Over the off-season, the Los Angeles Angels made a lot of noise. They won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, extended Justin Upton, traded for Ian Kinsler and signed Zack Cozart. Beneath the major league exterior, two Angels minor leaguers underwent a big change.
The first two draft picks by the Angels in 2015 (the third, Grayson Long, headlined the deal for Upton last August) both changed positions over the idle months.
Barely three years into their professional careers, first-rounder Taylor Ward and second-rounder Jahmai Jones both moved off their original positions of catcher and outfielder, respectively.
The second-rounder Jones was developing at an economical pace, and climbed to High-A at age 19 in 2017. Between Low-A and High-A last season, he hit .282 with a .348 OBP, stole 27 bases, hit 29 doubles but also surged to a career-best home run count of 14. The performance saw him pop up all over different prospect charts.
Jones’ overall play has tapered off a bit this season at Inland Empire, as he adjusts to the positional change at the keystone. He is hitting just .222 with five errors through 23 games, but again, is just 20 years young and the Angels didn’t tinker with one of their top prospects in haste. He’ll have time to make things right at his new home.
Taylor Ward, on the other hand, has seen his stock travel south since his first round selection in 2015. The second backstop taken, after similarly slow-starting Tyler Stephenson of the Reds, Ward came with expectations of being the future catcher in Anaheim.
The Angels are still searching after striking out on the likes of Hank Conger, Carlos Perez and Jett Bandy. Well, it won’t be Ward either.
The 24-year old moved to third base in Spring Training, a little later than Jones’ switch, at the advisement of L.A.’s front office. Particularly General Manager Billy Eppler, who thinks it will help Ward reach the big leagues quicker.
Drafted as a high-upside offensive catcher, there was always a chance he would move off the position for the long-term benefits of, to put it plainly, not catching. The hot corner became his new destination, and though his adjustment there is coming along gradually defensively —he has four errors and a fielding percentage just cracking .900 through 29 games— his bat has heeded the call.
Ward hasn’t yet tapped into a lot of power, which puts an emphasis on his defense. To subsidize for the shortage of extra-base hits, the 24-year old loves to draw walks.
In his rookie season, he walked 39 times in 56 games. Last season, where he got his first taste of Double-A, he walked 57 times in 87 games. No matter the position, he was going to begin 2018 back at Mobile with the BayBears, but the Angels are feeling some pressure to tick his clock as he outgrows a healthy prospect “age.”
His defensive adjustment hasn’t traveled a distance yet, but he is one of Minor League Baseball’s hottest hitters to start the year, hitting .380 through the first month with 38 hits in 29 contests. He also has four home runs, already projecting to surpass his career-high of 10 from his 2016 stint in High-A.
He’s also flexing his valuable batter’s eye, walking 20 times already. He’s a little strikeout prone, going down 23 times, and punched out 81 times in 2016, but for all that’s been thrown at him, literally as well as figuratively in the past several weeks, the overall stock is very much up on Ward.
However —and wherever— Jones and Ward end up, the Angels have relied on the free agent and trade market to supply their big league club in the past several years. Getting affordable, controllable cost from within would be a big plus in the years ahead.