The Angels essentially cleaned out the minor league cupboard last December in their trade for Andrelton Simmons, dealing power pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis to Atlanta. Installing the game’s premier defensive shortstop did not have the desired effect on the win-loss column, and now the Halos have to dig out of a double-whammy that sees them owning the league’s least-regarded farm system as well as one of its worst records.
There are pieces to work with here, but to reverse the damage that’s been done the front office will need to emphasize a healthy pipeline by not constantly dealing from it in perpetual ‘win-now’ mode. Draft and international efforts could also use a jolt, and with $40M coming off the books this offseason in one fell swoop (Weaver, C.J. Wilson), perhaps the time is ripe for owner Arte Moreno to divert some dinero into rebuilding the farm.
There may be creative ways for GM Billy Eppler and crew to add young talent over the winter and beyond. First, let’s examine some season highlights and lowlights from their stable of prospects.
In a system sorely lacking in high-end tools, Jahmai Jones stands out with athletic gifts that clearly elevate his ceiling but also may ensure a high floor. Jones was honorable mention All-State (GA) as a slot receiver before the Halos signed him away from a UNC baseball commitment in an over-slot deal.
Progression with the bat and specifically adding loft to his contact will be the thing to watch, because everything else he brings to the table looks legit so far. The 19-year-old flashed plenty of speed (19-25 on the bases) and even some patience (29 K: 21 BB) in earning a Pioneer League All-Star nod and an aggressive promotion to the Midwest League in August. If the teenager makes similar strides and holds his own in full-season ball, he’s an easy candidate to bust into a theoretical top 100 list.
In Burlington, Jones linked up with 2016 first-rounder Matt Thaiss, whose polished offensive approach gives the team a potential fast-rising option that could be ready within the next couple of seasons. Thaiss was a catcher in college but did not don the gear in his first pro campaign. Since he’s closer to contributing to the Trout and Pujols Window than most of the Angel farmhands, the priority is apparently keeping him healthy.
Infielder David Fletcher has obvious Ecksteinian qualities and may be a finished product defensively, where he could be usable at three spots. He returned from a hand injury in June to hit .323 in the second half, earning him a promotion to the AA Texas League and offering hope he could turn into something more than a utilityman. Fletcher will clearly never be a purveyor of power hitting, but his contact-and-defense profile remains valuable to the team because so few in the upper levels are ready to help the big club if called upon.
On the pitching side, Grayson Long deserves a mention for showing signs of a MWL breakout early on, but also an asterisk because he missed two months with a mystery injury that nearly went unreported by those close to the club.
The 6’5", 230-pound Long has a workhorse build, throws two above-average pitches (FB, CH), and has a proven track record in a rotation going back to his Texas A&M days. Long will head to the AFL to make up for lost innings and continue to work on his third pitch with Scottsdale pitching coach/slider aficionado Michael Wuertz, who also oversees the Inland Empire (LAA - A+) staff.
20-year-old Panamanian right-hander Jaime Barria has youth, pitchability, and expert control on his side. He was also absurdly consistent in his first taste of full-season ball, going exactly five innings in 22 of his 25 starts this year. But without anything resembling a wipeout offering, his pitch-to-contact approach will be put to the test in the California League, his likely 2017 starting assignment.
Lastly, OF Michael Hermosillo needs an updated scouting report in the worst way. The Ottawa, IL native was a track star and an All-State wide receiver as a prep but chose the Angels’ $100K offer (plus incentives/tuition) over a full ride to play football for the Fighting Illini.
Hermosillo went on to scuffle in his first 500 pro at-bats, but the light went on in his age-21 season despite missing the first two months with a shoulder injury. From June 3rd onward, Hermosillo ripped off a scorching .317/.402/.467 line and generally hit the ball harder and further than he’d previously shown. A learning curve was to be expected for the former three-sport star, but a breakout this sudden was not.
Reports on Hermosillo’s defense are scant but positive on the strength of his high-end speed and range in the outfield. Surprising patience (career 162 K : 115 BB) for a supposedly raw talent is another notch on his belt, and he’s now banked a performance to match the enviable tools. Hermosillo deserves to be in the discussion as a top 20 Angels prospect. (cc: JohnSickels)
2B/OF Brendon Sanger; mostly everyone
Including a 100% overage tax, the Angels invested $14M in Roberto Baldoquin. He’s been a nonfactor with the bat in two injury-filled turns through High-A and threatens to be a sunk cost barring rapid improvement.
None of the team’s four full-season affiliates qualified for the playoffs or even finished at .500, and the lack of quality pitching at every level is the obvious culprit. Victor Alcantara has a live arm that yields sinking mid-90’s heat and a power slider, but he needs immense gains in command to have a shot at sticking in a rotation. A depressed strikeout rate (6.4 K/9) is another red flag considering his stuff.
Further, Alcantara was shifted to the Arkansas bullpen in August and will presumably do the same in the AFL. This doesn’t mean he’s married to a relief role for the rest of time, but it’s the most likely scenario because of essentially a two-pitch attack and an intense, flying-elbow delivery that creates deception but entails inconsistency. On that note, I’ll be looking for the team to continue to work with him mechanically to get the best out of him - he easily has the most pure arm talent in the system.
Fellow right-handers Joe Gatto, Kyle McGowin, and Jake Jewell fared even worse, with each getting bombed at their respective level and ceding their place among (roughly) the Angels' top 10 prospects. A step forward from any of the young hurlers would have been welcomed, as southpaw Nate Smith represents the Halos’ only viable innings-eater in the upper minors. The dearth of pitching on the whole is what led to an ill-timed investment in Tim Lincecum, as well as dart-throw acquisitions of LHP Manny Banuelos and RHP Alex Meyer.
LHP Nate Smith, OF Troy Montgomery
Backstop Taylor Ward was nudged down the totem pole this summer, but closed the season strong enough to perhaps prove ready for his next challenge in the Texas League. In doubling his walk rate and hitting nine of his ten homers after the break, his .774 OPS in the second half dwarfed his punchless (.541) first.
Ward has only flashed over-the-fence power to his pull side in the pros, but the batted ball profile tells us he’s comfortable and even skews towards making contact up the middle and the opposite way. With an above-average batting eye and a certified hand cannon behind the plate, all the pieces are here to eventually compete for a starting job. Now, Ward needs to carry over the momentum he’s generated and prove it in the upper levels of the minors.
video by CAL League maven Bobby DeMuro
Hitter of the Year: OF Jahmai Jones
Pitcher of the Year: RHP Jaime Barria
Breakout performance: OF Michael Hermosillo
Dead last in minor league development and 21 games behind the division leaders, the hope is that the Angels have hit rock-bottom and have nowhere to go but up. Their 10th overall pick next summer will be protected and they’ll also have the ability to spend internationally, barring changes to the league’s CBA.
With so many of their young players falling into the risky-and-unproven category, waiting until next June to infuse talent is not an ideal scenario. Instead, the team would do well to use their financial clout - they’ve had a top-10 payroll for the past fourteen seasons - to further their farm system in creative ways as soon as this winter.
This means going against the grain of the high-priced veterans they’ve become accustomed to, and with Yoenis Cespedes headlining a weak free agent class, it will ultimately be necessary to explore other avenues for help. The Rule V draft in December sticks out as a risk-free shot to add some minimum-contract arms from other organizations, and they also might have the space to clean up in the ‘Minor League’ phase of said draft.
Taking a cue from the crosstown Dodgers on spreading their spending power might not be a bad idea. Andrew Friedman’s crew has been known to absorb a bloated contract or two if prospects are attached to the deal, and the Halos appear to have the cash reserves and porous pipeline to make that type of trade a viable option.
Finally, the Dodgers and others have proven there are bargains to be had on the Pacific Rim. Kenta Maeda’s eight-year prove-it deal jumps out as one of the steals of the last free agency period, while role players like Jung Ho Kang, Dae-Ho Lee, and Seung Hwan Oh have all provided low-investment bang for their buck. The Angels need to be vigilant on the Japanese baseball front, where franchise cornerstones (Shohei Otani) and aging-but-effective bullpen types (Hirano, Miyanishi) could be in play this offseason.
Top 5 Prospects, Probably
1. 1B Matt Thaiss
2. OF Jahmai Jones
3. C Taylor Ward
4. OF Brandon Marsh
5. RHP Jaime Barria