roster that might be better equipped to help the Angels navigate an injury to one of their main cogs.

"I don’t think Jerry brought anybody in here who wasn't going to have a chance to make us deeper and better," Scioscia said. "It may be tough for some individuals, but it's going to be great for our team. This is going to be a very competitive camp."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols is walking around the Los Angeles Angels' training camp with an extra bounce in his step this spring.

Self-confidence plays a part in the transformation, for sure. But it also puts a man's mind at ease when he can slip his foot into a baseball shoe and doesn't feel as if he's sticking it in a pizza oven.

Pujols, ever the stoic, generally kept to himself during a trying 2013 season that resulted in 99 games played and career-low numbers across the board. Now that it's safely compartmentalized in the past, he is free to reveal the extent of his ordeal.

The plantar fasciitis that began tormenting him in 2004 never screamed louder than last summer. Maybe it was just wear and tear over time or, as Pujols suspects, the hard spring training fields in Arizona helped aggravate his condition. Whatever the reason, Pujols was a portrait in teeth-gritting before the injury forced him to shut it down for the season in late July. The word "discomfort" can't even begin to describe what he endured.

"There were times when I got up in the middle of the night and I would put my foot on the ground and I was waiting for it to pop," Pujols said. "That's how tight it was. I've described it to people like somebody is sticking a knife or a needle in your foot, and the needle is on fire. It constantly burns. I wouldn't wish it on anybody to have to go through that."

Life is more comfortable this spring for an abundance of reasons. One cloud lifted shortly before spring training, when Jack Clark publicly retracted his comments from last summer accusing Pujols of using performance-enhancing drugs -- and Pujols accepted Clark's apology and dropped a defamation lawsuit that he had filed against the former big leaguer and St. Louis radio talk show host. Three weeks later, Pujols chooses not to revisit the episode.

All the vibes since Pujols' arrival at Tempe Diablo Stadium have been positive.

He's lockering next to his old St. Louis pal and World Series teammate David Freese, who came over from the Cardinals in a trade in November. He has quickly struck up a rapport with Don Baylor, who replaced Jim Eppard as the Angels' hitting coach in October. And Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia is big on family, so Pujols' 13-year-old son, A.J., will spend some time in camp this spring bonding with dad in the workplace.

He needs his space

Each morning, Pujols arrives early and takes 20 to 30 swings off a tee and a few more against soft tosses before the Angels gather in the clubhouse to go over the day's activities. Then he takes part in infield and batting practice before hopping on a bus or returning to the clubhouse for a breather. In a perfect world, he'll appear in 23 or 24 of the Angels' 30 Cactus League and exhibition games and be locked in for the season opener against the Seattle Mariners on March 31.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinEntering the third season of a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, Albert Pujols says he can "hit in this game until I'm 50 years old."
From what the Angels have seen thus far, it's a good bet Pujols will not finish with a lower OPS than Coco Crisp, James Loney or Nate Schierholtz again this season.

"The game is a lot more fun for him right now because he can do the things he's good at," Scioscia said. "This guy is a special player, and we've only seen the tip of what he can do. He's a Gold Glove first baseman. He runs the bases well. He's going to be a different player this year because his tools have been rebuilt. He's able to move, he's able to run and he's stronger in the box. He's excited about that, as we are."

Pujols' personal history and body clock have taught him that it's best to come to camp at 85 to 90 percent and gradually work his way up to triple digits. "Otherwise, you'll be toasted by April," he said. His résumé includes nine All-Star Games, three MVP awards and the fourth highest OPS in history (1.008) for a right-handed hitter behind Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby, so it's hard to quibble with his philosophy.

Still, for all the accolades Pujols received leading up to his current 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels, he's not always the most approachable of stars. On the spectrum of Albert Belle's "don't come near my locker" glower and Torii Hunter's 24/7 gregariousness, Pujols can be gracious, accommodating and closer to the Hunter end of things when he's in the mood. But when he's focused on business, he might as well post a "no trespassing sign" on his locker as a public service.

Even his teammates know enough to give him his space. Freese sees Pujols' softer side when his teammate sits beside him in the clubhouse and exchanges text messages or talks on the phone with his wife and children. At other times, Pujols attains a level of concentration that few players can match.

"Albert's an absolute animal," Freese said. "The first day he walks into a clubhouse, he's got one thing on his mind. Or maybe two things: His family and baseball.

"I think Albert sees this as a job. He puts a lot on his plate. He's one of the best players to ever play this game. And when you get to that level, this game changes a little bit. I think he takes it personal. He understands how he can change games when he's in the lineup producing. That's why he works his tail off. Obviously, Albert is a very spiritual guy. God is No. 1 in his life and he's going to put it all out there. He's a guy who lives his life to the fullest, for sure."

Payoff on their investment

The Angels devoted the two winters prior to this one spending to the fullest, signing Pujols and outfielder Josh Hamilton to multiyear deals worth a combined $365 million in the effort to win the hearts and minds of Southern California baseball fans. The plan didn't work out so well last summer, when the Angels fell off the map early and finished 18 games behind the Oakland Athletics at 78-84.

A lineup with Pujols, Hamilton and Mike Trout at its core suffered a 34-run drop-off from 2012 (from 767 to 733) and ranked 10th in the American League with 164 homers -- fewer than the Mariners and those supposedly pitching-and-defense-obsessed Tampa Bay Rays.

Hamilton arrived with a new bulked-up look this spring and was raring to go, until a strained calf put him out of commission for a while. Although the Angels expect him to be ready for the season opener, they're going to let him proceed at his own pace.

Mike SciosciaThis guy is a special player, and we've only seen the tip of what he can do. He's a Gold Glove first baseman. He runs the bases well. He's going to be a different player this year because his tools have been rebuilt. He's able to move, he's able to run, and he's stronger in the box. He's excited about that, as we are.

-- Mike Scioscia, Angels
manager, on Pujols
"If it takes a couple of weeks, it takes a couple of weeks," Scioscia said. "If it takes three weeks, it takes three weeks. It will heal on its own time."

Pujols, meanwhile, is on the verge of achieving a major milestone. He's one home run away from tying Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff at 493 and needs eight to become the 26th member of MLB's 500-homer club. If he can go deep 30 times this season, Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey also will fall by the wayside.

Pujols developed such a sense of reverence for Stan Musial during his time with the Cardinals that he didn't like being called "El Hombre," because there was room for only one "Man" in St. Louis. So he can appreciate the hallowed company he's about to join, and eventually surpass.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie and say, 'I don't care about it,'" he said. "It's nice. It's a great accomplishment."

Yet Pujols is well aware that he'll perform against a backdrop of lowered expectations until he puts together one of his old St. Louis tears. During his time with the Cardinals, Pujols raised the bar so high that his .285, 30-homer, 105-RBI debut in Los Angeles was generally perceived as a disappointment. Now that he's regarded as merely human, most observers would consider those numbers a nice comeback season.

Try wrapping your mind around this nugget: Pujols, who was setting the annual standard for righty hitters before Miguel Cabrera came along, hasn't appeared in an All-Star Game since 2010.

"You always want to show you're worth the money that they pay you," Pujols said. "Obviously, it's been tough for me, and it was tough for Josh last year. Hopefully I have eight more years to go here. I always say to people, 'Don’t look at my first two years with the Angels. Just look at what I've done at the end of my contract, and you can judge it then.'"

Pujols, intense and quietly defiant, already knows where he stands on the subject of his future.

"To me, it's about being healthy," he said. "I've got that gift and talent. I know I'm going to hit in this game until I'm 50 years old."

Freese reunited with Pujols

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
TEMPE, Ariz. -- David Freese is hoping that a change of scenery can help him recover from a disappointing 2013 season and rediscover the form that made him a 20-homer man and a National League All-Star two seasons ago.

A familiar face has already begun helping him with his transition.

Freese, traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Los Angeles Angels in November, received a pleasant surprise when he walked into the clubhouse at Tempe Stadium and found his locker right beside the one inhabited by his former Cardinals teammate Albert Pujols.

The two played together in St. Louis from 2009 to 2011 before Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels as a free agent. Then, Freese arrived in Anaheim, Calif., in November as part of a four-player trade that sent outfielder Peter Bourjos to St. Louis. After Pujols learned about the trade, he immediately sent Freese a welcome-to-California text message.

"When Albert left [St. Louis], it was a tough feeling," Freese said. "We love Albert regardless of what type of player he is. To get reunited with him is great. From the first step I took in the [Angels] clubhouse, he was already here. He’s showed me the ropes for the first few days. He’s gone out of his way to help me, which is cool."

The Angels are looking for Freese to fill an offensive black hole at third base, where Alberto Callaspo, Chris Nelson, Luis Jimenez and four other players combined for a total of eight home runs last season. Only the Miami Marlins, with three homers, received less power from the third-base spot. Los Angeles’ third basemen also ranked 27th in the majors with an aggregate .637 OPS.

Freese, similarly, had a season to forget. His home run total dipped from 20 to nine, and his OPS declined from .839 in 2012 to .721 last season. In addition, he hit only .179 (10-for-56) in the postseason.

Freese was limited by a back injury in spring training last season and looked lost early in the season, failing to hit his first home run until May 17. Like his fellow Angels, who posted a 9-17 record in April, he’s intent on getting off to a better start.

"It was just a rough year," Freese said. "It was downhill from the beginning, but I grinded through it and we did what we did to get to the postseason. I’m ready to go, and I think people will see it."
As there are every spring, there are great baseball stories everywhere -- from Tampa to Tempe, from Jupiter to Space Coast Stadium, from Goodyear to Surprise.

Which teams will have a good year? Which teams will surprise? The questions are what make spring training so great, so fascinating. They are what define this time of year, along with warm weather, hope and the belief that March 29 will be the last useless evening that we'll have to spend.

[+] EnlargeSpring training
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesNothing beats the look and feel of spring training.
It all begins, as so many spring trainings have before, with the Yankees in Tampa. We will get our first look at Masahiro Tanaka, who the Yankees made the fifth-highest paid pitcher in major league history before he ever threw a pitch in the big leagues. Is his splitter as good as everyone says? We will see Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran in Yankee uniforms, and we will see Derek Jeter in the final year of his career play shortstop at age 39; only five players in the game's history -- Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville, Luke Appling, Luis Aparicio and Omar Vizquel -- have played 100 games in a season at shortstop at Jeter's age. He'll turn 40 three weeks before the All-Star break.

The world champion Red Sox mostly will be without their beards this spring, but they will have a new catcher (A.J. Pierzynski), a new shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) and several candidates to be their new center fielder, including Grady Sizemore, who hasn't taken an at-bat in the big leagues since 2011. The Rays will have David Price, who hasn't been traded and now, it appears, might not be traded this season. The Orioles might start the season without Manny Machado, who is coming back from a serious knee injury. The Blue Jays will open spring training without the hype of last spring, which is good for them.

The Tigers, under new manager Brad Ausmus, will open the spring with a different infield from the one that took the field last spring, including Ian Kinsler at second base and rookie Nick Castellanos at third. Even more important, they have a real closer this spring in Joe Nathan. The Indians have a new closer, John Axford, as well. The Royals have a new leadoff batter (Norichika Aoki) and second baseman (Omar Infante). Meanwhile, the White Sox have a new first baseman (Cuban Jose Abreu) and the Twins' new first baseman is their old catcher, Joe Mauer.

The A's added to their bullpen, acquiring closer Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty, and welcomed Scott Kazmir to their rotation. The Rangers gave Prince Fielder a fresh start at first base, found a position (second base) for Jurickson Profar and showed Shin-Soo Choo what a great country this is, especially when you reach free agency. Great country? The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million, but is there protection around him in that lineup? The Angels made significant changes, none of which will really matter if Albert Pujols isn't healthy enough to play first base and produce something close to the Pujols of St. Louis. And if the Astros lose 128 games (they are not nearly that bad), they'll tie the Mets (1962-65) for the most losses ever during any four-year period in history.

The Braves have a new catcher in Evan Gattis, and they'll have to figure out how to get the batting averages of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla back over .200. The Nationals, under rookie manager Matt Williams, need a healthy Bryce Harper (knee) if they're going to win the NL East; in mid-January, he sprinted for the first time without pain. We know the Phillies are in Clearwater, but nothing else about them is clear. The Mets have Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, but not having Matt Harvey for perhaps the entire season will be a bummer. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton. How long before that situation changes?

The Cardinals have almost an entirely new infield, a new center fielder (Peter Bourjos) and maybe a new right fielder if rookie Oscar Taveras is healthy and productive. The Pirates have hope again following a playoff appearance in 2013, and with Gerrit Cole for a full season. The Reds have a new manager in Bryan Price; now they need to find a center fielder to replace Shin-Soo Choo: Is this the spring that Billy Hamilton steals a job? The Brewers have a new right fielder in Ryan Braun; no questions about Biogeneis will be taken, however. The Cubs have a new spring training facility and a new manager, Rick Renteria.

[+] EnlargeMatt Williams
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsExpectations are once again high for the Nationals, who have a new manager in Matt Williams.
The Dodgers have four outfielders for three spots; one of them, Matt Kemp, is coming back from shoulder and ankle injuries -- his health and production will be one of the big stories of the spring. The Diamondbacks have a new left fielder, Mark Trumbo, who might hit 40 homers in their ballpark. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the season March 22 in Australia; let's hope there isn't a major brawl Down Under. The Giants added Tim Hudson, and Pablo Sandoval subtracted 42 pounds. The Padres signed Josh Johnson to pitch in a rotation headed by Ian Kennedy -- here's hoping they play a doubleheader this year, and go with the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. The Rockies will open camp with Troy Tulowitzki, but, for the first time since 1988, they'll begin a season without Todd Helton.

There will be lots of stories, questions and sunshine this spring. It is the best time of year. It is a time for optimism: No one has lost a game, the rookies all have promise and the veterans believe it will be their best year. It is baseball in its purest form, a time for wind sprints, fundamentals, split-squad games on a back field where only the scouts are watching. Millionaire players are humanized and humbled in spring training. They are not receiving enormous paychecks every two weeks, and they're getting the same meal money as the rookie in his first big league camp. No one is exempt from the three-hour bus rides, playing on fields that aren't manicured to major league standards, and facing anonymous Class A pitchers who throw really hard, but have no idea where the ball is going. It is the one time of year that Justin Verlander and a 20-year-old kid are on equal ground. It is the one time of year that a player gets on the bus in uniform, just like in high school.

Eleven years ago, Indians pitcher Brian Anderson boarded the team bus at 8 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Vero Beach, Fla., for a spring training game. Thirty minutes into the trip, Anderson realized he had forgotten his hat, his spikes and his glove back in Winter Haven.

"I was running late that morning because I knew I was going to get to hit in the game, so I was looking for the really important things: batting gloves and a bat," Anderson said. "When we got to Vero, I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn't one glove in the whole mall, but I found some adidas spikes. On the way back to the ballpark, I saw a WalMart. I thought, 'Hey, WalMart has everything ... tires ... produce ... it must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful. I borrowed someone's hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net, it made [Greg] Maddux's glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing Legion ball. That is spring training to me."

Only in spring training could this story happen. The Twins signed infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the spring of 2011. He didn't speak much English, and didn't know anyone on the team. Several teammates convinced Twins outfielder Denard Span to introduce himself to Nishioka, to make him feel more a part of the team. Only they tricked Span -- they told him that Ray Chang, another infielder, was Nishioka. So Span, ever respectful, approached Chang, bowed gracefully, introduced himself, and asked him if he spoke English.

"Sure I do," Chang said. "I'm from Kansas City!"

The whole team howled.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter, who played only 17 games last season, enters the final year of his career hoping to stay healthy.
Only in spring training could then-Rays first baseman Carlos Pena make a mistake in a baserunning drill, then justify it by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. "My first baseman is quoting Dr. King," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I love it."

Only in spring training would pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, now with the Royals, ride his bike to work. "It was only five miles," he said of his daily ride two springs ago to the Rockies' facility. Then-teammate Michael Cuddyer said of Guthrie, laughing, "He once pitched in a game in Scottsdale, then got on his bike -- still in full uniform, with his glove on the handlebars -- and rode back to our facility. It was like a scene from 'The Sandlot.'"

Only in spring training would then-Padres pitcher Chris Young and Will Venable pick teams for a free throw shooting tournament because both guys played basketball at Princeton. "That's as nervous as I've ever been for an athletic competition," Young said with a smile, "because I'm not a great free throw shooter, and my team was depending on me to be good." Only in spring training would the Twins hold a bowling tournament behind the KFC in Fort Myers and, said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, "Joe Mauer would be high-fiving his teammates, guys he's never met in his life, after they rolled a strike." Only in spring training could Jeff Stone get thrown out at all four bases in one game, and only one of them was a forceout (think about that). Only in spring training could Rockies pitcher David Lee, in an emergency, drive the team bus on a night trip, then earn the nickname "Diesel" when he stopped the bus and announced, "We've got to get some diesel!"

Only in spring training is time taken to get in baseball shape. "We're always inventing drills and conditioning programs in spring training," said Rich Donnelly, now the manager of the Mariners' Triple-A team. "Years ago, we'd do 10 jumping jacks, touch our toes twice, then play. Today, these strength and conditioning coaches are always coming up with new stuff: rubber bands, parachutes, cones. I just can't imagine Ted Williams going to spring training and running with a parachute on his back, or Babe Ruth jumping over a bunch of cones."

It is a time for the fans, especially kids. Families take vacations to spring training. Getting a player's autograph is easier because everything and everyone is more relaxed than during the regular season. Well, except for when the Red Sox and Yankees played for the first time in spring training 2004, their first meeting since Aaron Boone's home run had sent the Yankees to the World Series, and sent the Red Sox home. Tickets were scalped for $500 for an exhibition game! Before the game, there was a fight in the parking lot at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers between a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan ... both fans were women!

It's spring training. Finally. We can't wait.

Vargas works deep, gets taken deeper

March, 19, 2013
MARYVALE, AZ -- Bringing Jason Vargas over from the Seattle Mariners made sense in that the Los Angeles Angels needed to restock a rotation that had lost Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke as free agents, and trading for Vargas (as well as Atlanta's Tommy Hanson) was a case of circumventing the expense of the open market to patch things up cost-effectively.
[+] EnlargeJason Vargas
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJason Vargas got a couple pitches up against the Brewers in Cactus League action Tuesday.

But cutting these kinds of corners risked incurring a different expense, priced in wins and losses. There are open questions over how effective Vargas will be outside of Safeco Field now that he's no longer in Seattle. Even in a career-best 2012 season, he allowed 35 home runs, and that was with the benefit of the best park in the league in suppressing big flies, especially homers off right-handed bats (per Baseball Info Solutions), indexing at a league-low 67 over the last three years. Angel Stadium is also one of the better parks to pitch in, with a righty-homer index of 81 over that same stretch; that's still 21 percent easier to homer in relation to Safeco.

The Cactus League is never friendly to men on the mound, and spring stats don't matter. But Vargas got off on the wrong foot from the outset on Tuesday, allowing a titanic two-run tater to Rickie Weeks in the first inning. Weeks pulled a double hard to the left-field corner his next time up, fueling another two-spot on the scoreboard for the Brewers. Add in Aramis Ramirez's fifth-inning homer, and it wasn't the best day for Vargas.

Vargas didn't make light of getting lit up by Weeks, saying afterward, “I'm still trying to figure out how to get him out. He's gotten me more times than not over the past few years.”

Still, Vargas took the broad view of his start, focusing on getting his work in. “It was good to get into the sixth inning, get the pitch count up, continue to get stronger.”

That was Angels manager Mike Scioscia's pointed purpose on Tuesday. Despite the five runs allowed through five, Scioscia sent Vargas out to the mound in the sixth to get one more out (first baseman Alex Gonzalez), as he has with C.J. Wilson and Joe Blanton as well this spring.

“Just getting up, get up, take your warmups, get out there for an inning to give yourself a little bit of stamina,” Scioscia said. “There's no doubt the ups are as important as the pitches.”

As far as the results, Scioscia observed, “Vargas got the ball up a little bit. He threw some good off-speed pitches, some good changeups, but this is not a forgiving park when you get the ball up.”

Vargas mulled his objectives for the day, and said, “I was just trying to execute like I would in the regular season. The goal is to get comfortable doing what I've had success doing: Changing speeds, making the hitters move back and forth, that's been a key for me.”

It has worked for him in the past, but today's pair of homers might foreshadow what's to come for Vargas in the Big A. If so, it might be a long season in Anaheim.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

First things first for Pujols

March, 19, 2013
MARYVALE, Ariz. -- For the second consecutive winter the Los Angeles Angels made a splash during the offseason, signing the best hitter available as a free agent. Adding Josh Hamilton may have commanded this past winter's headlines, but on Tuesday the Angels were worrying about yesterday's news. That's because their big-ticket addition for 2012, first baseman Albert Pujols, was finally able to return to first base to show that his recovery from offseason knee surgery was proceeding well.
[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonThe Angels are hoping that Albert Pujols now has his legs back under him.

The big question might be whether Pujols will be ready in more than enough time to take his position on Opening Day, but he and manager Mike Scioscia both sounded confident after the Angels' 6-1 loss to the Brewers, as Pujols declared himself ready.

Scioscia said of Pujols' five-inning return to fielding, “He looked fine, he was moving to the bag well. He's a terrific first baseman, so he's not that far away from where he needs to be. I think it's an important first step for him to get out there and play a little defense.”

Pujols has been working hard to get himself back on the field. “He took an aggressive practice today as far as taking ground balls,” Scioscia said.

That said, it isn't entirely smooth sailing. “I think that as long as he feels comfortable out there, I think that what's giving him more trouble now is really his heel, his foot,” Scioscia added. “We want to get that under control, but he's looking fine out there; he's got a little bit of plantar fasciitis. His knee is feeling good, so that is not an issue. I think he's going to be fine. Right now, he's in the part of the spring where he's got to get his legs under him for defense. I don't think it's something we're concerned about right now.”

But couldn't the plantar fasciitis be a nagging worry? “I think the fact that his knee's OK gives us a little more comfort than anything else.”

So the question then is, will Albert return to first base on Wednesday, or will he return to DH? Immediately after the game, Scioscia kept his options open, saying, “We'll see how he comes out of [today]. We'll pretty much go with our core lineup, and we'll get Albert out there at DH or at first base.”

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ask any veteran player, and he’ll tell you the ability to adapt is the key to a lengthy and productive major league career. The pitchers, advance scouting reports and game-planning in the big leagues are unrelenting, and hitters who fail to come to grips with that reality won’t be collecting big league meal money very long.

Mark Trumbo of the Angels knows the drill. Last year he hit .307 with a .988 OPS, 27 homers and 66 RBIs in the team’s first 85 games. He made his first All-Star Game at age 26, participated in the Home Run Derby and earned a reputation as a hitter that pitchers had to approach with the utmost care.

Then everything unraveled. The final 2½ months of the regular season, Trumbo hit .213 with a .551 OPS, five homers and 29 RBIs. There were times when he felt as if he had tread marks stamped across his forehead.

[+] EnlargeMark Trumbo, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMark Trumbo, left, figures to be part of a new Murderer's Row with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
Trumbo is a bright kid, and he spent enough time reflecting on the experience to glean something positive from it. In the midst of his travails, he learned some valuable things about his mechanics, his approach to hitting and his ability to take a punch.

“I understand this is a very tough game," Trumbo said. “I had some mechanical things break down, and the pitchers don’t get any better than here. At the big-league level, they’re able to locate for the most part. If they do find a glaring weakness or something you’re really struggling with, they’re probably going to attack that and keep attacking it until you can prove you’ve made some adjustments.

“I think the biggest thing is to get a good pitch to hit. It’s a lot easier to make good solid contact when you get something to work with. Last year I started to chase a little bit, and the combination of a tough pitch to hit with a bad swing is a recipe for disaster."

Trumbo, recharged from a winter of introspection, is ready to reclaim his status as a force in manager Mike Scioscia’s batting order. Just where he appears in the field will depend on the day.

When Josh Hamilton signed a five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels in December, it ensured that Trumbo will spend a lot more time in the designated hitter spot this season. He can also expect to spell Albert Pujols at first base, fill in for Hamilton in right on occasion and log some games in left.

Trumbo is a .306 hitter with a .937 OPS in 23 career games at DH, so he’s shown some aptitude for the position. But he knows he’ll have to experiment with ways to stay engaged and ready during the lengthy down time between at-bats.

It’s early yet, but Trumbo expects to spend more time riding a stationary bike and hitting in the cage working up a sweat than hunkering down in the video room obsessing over his last at-bat. He also plans to spend a lot of time in the dugout to keep his head in the game.

“I’m trying to get away from overanalyzing things, especially on video." Trumbo said. “I would like to get back to trusting what I feel up there and doing it that way. If I do DH, the temptation of sitting in that film room is going to be really high. I’m going to do everything I can to fight that."

Torii Hunter's Twitter adventure

February, 25, 2013
Torii Hunter is still a Twitter fan. But a funny thing happened to him this winter on his way to a better life through Twitter.

He fired out a now-famous tweet, which he’s still trying to explain, the day his old team, the Angels, signed Josh Hamilton. It went kinda like this:

“I was told money was tight but I guess the Arte had money hidden under a Mattress. Business is business but don't lie.”
[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsTorii Hunter is already enjoying being in the Tigers' lineup.

Half the planet took that as an indication that the Tigers’ new right fielder wasn’t exactly thrilled that the Angels (and owner Arte Moreno) said they didn’t have the bucks to sign him, but found $125 million to give Hamilton over the next five years.

But Hunter said Monday he’s over whatever frustration welled up in him that day.

“I’m over it,” he told ESPN.com. “It was just a joke that went bad. I said he found money under the mattress, but I don’t know what happened. I can’t even explain that one. I’ve always said I had a great time in the Angels’ organization, my best five years of my career. That organization has done a lot of great things for me, so I have no hard feelings. Trust me. I understand.

“I understood I was getting older for them,” Hunter went on. “I had a great season for them last year, but they didn’t want to fall in the trap of me getting older. I understood that. That’s the business side of it. I always understood how hard it is to be a GM, because some day I would like to be one. We’ll see.”


More from Torii Hunter:
  • On what it’s been like to be around Prince Fielder: “He’s got a great freaking attitude, man. He loves sitting around, looking around, cracking jokes in the clubhouse. Gets out on the field, he’s having so much fun. He hits, and hair is flying everywhere. He just loves it. He’s just this big kid at the ballpark. When he was 13, 14, 15 and he was hitting in Lakeland when his dad came here in big league camp, just watching that little guy hit, it was impressive. I still remember him.”
  • On what it’s like to take batting practice with Fielder and Miguel Cabrera: “He and Prince, it’s sick. They’re hitting it like 450 feet in batting practice. Me, I can’t do that. It would take me like 100 swings to get loose just to hit them there.”
  • On how his lineup in Detroit compares to the lineup he left in Anaheim: “It’s up there. It’s definitely up there. The thing about our [lineup] with the Angels was, we just didn’t jell. We didn’t jell 'til June, 'til the end of May. But these guys have already played together. All they added was a piece like me. And I’m just a little piece of the puzzle. I’m not a guy who comes and changes everything. I just try to fit in.”
  • On why he’s hedging slightly on his statement earlier this month that this Tigers staff is the best he’s ever played behind: “In ’09 with the Angels, we had a great staff and we showed it on the field. Right now, we haven’t done anything yet. But … if everything goes right, guys stay healthy and do what they’re capable of, I definitely think this could be one of the best pitching staffs of my career that I played with. Right now, on paper, it’s THE best. But we’ll just have to see the results. … I say that because last year, I looked at that lineup with the Angels and said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a great lineup.’ And a month and a half went by, and we hadn’t done anything. So now, I’m kind of a believer like, just play.”

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Dodgers made lots of news over the winter spending money and stockpiling arms. The ratio of capable pitchers to available spots ensures that manager Don Mattingly and his staff will engage in some lively debate between now and the season opener against San Francisco on April 1.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Dodgers have eight starting pitchers in camp: Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. Lilly and Billingsley, both of whom are coming off injuries, have been throwing without restrictions in Glendale. Even if the Dodgers decide to place Lilly on the disabled list on Opening Day and move one of their other starters to the bullpen, they’ll still have six pitchers in the running for five spots. To further complicate matters, they won’t even need a fifth starter until April 13.

The Dodgers also are loaded with bullpen pieces. If Kenley Jansen, Brandon League, Javy Guerra, Matt Guerrier, Ronald Belisario and J.P. Howell are healthy, they’ll account for six relief spots. The Dodgers also have veterans Kevin Gregg, Mark Lowe and Peter Moylan in camp on minor league deals.

"We tell these guys over the course of spring training, 'Force us to make tough decisions,'" Mattingly said. "We want to have those tough decisions and discussions at the end of camp, like, 'Where are we going to go if everybody is healthy and throwing the ball well?'"

Mattingly is intrigued by what the Dodgers might have in Gregg and Lowe, righty relievers who were forced to scramble for jobs in a tough free-agent market. Gregg has 144 major league saves, and Lowe has 229 strikeouts in 262 career innings with Seattle and Texas.

"Relievers are funny," Mattingly said. "There will be a year where they’re really good. Then they’ll have a down year. Then the next thing you know, they kind of show up and the arm rebounds. You never know what you’re going to see from year to year."

Harang looking fit

Aaron Harang will never be confused with a skinny jeans model at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds. But Mattingly singled him out for mention Friday for reporting to camp in excellent shape. Harang, 10-10 with a 3.61 ERA in 31 starts last year, needs to make a quick impression if he’s going to make some headway in the Dodgers’ starting pitching competition.

"He’s one of the guys I noticed right away," Mattingly said. "He’s a big guy, but he looks like he's in great shape to me. It kind of lets you know that he did his winter work. It’s a lot better than seeing him come in 20 pounds over where he should be."

Sele voter still a mystery

Aaron Sele, who is working as a special assistant to Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, inadvertently landed in the middle of a Twitter flareup in January when he received a lone, anonymous vote in the Hall of Fame balloting. The reaction from media members and fans ranged from amusement to outrage.

Sele, who went 148-112 with a 4.61 ERA in 15 big league seasons with the Red Sox, Mariners, Angels, Rangers, Dodgers and Mets, reflected on the episode from Dodgers camp Friday with his typically good-natured perspective.

"I was definitely caught off guard by it," Sele said. "I was also appreciative of the vote. Hopefully, somebody respected me for what I did and the way I played the game.

"I respect the Hall of Fame, what it stands for and the people who are in it. I understand that I do not deserve to be in the Hall. I’m only 152 wins short of earning my way in there. I get that."

Angels show off new power trio

February, 14, 2013

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton go back a ways. In the spring of 1999, they met during a pre-draft workout at Tropicana Field in Florida. They were both supreme talents but came equipped with markedly different expectations.

Hamilton, a North Carolina native, was considered a once-in-a-generation prospect, with speed and power to burn and (reporters loved to point out) size-19 feet. Pujols, a native Dominican who played high school ball in the Midwest, showed a knack for swinging the bat at Maple Woods Community College in Missouri. But a lot of scouts wondered which position he would ultimately play, and he fell to St. Louis in the 13th round of the draft.

Pujols overcame the skeptics to win three MVP awards, make nine All-Star teams and emerge as a worthy heir to Stan Musial’s legacy in St. Louis. Hamilton, meanwhile, took a more circuitous route to prominence after signing with Tampa Bay as the No. 1 overall pick in ’99. His journey was marked by drug and alcohol dependence, multiple tattoos and enough personal setbacks to suggest he might be a lost cause.
[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAlbert Pujols doesn't want to talk about what happened last April.

In recent years, the two players traded their favorite Bible verses during brief encounters at first base and exchanged hugs at the All-Star Game. Now they’re swapping memories as teammates and new running mates in the middle of the Los Angeles Angels’ batting order.

“Back then, he was really skinny, and people said, ‘This guy is going to be the first pick,'" Pujols recalled Thursday. “I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Then I saw him take batting practice and I was like, ‘Are you serious?'"

Replied Hamilton: “I don’t remember anything. I took a little different route than Albert did, and I forgot a few things along the way.”

Pujols and Hamilton met the media Thursday afternoon in a made-for-TV news conference on the eve of the Angels’ first full-squad workout of spring training. They sat on a podium in front of an Angels logo and flanked center fielder Mike Trout, the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year and runner-up to Miguel Cabrera in the MVP race.

Let the nickname contest begin. The Angels’ lineup has enough star power that the team needed to book a conference room at a hotel adjacent to Tempe Diablo Stadium to accommodate it.

Each player brings his own compelling storyline to the table. Hamilton, who signed a five-year, $125 million contract in December, is 20 pounds lighter this spring and eager to show he’s the Triple Crown candidate of April, May and June rather than the guy who faded in the second half, botched a fly ball in a pivotal regular-season game against Oakland and left Texas to a torrent of boos after an 0-for-4 performance against Baltimore in the wild-card play-in game.

Pujols, entering the second year of a 10-year, $240 million contract, overcame a dreadful start to hit .285 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs. He underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure in October and plans to ease into his workouts gradually this spring. One thing Pujols won’t abide is questions about his excruciating April in 2012. He makes it clear, for all intents and purposes, that he’s not here to talk about the past.
[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesWill Mike Trout be in the running for hardware as a sophomore?

Trout, precocious WAR machine and the face of baseball’s future along with Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, is 10 pounds heavier this spring and braced for the realization that he won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this season. He has set the bar exceedingly high.

The Angels, as a team, have reason to believe they’ve upgraded a lineup that ranked third in the league in runs scored (767) and OPS (.764). But it remains to be seen if they have the pitching to keep pace. Get past Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson atop the rotation, and Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas have a lot of convincing to do in the Nos. 3-4-5 spots. In addition, Ryan Madson, the team's projected closer, has encountered a speed bump in his comeback from Tommy John surgery: He is experiencing soreness in his right elbow and will not be ready by Opening Day.

But the Angels should be intriguing to watch, both on and off the field. Clubhouse dynamics change from one year to the next, and the Angels are in the midst of a transition with the arrival of Hamilton and the departure of the always loquacious Torii Hunter to Detroit through free agency. When a team is burdened with expectations this high, it helps to have a resident “voice of reason” who can court the media and provide perspective. Trout is too young to assume that burden. Hamilton has enough on his plate and Pujols has never shown the patience, temperament or gift of gab to be a media darling.

For those seeking subtle clues on a potential pecking order of the big three, Pujols had three bottles of water in front of him to only two for Hamilton and Trout at the news conference. But Hamilton was clearly the most relaxed and jocular participant. Thirty seconds before the event, which was broadcast live on Fox Sports West, Hamilton turned to Angels public relations man Tim Mead and asked, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?”

People close to Hamilton said the opportunity to play in a lineup with Pujols and Trout held considerable appeal for him during his free-agent search. Hamilton’s history of addiction has created some dicey moments for him, and he’ll rely on his family, religious faith and the help of accountability partner Shayne Kelley to craft a positive storyline in Anaheim.

Hamilton’s fellow Rangers went to great lengths to look out for him during his time in Texas, and he’ll continue to require help from his teammates to stay on the right path in his new, more fast-paced West Coast environs. Hamilton knows Wilson from their time together in Arlington and has a nice rapport established with Pujols. That’s a start.

“As you get to know your teammates, you understand what they stand for, how they act and what they do,” Hamilton said. “You find guys that you put in your circle who will help hold you accountable. Hopefully, by the way you carry yourself, guys will either want to be in your circle, or they’ll respect you enough to not put you in a situation that’s going to cause you to stumble and fall.

“Guys like Albert and C.J. get it. They understand. I think everybody will understand when the time comes.”

For what it’s worth, Pujols and Trout were equally effusive in recalling their reactions to Hamilton’s December signing and what it will mean to the Angels in 2013 and beyond.

“I remember last year sitting at the house and all of a sudden Albert’s name popped up with the Angels, and it was a shock to me,” Trout said. “I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ The same thing happened this year with Josh. I texted him to congratulate him and he texted me back and said, ‘Get your legs loose. That’s all that matters.’ I just have to get on base and let them hit me in.”

The preliminaries are now complete, and it's time to play ball in Tempe. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton kicked around a few memories Thursday. With the help of a certain outfield phenom, they’ll spend the seven months trying to forge some new ones.