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Angels have plenty of admirers

ANAHEIM -- When ESPN convened its baseball experts for their 2012 predictions, nearly 40 percent of them -- 18 of 49 -- picked the Los Angeles Angels to win the World Series. Apparently, spending $320 million buys you a little faith these days.

And it's just great until you realize that 73 percent of the same experts picked the Boston Red Sox to win it all a year ago. Winning the winter-splash derby is an entirely different proposition than accepting a trophy with all those little flags from Bud Selig in October.

The Angels, of course, realize this.

Friday is not the first Opening Day for most of these guys, including the reason everyone is so excited, Albert Pujols, who has won two world titles and knows it's not about what people think in April, but what you do over the following six months.

"You guys are picking us to win," Pujols said. "I think the main thing is not to get too caught up in that, because I've been on ball clubs where we are the favorite going into the season and we don't accomplish what we wanted to -- to get to the postseason -- and I've been on other ball clubs where they pick us last. That's what the beauty of this game is. We don't have a magic ball."

Actually, Albert, it turns out I do. It says the Angels will win the American League only to lose to Pujols' old team, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the World Series. The ball only told me what I already knew after spending five weeks in Arizona: This team is good, maybe better than we thought. It's still got great pitching and, at long last, it has plenty of offensive depth and more than a dash of danger. Yeah, the bullpen's a mystery, but how many teams have bullpens they fully trust?

So, why do I have them losing at the last stage? The sheer lunacy of October and the fact such a series would make an amazingly compelling story line.

The Angels have one large obstacle standing between them and rewarding all the ESPN experts' faith. The Texas Rangers, winners of two straight American League pennants, just might be the only team with as much -- if not more -- talent in their lineup and organization.

Eight people on the ESPN panel picked Texas and, after watching what Nolan Ryan and Co. have done the past two years, I was tempted to be one of them. There are only two real reasons you could doubt Texas at this point: Either you don't believe in Yu Darvish or you believe change is inevitable. For me, it was a little of both.

Torii Hunter is going into his fifth season in Anaheim, he's as competitive and passionate as any player, and he's perfectly willing to concede that the AL West is Texas' domain until the Angels prove otherwise.

"We have a really good chance, but don't forget, the Rangers are still the champ and we've got to take it from those guys," Hunter said.

The Angels finished 10 games behind the Rangers last year and it could have been worse. Texas scored 178 runs more than it allowed while the Angels just eked by, scoring 34 more runs than they let in. Of course, the differential in differentials was in part because the Angels played very different kinds of games than the Rangers, Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees did last year.

They had to outpitch and outdefend teams to win. Pitchers constantly fended for themselves. The Angels were shut out through five innings a major league-high 50 times.

If spring looks aren't deceiving, things could be different now that Pujols, the game's best right-handed hitter, and Kendrys Morales, who hit 34 home runs in his last healthy season, have been injected into a listless lineup. A year ago, the Angels opened the season with utility guy Maicer Izturis leading off and banjo-hitting Jeff Mathis batting eighth. In 2010, the Angels' Opening Day lineup had Hideki Matsui batting cleanup and Brandon Wood hitting eighth. They'll have a few more names to get a pitcher's attention by 7:05 p.m. Friday.

"We added one guy and it changes everything," Hunter said.

Hunter still maintains the Angels could have won last year, and let's not forget: They were only three games behind Texas and a whisker from the wild card in mid-September before they lost nine of their last 14 games. The team they could have surpassed for the wild card? Yeah, Boston, everyone's pick in 2011.

Kind of a cautionary tale, don't you think?