How does a team that's still in win-now mode, features the worst-ranked farm system in baseball, and is winding down a season mired by top-to-bottom struggles get back to championship contention or, at the very least, not set itself up to be burdened by heavy contracts for years to come?
In five and a half weeks, when the regular season ends and the Angels are absent from a fourth consecutive postseason -- despite a second straight blockbuster offseason -- it may be more than players who get moved.
The jobs of manager Mike Scioscia (signed through 2018) and general manager Jerry Dipoto (finishing his second year and tied to an entire front-office team) are quite possibly in jeopardy. Asked by MLB.com last week about their status, though, owner Arte Moreno was vague and noncommittal, saying: "You're always evaluating. If you're not in a situation where you're trying to improve, then there's something wrong."
So for now, Scioscia and Dipoto -- neither of whom are willing to address the subject with the season still ongoing -- will continue to move forward, mindful of the task they face with an underachieving roster.
In that regard, there's an underlying question: Is this a playoff-contending team that has endured an inordinate amount of bad luck in one season, or do drastic changes need to be made?
"The way we'll look at this offseason is we have a lot of components to this team that have struggled, but there's a championship core there," Dipoto said. "And now we have to figure out, amongst ourselves as we collaborate throughout the offseason, what are the moves that we can make that will improve this?"
Dipoto still believe the Angels "have a lot of championship components, particularly on our everyday club," but admitted there are "parts of the pitching staff that we need to address" and added that the "general layer of depth" is still a problem -- especially for an organization that has had to fill out the upper levels of its farm system via the scrap heap.
Here's the thing about the Angels, though: They can't spend much more.
The back-loaded nature of the contracts they doled out and the fact they'll owe the Yankees $18.6 million for the final season of Vernon Wells' deal means $126.5 million is already in their books for 2014, and that doesn't include the first-year arbitration cases of Mark Trumbo, Ernesto Frieri and Peter Bourjos. For '15, they already have $111.725 million in set salary, plus the looming arbitration case of Mike Trout, who's almost guaranteed to obliterate Ryan Howard's first-year-arbitration record of $10 million.
That's very little wiggle room for a payroll that figures to stay in the range of $140 million to $160 million.
Simply put, the easiest way to turn things around is for the Angels to receive production from the guys whose track records indicate they should be better.
"We have a lot of issues with our core star players playing their best and being healthy," said C.J. Wilson, the only Angels starter who has taken his turn every five days this season. "We've had guys either miss a significant amount of time or not play as well as we'd expect them to play. From the guys we expect to count on, we have to get production -- and also stay healthy. Everything has to go right, and we've had enough things go wrong that it's been an uphill battle from the beginning."
The Angels -- off Thursday before starting a 10-day, three-city road trip road trip through Seattle, St. Petersburg and Milwaukee -- are 16 games below .500, 18 1/2 back of first-place Texas in the American League West, and 19th in the Majors in run differential entering Thursday's play after suffering a three-game sweep to the Indians.
Where would they be if Pujols weren't limited to 99 pain-stricken games because of plantar fasciitis, or if Hamilton's OPS weren't a head-scratching .704, or if Jered Weaver (broken non-pitching elbow) and Jason Vargas (blood clot) didn't combine for 18 missed starts due to fluky injuries, or if new relievers Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson had given them more than a combined 13 appearances?
Better, of course.
But there are pitching concerns without considering injuries that need to be addressed, particularly in the back end of a rotation that has seen Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jerome Williams struggle mightily. And this offseason, Dipoto will continue his work from before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, dangling prominent offensive pieces in hopes of attaining the talented, cost-controlled starting pitching this team can't compete without.
That makes any everyday player not named Pujols, Hamilton or Trout an option.
"I don't think there's any doubt that some guys on our pitching staff have underperformed," Scioscia said of a staff that entered Thursday ranked 29th in the Majors in ERA. "I'm sure Jerry's going to take a very close look at it, and we'll see where everything leads."
The roster will no doubt look different next spring, but many of the players are hopeful that the change is minimal.
The dynamic of the clubhouse was altered greatly two years ago when Pujols and Wilson came in. Then, just as they were finally starting to figure each other out, it changed drastically again with Hamilton joining the mix.
Many believe they just need some time to jell, that that alone can pay dividends in 2014.
And therein lies that delicate balance.
"As far as the group of guys, this is an awesome group, person to person, and that's a big component," Trumbo said. "It takes a while, man. Going around the league and seeing quite a few of these teams that are in situations kind of like us -- powerhouse rosters, per se -- nobody can pinpoint anything specific other than that things haven't jelled yet. If we do keep the majority of the guys and get to know each other a little bit better, there's no doubt that the results will be better."