Big moves place Halos among baseball's elite

By Richard Justice
12/29/12 7:20 PM ET

In the four weeks since I wrote a nice little column about what a smart offseason the Angels were having, they've added 43 home runs to the lineup and 217 innings to the rotation. Seeing how they were already a pretty good baseball team -- according to me at least -- where do the acquisitions of Josh Hamilton and Jason Vargas put them now?
In other words, is this baseball's best team? This is the kind of argument that can help burn these weeks when Spring Training seems so far away. Since baseball has the kind of parity every other professional sport would die for -- nine different franchises have won the World Series the last dozen years, and 20 of 30 teams have made at least one playoff appearance the last five -- it's a debate with substance.
At least eight different teams -- Angels, Blue Jays, Tigers, Nationals, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers -- are in the "Best Team in Baseball" discussion with another nine -- Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Rangers, A's, Braves, Phillies, D-backs, Orioles -- close behind.
For the sake of discussion, let's stick to the Angels, who went to Spring Training in 2012 all but penciled in for a World Series berth. Those of you keeping track of such things might remember that the Tigers also had their World Series tickets punched by some of us, and that kind of forecasting creates a logistical problem since they're both members of the American League.
Sometimes, these dream seasons take just a tad longer. What looked really good last spring didn't look quite so magical around the Fourth of July. The Angels got off to a slow start, and then fell too far behind the Rangers and A's in the American League West.
Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto went right back to work attacking his team's biggest weakness with the signings of relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Even if Dipoto hadn't done a single other thing, he would have given manager Mike Scioscia a fighting chance at the end of games.
The Angels tied the Red Sox for the American League lead with 22 blown saves in 2012. Those late-inning defeats tear at a club's confidence and morale. Albert Pujols got more of the headlines for his slow start, but the Angels weren't going to contend unless Dipoto upgraded his bullpen.
Now, Scioscia knows he'll have a proven closer in Madson, as well as a pair of veteran left-handers -- Scott Downs and Burnett -- to help him get the game into the ninth inning.
And then there was the starting pitching. Plenty of us thought the Angels would have one of baseball's five best rotations in 2012, and even though they led the American League with 91 quality starts, they didn't get nearly the numbers they believed they'd get from Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. C.J. Wilson also struggled at times and underwent a cleanup procedure on his left elbow after the season.
Dipoto traded Santana and allowed Haren to leave via free agency. He then signed free agent Joe Blanton and traded for Tommy Hanson before swinging the deal for Vargas. With Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas at the top of the rotation, Anaheim's starters could be as good as any.
And then in the middle of a lineup that already had the American League Rookie of the Year (Mike Trout) and the best offensive player of the last decade (Pujols), Angels owner Arte Moreno stepped up and signed Hamilton.
With Trout, Hamilton and Pujols hitting somewhere in the first four spots, the Angels should have a lineup that could be one of the best in years. There's enough firepower that Scioscia can afford to go defense-first in center field with Peter Bourjos.
To sum up: solid bullpen, solid rotation, good defense, very, very good lineup. At a time when the Rangers are in transition, the Angels seem to have virtually zero holes. Yes, we sang that tune around this time last winter, too.
If the Angels stay healthy, it'll be fun to see what they can put together over the long haul. Scioscia's challenge may be simply to get all the various personalities to become a cohesive unit.
Here's hoping there's no jealousy. With Trout coming off a spectacular rookie season and with Hamilton capable of both dazzling highs and puzzling lows, Pujols could slip under the radar screen.
That's a different kind of role for him after being the player around whom everything swirled during his 11 seasons with the Cardinals. On the other hand, after a transition season in a new league and with a new team, he may also reestablish himself as baseball's premier offensive player.
Regardless, no team will go to Spring Training more confident than the Angels. Their challenge will be incorporating the new talent into the clubhouse, but that's the kind of problem Scioscia will love to have.