Pitchers, catchers report to camp

Camp opens as Angels aim to reclaim crown

Wednesday's opening of camp could not have come a day too soon for the Angels.

Leading off the top of the agenda is the goal of returning to the head of the class in the American League West. After a disappointing campaign that netted an 89-73 record and a second-place finish in their division without a playoff appearance in 2006, the Angels are primed to retake the crown that was theirs for two years running.

"We think we have the makings of a pretty good ballclub," general manager Bill Stoneman said. "And we weren't all that bad last year."

Aside from a stretch in the first half of the season when they lost 18 of 23 games and were mired in the AL West cellar, 11 games under the .500 mark, the Angels were competitive and stayed in the race until the final week of the regular season.

A 19-7 mark in July helped as did a 19-9 record down the stretch that produced a 46-28 record after the All-Star break. The problem was the A's took the Angels' hot streak and upped the ante by going 48-26, tops in the AL.

But the Angels have plenty to feel good about and it starts with a pitching staff that reported along with the catchers on Wednesday. Their first workout is Thursday.

Position players are scheduled to report on Monday with the first full team workout on the docket for Tuesday, when newcomers such as Gary Matthews Jr. and Shea Hillenbrand get the opportunity to shag flies with a veteran group of returnees that includes Garret Anderson, Vladimir Guerrero and Orlando Cabrera.

The Angels ranked third in the AL last season behind Detroit and Minnesota with a 4.04 ERA. The rotation's rank was a tick higher as its 4.14 ERA put it second behind the Tigers while the bullpen's ERA of 3.78 was tied with Texas for fourth lowest in the league.

The principles all return with one key exception: Former pitching coach Bud Black was hired by the Padres for his first managerial post, while Mike Butcher taking his place. Butcher is well acquainted with much of the staff and the style of the Angels, having served in the organization for a number of years as both a roving pitching instructor and pitching coach in the Minor Leagues. Butcher, who spent four seasons as a pitcher for the Angels, was pitching coach with Tampa Bay last season.

Bartolo Colon enters camp on the go-slow plan as he rehabs his right shoulder from a partially torn rotator cuff. A return date to full activity is still unknown and the organization is not likely to let him go full gorilla until he's ready, but the remainder of the staff is on track and mostly set, barring other developments this spring.

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John Lackey is joined by fellow right-handers Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver. Joe Saunders, the lone lefty of the group, is also a leading candidate for the rotation as long as Colon is on the mend and for good reason.

Like Weaver, Saunders showed no fear of opposing lineups last season and opened 4-0 after getting called up first on July 18 and again Aug. 1. Saunders went 7-3 with a 4.71 ERA in 13 starts with the Angels after compiling a 10-4 record with a 2.67 ERA in 20 starts at Triple-A Salt Lake.

The Angels are not simply buoyed by how they can start games, but how they finish. Their rotation is backed up one of the best bullpens in baseball that may have gotten even better during the offseason.

Francisco Rodriguez, who has converted 92 saves in the last two seasons, has a firm handle on the knob to shut the door at game's end, and he's set up by Scot Shields, who limited hitters to a .217 batting average last season and lefties to a slim .207 mark.

Joining them are two veterans in right-hander Justin Speier and Darren Oliver. The Angels felt bullpen production dipped last season and added this pair to help protect leads in a division that looks to have no clear front-runner. The right-handed Hector Carrasco will also join the relief corps with the sixth slot of the bullpen up for grabs on what should be an 11-man pitching staff.

While runs were hard to come by last season and offense was a stated priority this winter, the Angels also targeted defense for an upgrade and signed Matthews to a five-year deal. Matthews hit career highs in a number of offensive categories and will likely take over as the Angels' leadoff hitter, but it's his play in center that generated the team's interest.

While highlight-reel grabs like the one he made on a drive by Houston's Mike Lamb to straightaway center at Ameriquest Field in Arlington last July may be a tall order, the Angels figure Matthews will more than help with solid play in the gaps.

Questions remain on a starting first baseman, where Casey Kotchman hopes to return but Kendry Morales will also figure into the mix. Howie Kendrick has plenty to prove at second base and Chone Figgins is the de facto starter at third with Hillenbrand likely to see action at both corners.

But there are no losers in February and the Angels have their sights set on No. 1.

Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.