ANAHEIM, CALIF. >> Billy Eppler has emphasized the Los Angeles Angels' many positive attributes since the day he took over as their general manager last October.
And nothing in baseball is much better than having Mike Trout in center field every day.
Eppler also realizes he has plenty of work to do to make sure the Angels don't waste too many more years of Trout's prodigious talent watching the World Series from home.
"There's a core group of guys here that are young, and there are older, established star players," Eppler said. "That's a good foundation to build a championship-caliber club around."
After missing the playoffs on the final day of last season, the Angels open the new year against the powerhouse Chicago Cubs on Monday night with dreams of being a contender in the tough AL West. It's tough to tell whether this patchwork roster of aging veterans and precious little blue-chip talent can pull it off, but anything seems possible with Trout.
The Angels had the best record in baseball in 2014, and they had the best record of last season's non-playoff teams. None of that success has translated into October memories for Trout, the 2014 AL MVP and the second-place finisher in the voting three other times.
Trout will turn 25 this summer before he wins his first playoff game, and it's difficult to tell whether the Angels' roster can compete with defending AL West champion Texas, up-and-coming Houston and much-improved Seattle.
Trout remains optimistic about his teammates and their abilities, but the Angels aren't a popular pick to end his playoff drought this season.
Here are some things to watch when manager Mike Scioscia opens his 17th season in charge in Anaheim:
HEALTHY MONSTER: Albert Pujols appears to be ready for opening day after offseason surgery on his right foot. Once considered a long shot to be ready for the start of the season, Pujols played in the field this week and made plate appearances throughout Cactus League play. If the $240 million man is close to full strength in April, the Angels won't be missing one important piece of their lineup.
ROTATE: Garrett Richards is slated to take the mound on opening day, cementing his status as the Angels' ace after two strong seasons with a full-time starting job. The rest of the rotation is fluid, and it won't be settled until C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs return from injuries. Andrew Heaney and Hector Santiago will get regular turns early, while Matt Shoemaker is likely to be the fifth starter. And then there's Jered Weaver, the Angels' longtime ace whose game declined precipitously last season. After an up-and-down spring, he's expected to be in the rotation to start the final year of his deal — but if he can't get outs, the Angels might have to move on.
UP THE MIDDLE: After several seasons with Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar manning the middle of the infield, the Angels traded Kendrick before last year and Aybar after the season. The new double-play combination is shortstop Andrelton Simmons, arguably the best fielder in baseball, and second baseman Johnny Giavotella, who won the job last spring and surprisingly kept it all year long. The Angels hope Simmons' defense and Giavotella's exuberant offense are a suitable replacement for their longtime core.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD: Josh Hamilton still looms large in left field at Angel Stadium a year after his departure. Still smarting from the lavish deal given to Hamilton, the Angels decided not to sign a top-notch free agent to fill the biggest gap in their lineup, instead attempting to patch it with veterans Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry. It seemed like a penurious platoon — until Nava (.462) and Gentry (.326) both had excellent springs.
LITTLE HELP: The Angels' payroll is stretched to the luxury tax threshold, what with Hamilton's massive payouts still on the books, and they're unlikely to get much midseason help from a farm system frequently rated the worst in the majors. The Angels will have more money to spend next winter, but Eppler isn't ready to condemn his predecessors' scouting work just yet: "We're going to watch the guys actually perform. I want to have some time to actually evaluate the players."