MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Don't count out defending AL West-champ Angels

Don't count out defending AL West-champ Angels

SEATTLE -- The Mariners are the trendy pick in the American League West this season.

And the A's are the champion of the underdog, mixing and matching and somehow staying in contention.

Oh, and the Astros were proclaimed by one national magazine, before they even played a game this year, as the projected World Series champion for 2017.

So what about those Angels? You know, the defending AL West champions. The team that won more regular-season games (98) last year than any other big league team. The only AL West team to have even won a World Series championship in the past 25 years.

It's almost like they have become an afterthought, which is no big deal, as far as Angels manager Mike Scioscia is concerned.

"It really doesn't matter one way or the other, whether people think we are the best thing since sliced bread or a fluke," Scioscia said. "It has no bearing on what we need to do."

What does have a bearing on what the Angels need to do is what the guys in the Halos' uniforms are thinking, and how they respond to the challenges on the field.

It's how they shake off a season-opening loss to the Mariners and Felix Hernandez on Monday afternoon and bounce back to pull out a 2-0 victory on Tuesday night at Safeco Field thanks to eight impressive innings from C.J. Wilson, and an eye-opening two-run home run David Freese hit to right-center field on a damp, cold night during which fly balls died before they got to the warning track.

Freese's two-run shot

That's the type of resilience these Angels showed last season.

It was far from a dream season for them a year ago, but they never got around to feeling sorry for themselves. They were too busy finding ways to win the division.

Think about it: The Angels found themselves in the second half of last season trying to compensate for the struggles of Josh Hamilton and the decimation of a rotation. In the final two months, Scioscia would regularly rely on "bullpen" games to try to make up for the ailing starting rotation.

Meanwhile, the A's first restocked the rotation with an early-July trade that brought Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs, and then, on July 31, sitting a game in front of the Angels, they acquired Jon Lester from the Red Sox. By Aug. 10, the A's had taken a four-game lead on the Halos in the division race.

Six days later, however, the Angels had moved into a tie with the A's for the division lead, and by season's end, the Halos had finished 10 games ahead of the second-place A's, and 11 in front of the third-place Mariners.

"We were a resilient team," said Scioscia. "Nobody panicked. The confidence was always there."

It still is.

The Angels might be easily overlooked by outsiders, but they aren't about to make any concession speeches.

Oh, they are without the potentially productive bat of Hamilton again, and they did deal away second baseman Howie Kendrick, a year away from free agency, to acquire the promising arm of pitcher Andrew Heaney from the Dodgers, which adds to the offensive challenge.

They aren't, however, singing the blues.

The Halos still have a lineup featuring arguably the best player in the game, Mike Trout, and one of the most-feared hitters, Albert Pujols, along with the potential of run production from the likes of Freese and Matt Joyce.

There is a bullpen that really fell into place in the second half last season with the acquisition of closer Huston Street, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth for the save on Tuesday, striking out Rickie Weeks and Austin Jackson before getting Robinson Cano on a fly ball to right.

"You are always smarter when you have a bullpen," said Scioscia.

Then there is a regrouping rotation that is waiting for Garrett Richards' return from last August's knee surgery, a return that could come as early as April 21, meaning Scioscia would have to fill a fifth-starter void only once thanks to two off-days in the first three weeks.

Wilson's eight shutout frames

There's also the potential that Wilson has to put to rest the struggles of a year ago, when he had his highest ERA (4.51) in his five full seasons as a starter, and won only five of his final 15 starts.

Wilson certainly gave the Angels reason for hope against the Mariners, working eight innings for the 20th time in his career, but for the first time doing it with fewer than 100 pitches. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 27 batters he faced, walking only one, and retiring the final 17 men he faced.

"C.J. is going to be an important part of our rotation and our team," said Scioscia.

It's all part of the package that makes the Angels the success they have been, even if they are seemingly overlooked in the AL West.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.