ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Given their extensive pitching injuries, a depleted farm system and several fairly big lineup flaws, the Los Angeles Angels got a whole lot closer to a playoff appearance than they had any right to expect at midseason.
But another October absence during Mike Trout's prime will provide plenty of winter motivation for the Angels to make an immediate return to World Series contention - and their gritty stretch run suggests they finally might have the core to do it.
"I think it was extraordinary the way these guys kept coming back and kept us in the race with losing so many of our players, particularly in our rotation," manager Mike Scioscia said after the first back-to-back losing seasons of his tenure.
The Angels (80-82) finished below .500 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1994, missing the playoffs for the third straight year since finishing 2014 with the majors' best record. Trout and Albert Pujols have been together in Anaheim for six full seasons, and they still haven't won a playoff game.
Yet the Angels stayed in the postseason race until the 158th game of the year, and they made a six-game improvement on last season's record. Los Angeles added left fielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips for the stretch, keeping up the pressure on Minnesota until a late fade.
"I think there's a lot more than went right with our club this year than went wrong," Scioscia said. "I think there are a lot of pieces in there ... to be championship-caliber, and there are some things we know we have to improve on and get better."
They can improve, but the Angels also would benefit greatly from a bit more injury luck than they've had recently.
Their best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards, missed five months with an irritated nerve in his biceps. Matt Shoemaker, Huston Street, Andrew Heaney, Alex Meyer and Tyler Skaggs were among several pitchers missing extensive time with injuries.
The Angels' offseason is intriguing because they've finally got some money to spend.
Josh Hamilton's disastrous contract is finally off the books, freeing up the $26.41 million paid to the long-departed outfielder this season as Los Angeles' highest-paid player. With other departing free agents, the Angels could have as much as $75 million with which to replenish their lineup, and owner Arte Moreno usually isn't shy about spending.
General manager Billy Eppler has made several strong moves in his two-year rebuild of this fractured franchise, and he has the framework in place to keep getting better.
More things to watch while the Angels spend a long offseason preparing for a playoff return:
FOUR MORE YEARS: Pujols has four years and $114 million remaining on his contract. He will be 38 years old when he reports to spring training after a season in which he hit his 600th career homer in June, but also sunk to career lows in batting average (.241), on-base percentage (.286) and slugging percentage (.386). Pujols was a designated hitter who struggled even to run out ground balls, yet he also drove in 101 runs and reached 614 career homers. The Angels remain publicly confident Pujols can bounce back in 2018 after an offseason without surgery and rehabilitation.
UPTON'S DECISION: Upton must decide shortly after the World Series whether to opt out of the final four years and $88.5 million of his contract. Most experts think the slugger's deal is roughly on par with his perceived value on the free-agent market, so the Angels are hoping he'll stick with them in their stellar outfield if he thinks the Angels will be a contender next year.
SOSH RETURNS: The longest-tenured manager in baseball said he plans to return for his 19th season in the spring, and Scioscia said he doesn't mind working in the final year of his contract if the Angels don't sign him to an extension. Moreno has remained loyal to Scioscia through much tougher setbacks than this, and Scioscia appears to work well with Eppler.
REBUILT PEN: Eppler has done a remarkable job of finding good pitchers on other teams' scrap heaps, from surprise starters Parker Bridwell and J.C. Ramirez to solid relievers Yusmeiro Petit, Bud Norris and Blake Parker. With relatively little help expected from a farm system that was considered the majors' worst when he arrived, Eppler will have to restock the Angels in much the same manner.
MIKE'S TIME: Although Trout had another stellar season, he missed six weeks after injuring his thumb in a headfirst slide. That absence probably will prevent him from winning his third AL MVP award in four years despite leading the AL in on-base percentage (.442) and slugging percentage (.629). Trout has said he is happy with the franchise's direction, and the Angels plan to continue to build around his formidable talent.
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