Photo Courtesy of Angels Baseball

JC Ramirez — The Nicaraguan right-hander led all Angels starters in wins in 2017 with 11. 

Fans must have been wondering how long Angels management was going to remained shackled by the self-induced payroll purgatory the club had put itself in with the mammoth long-term contracts given to Albert Pujols (still with the team and still owed $114 million) and Josh Hamilton (no longer in baseball).

General Manager Billy Eppler was given some freedom to spend this offseason and went shopping. He extended the contract of power-hitting outfielder Justin Upton (35 homers and (109 RBIs), who was acquired by trade from Detroit late in the 2017 season, to give some lineup protection to Mike Trout that Pujols, who had 23 homers and 101 RBIs but a career-low 143 hits, may no longer be able to provide regularly at age 37.

He traded for former Tiger and Ranger Ian Kinsler to shore up second base with the hopes that last year’s .236 batting average doesn’t mean the 35-year-old’s best offensive days are firmly in the past. 

And he also signed free agent Zack Cozart to play third base beside  2017 Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Cozart — who hit 24 homers last season for Cincinnati — has never played third in the majors but is expected to be able to make the transition. Even with the limited range Pujols has playing first base, this could be one of the best defensive infields in baseball. And catching is another 2017 Gold Glove winner, Martin Maldonado.

Trout is considered by many the best all-around player in the majors, and is healthy after missing 48 games last year due to a thumb injury. He, Upton and former Gold Glove winner Kole Calhoun can all cover ground in the outfield. The Angels do need for Calhoun, who did hit 19 homers and drove in 71 runs, to reduce the 134 strikeouts he had last season.

The reason Pujols, who could reach both 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBI career milestones this season, won’t DH exclusively? The Angels got the most intriguing free agent available in Shohei Ohtani, a 23-year-old Japanese player who is getting an opportunity to both pitch and be a designated hitter.

Scouts in both leagues have raved about his arm, which has thrown a 100-mph fastball, and his bat speed, which generates terrific power. His spring has been rocky but the Angels will give him every chance to succeed on the mound — to the point of using a six-man rotation — and at the plate. If Ohtani can help them at either spot, or both, the Halos figure to be in the chase for a wild card playoff spot.

Conventional wisdom says wild card because Houston, which finished 21 games ahead of the second place Angels in the American League West last year in route to its first ever World Series title, is still relatively young and formidable in its everyday lineup. The Astros will also have veteran right-handed fireballer Justin Verlander for the entire season, making its starting pitching rotation even stronger.

The Angels pitching should see a drop from last year’s team 4.20 ERA, assuming the probable rotation JC Ramírez, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs — plus Ohtani — with and veteran bullpen arms Cam Bedrosian, Jim Johnson Blake Parker and Noe Ramirez stay focused and healthy.

It’s a reason why a losing record this spring has not discouraged Mike Scioscia, starting his 19th season as the Angels manager, nor has it altered the direction first set in February by the club.

“Right now we’re trying to put the finishing touches on our pitching staff because there have some guys who are a bit behind,” Scioscia said. “I think our starters are starting to catch up. And hopefully our bullpen is coming together the way we need it to.

“You’re not gonna really know know until you get into the season, see how guys react, and if there are any roles that can start to be defined. But we have good arms down there, and hopefully we are gonna have guys who can come in and get outs.”

The Angels should be a better offensive team than the one that collectively batted a dreadful .243 last season. And if the defense becomes as good as advertised, they could be in the potential playoff picture with other candidates like the Astros, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Twins, and Brewers.

A particularly nasty stretch of the season comes fairly early. The Angels will play 16 games (from May 22 to June 6) against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Tigers on the road, and Texas and Kansas City at home without a day off.

If they can withstand that, there will be plenty of season left to make that playoff run.