It’s hard to believe it was only three years ago that the Los Angeles Angels won 98 games and scored more runs than any team in baseball, isn’t it? Since then, the Halos have seen their win total dwindle to 85 in 2015 and 77 in 2016 despite running high payrolls and employing Mike Trout, the game’s finest player.

Years of poor drafts, forfeiting picks to sign free agents, and tough breaks have left the Angels with a barren farm system. There are no impact prospects to call up when there’s a need and general manager Billy Eppler has few trade chips to offer. He’s had to get creative since taking over in October 2015, and has done a nice job filling out his roster by taking on players who had fallen out of favor elsewhere.

As it stands right now, the Angels look a borderline contender at best, even with Trout’s greatness leading the way. A lot is going to ride on health, especially with the pitching staff. I’m not sure any team in baseball is more dependent on good health to have any shot at contention in 2017. Let’s take a look at the upcoming season for the Halos.

The vitals

Let’s take a second to appreciate Mike Trout.

Mike Trout is already an all-time great. USATSI

We are watching an all-time great right now, folks. The 2017 season will be Trout’s age 25 season, and he already has two AL MVP awards and three second place finishes in the voting. You could very easily argue Trout should have five AL MVP awards already. He’s been that good. You don’t need proof, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. Here is the all-time WAR leaderboard for players through their age 24 season:

  1. Mike Trout - 48.5 WAR
  2. Ty Cobb - 46.7 WAR
  3. Walter Johnson -- 44.9 WAR
  4. Mickey Mantle - 40.9 WAR
  5. Alex Rodriguez - 38.0 WAR
  6. Christy Mathewson - 37.6 WAR
  7. Bert Blyleven - 37.4 WAR
  8. Bob Feller - 37.3 WAR
  9. Ken Griffey Jr. - 37.0 WAR
  10. Mel Ott - 36.8 WAR

Eight Hall of Famers, one would-be Hall of Famer if not for performance-enhancing drug transgressions, and Mike Trout. Nine of the very best players who have ever lived and Mike Trout, basically. Over the last 10 seasons Trout ranks seventh among all position players in WAR even though he’s only played five full seasons in that time.

Trout is not only well on his way to the Hall of Fame, he’s on his way to being in the inner circle of the inner circle of the Hall of Fame. The only reasons there is even an AL MVP debate each year are a) the Angels haven’t been very good the last few years, and b) the voters are bored of voting for Mike Trout. That’s pretty much it. The mental gymnastics we see each year to justify voting for someone else are impressive.

Right now Trout is unquestionably the best player on the planet, and yet it still feels like he’s underrated. He doesn’t get as much attention as, say, Bryce Harper or Kris Bryant or Madison Bumgarner. Trout is a once in a generation talent and we’re all lucky we get to see him in his prime. It is truly stunning MLB doesn’t have this guy’s face plastered on every billboard and featured in non-stop commercials.

For the Angels to go anywhere this season, they need Trout to be his typically excellent self. There’s virtually no path to the postseason this year that includes Trout being something less than MVP caliber. Fortunately, there’s no reason to think Trout’s performance is about to slip. In many ways, he’s better than he’s ever been.

How much will they get from Richards?

Garrett Richards is trying to avoid Tommy John surgery. USATSI

In an effort to avoid Tommy John surgery last season, righty Garrett Richards tried an alternative rehab treatment that involved stem cell injections. Richards was healthy enough to pitch in Instructional League last fall and his velocity was reportedly right where it normally sits in the mid-90s. He is expected to make his first Cactus League appearance this coming weekend.

Richards, 28, was limited to six starts by his elbow injury last year. He had a solid 2015 season, throwing 207 1/3 innings with a 3.65 ERA (104 ERA+), and you may remember he was coming back from the brutal knee injury that ended his Cy Young caliber 2014 season in August. The last few seasons have been quite tough for Richards, physically. He’s dealt with two serious injuries over the last three seasons between the knee and elbow.

When he’s healthy, Richards has the ability to dominate even the best lineups. He’s a difference-maker, the kind of pitcher who changes a team’s season outlook considerably. Will Richards be healthy this year? And even if he is healthy, how effective will he be following the elbow injury? There’s no way to answer those questions right now. All we can do is wait and see how he fares out on the mound.

(It should be noted most players who attempt to rehab an elbow ligament tear never make it this far. Most rehabs fail before the player even attempts to play catch. Richards pitched in Instructional League games last year and has thrown again this spring. His rehab progress is extremely promising.)

How much will they get from Pujols?

The Angels have Albert Pujols for another five seasons. USATSI

There are still five (five!) years left on Albert Pujols’ contract. That’s a humdinger of a deal, eh? To make matters worse, Pujols is just now getting to the priciest years of his contract. His average annual salary in the first five years of the deal was $20 million. The average annual salary of the remaining five years is $28 million. Zoinks.

Pujols, now 37, had offseason foot surgery for the second straight year, and he is currently working his way back with the hope of being ready for Opening Day. Things look promising. Pujols has not been truly great in several years now, though he can still be a very good offensive player, as evidenced by his .268/.323/.457 (114 OPS+) batting line with 31 home runs a year ago. It was only two seasons ago that Pujols clubbed 40 home runs.

Here, for the sake of discussion, is what the various projection systems expect from Pujols this coming season:
























That’s ... okay. Not great, not terrible. The ongoing foot problems mean Pujols is essentially a designated hitter at this point -- only 28 of his 152 games came at first base last season -- and last year the average AL DH hit .254/.328/.452 with 26 home runs per 600 plate appearances. The projection systems more or less expect Pujols to be a league average DH in 2017.

The contract is a sunk cost. The Angels owe Pujols all that money no matter what. If he can match the projections and provide power from the middle of the lineup, and make teams pay whenever they pitch around Trout, it should be considered a successful season at this point. Maybe healthy Pujols has one last hurrah in him, a la David Ortiz in 2016 or A-Rod in 2015. That would be pretty fun to watch.

Given Pujols’ age and ongoing lower body injuries -- hitting starts from the ground up, you need a good base underneath you -- the chances of a complete performance collapse in 2017 are much greater than the odds of a return to vintage form. The Angels need Pujols to give them reliable production to contend this summer.

The team defense should be a strength.

I don’t know if the Angels are going to score enough runs to contend or get enough pitching to hang around the postseason race. I am fairly confident they will be one of baseball’s top defensive teams. Cameron Maybin and Ben Revere are big upgrades in left field -- at times last season it felt like the Angels would pluck a fan out of the bleachers and stick him in left, it was a revolving door -- and Danny Espinosa will improve the glovework at second base as well.

Maybin, Revere, and Espinosa join Gold Glovers Kole Calhoun and Andrelton Simmons, and of course Trout has a knack for highlight plays as well. The catching tandem of Carlos Perez and Martin Maldonado might not provide much offense, though they figure to be among the top pitch-framing duos in the game. Those two can really play defense behind the plate. First base is the only glaring weak spot, defensively. As it stands, Anaheim’s list of strengths goes 1) Mike Trout, then 2) defense. They should save their pitchers plenty of hits and runs throughout the season.

Probable lineup

Mike Scioscia is entering his 18th season as manager of the Angels. USATSI

Eppler did nice work grabbing Maybin when the Tigers looked the shed his salary, and also free agent Luis Valbuena when his market collapsed late in the offseason. Here is the lineup manager Mike Scioscia figures to run out there in 2017:

  1. 3B Yunel Escobar
  2. RF Kole Calhoun
  3. CF Mike Trout
  4. DH Albert Pujols
  5. 1B C.J. Cron
  6. LF Cameron Maybin
  7. 2B Danny Espinosa
  8. SS Andrelton Simmons
  9. C Carlos Perez

Bench: C Martin Maldonado, UTIL Luis Valbuena, IF Cliff Pennington, OF Ben Revere

Valbuena is going to get plenty of at-bats one way or another. At first base, third base, DH, whatever. He’ll be in the lineup quite a bit, especially against right-handed pitchers. The top three spots in that lineup are very strong -- Escobar (108 OPS+ in 2016) and Calhoun (117 OPS+) have very quietly strung together several nice seasons -- while the bottom three are pretty sketchy.

When you see the lineup laid out like that, it’s easy to understand why Pujols, as well as Cron and Valbuena, are so important to the 2017 Angels. Those players will help provide lineup depth and support to the top three hitters, who will be counted on to provide the bulk of the offense. As amazing as he is, Trout can’t do it all. He needs help.

Probable rotation

The Angels will have three potential starting pitchers on the disabled list to start the season. Both Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano are rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and waiver pickup Vicente Campos is coming back from a fractured elbow. Here is Scioscia’s projected starting five:

  1. RHP Garrett Richards
  2. RHP Matt Shoemaker
  3. RHP Ricky Nolasco
  4. LHP Tyler Skaggs
  5. RHP Jesse Chavez

There is some sneaky good upside in that rotation. Richards was excellent from 2014-15 before the elbow injury sabotaged his 2016 season. Shoemaker pitched like an ace for four months last year before taking a line drive to the head. Skaggs is still only 25 and he fanned 50 batters in 49 2/3 innings after returning from Tommy John surgery last year.

Of course, there’s also some risk in that rotation. Richards is coming back from his elbow injury and Skaggs’ elbow reconstruction isn’t too in the rear-view mirror either. Chavez is a converted reliever. The Angels aren’t blessed with much rotation depth -- former top prospect Alex Meyer is their No. 6 starter right now -- so they can ill afford to have one or two of their projected starters fail to meet expectations (or get hurt).

Probable bullpen

Starters are throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, making bullpens that much more important these days. Given the fact the Angels will have to handle Richards and Skaggs carefully following their injuries, they figure to lean on their bullpen more than most teams. Here is their projected relief crew:

The Angels have optionable arms -- by “optionable arms” I mean pitchers who can be sent back and forth between MLB and Triple-A without going through waivers -- in Brooks Pounders and Greg Mahle, so they’ll be able to swap guys out as necessary. That depth is very important. No team gets through the season using only seven relievers.

Bedrosian was truly excellent last season, throwing 40 1/3 innings with 51 strikeouts and a 1.12 ERA (358 ERA+). Neither Street nor Bailey are the shutdown late-inning relievers they were earlier in their careers, so Bedrosian figures to be Scioscia’s primary high-leverage reliever. When the game is on the line, he’ll be on the mound. Morin has an elite changeup and could earn a more prominent role in 2017.

SportsLine projection: 77-85 (fourth place in the AL West)