The Angels farm – whether you think it’s in its renaissance or in arrested development, it’s definitely a focus of fan attention. A decade of largely non-competitive teams – and the living memory of one special lotto ticket issued in Millville, NJ that paid out spectacularly for the franchise – will do that to a fanbase. There are divergent opinions of its strengths, but I think we can achieve some consensus in saying that our farm is a source of mixed pleasures. But it’s also a hard system to otherwise read, because so much of its upside is in raw materials and projectable bodies that have yet to produce much in the way of measurable outcomes. So it may not be so clear where a fan should invest if one only has a hour or so in the week to check the blurbs and boxscores.
So, in absence of a systematic evaluation of the Angels Minor League Top 10, Top 30, Top 99, whathaveyou, I’d like to direct fan attention to precise nodes where the action may be happening in the next few months. It’s hard for anyone who is not a farm-obsessive to comprehensively monitor tens of names throughout even one system (let alone 30 teams), across six levels of MiLB activity, and get a telling read on how certain waves of players might impact the Major League club in the coming years. We could do a positional analysis, or cluster prospects by future value – but there are plenty of websites that do exactly that. And soon enough, there will be live games in action, and as you’ll want to know where to look, let’s try to narrativize the Angels farm landscape a bit. Here’s where I’ll be digging into first.
Inland Empire’s rotation: Is it for real?
Your first instinct when considering the Angels’ high-A club, the IE 66ers, will be to check into Jordyn Adams, the Angels ‘raw & toolsy’™ young centerfielder who surprisingly vaulted into A+ action in 2019, despite his youth and inexperience. He’ll return there again this April after playing roughly league-average ball in a short stint last fall, aggressively promoted after batting 10% better than Midwest leaguers (per wRC+) in low A at Burlington. If not apparent, that’s an exceptional feat for a 19-year-old who had very little dedicated baseball experience in high school.
But the truth is, the 66ers’ lineup is likely to be otherwise fairly dull. Last season they fielded a club made up primarily of late-rounders, redshirt-signs and minor league free agents (Gareth Morgan anyone?), and the result was a club that ranked dead last in almost every Cal League offensive stat. It’s not going to get a ton better in the early going in 2020 – past Adams, it’s still a club largely built of organizational players and a few utility guys who might make for late-inning replacements in a couple years.
But. But. But.
There is something brewing in the rotation out in San Bernardino. Last year’s deep-sleeper magic was definitely in the Burlington Bees starting corps, and many will step up to our Cali club this spring. Coming into this year, I was particularly excited to see a rotation that was going to be fronted by two (hopefully) healthy starters in Chris Rodriguez and Jose Soriano who are definite, no-questions-asked starter material – the former of the frontline variety and the latter a kid with mid-rotation ceiling (though a little bullpen risk). But, like the dreaded and inexorable brring of morning alarm, the first news out of extended spring training let us know that Soriano had succumbed to what all Angels arms of note eventually succumb to: a visit to Tommy’s house. Like Hansel to a hungry witch, Jose, hebegone. (For a season or so, at any rate.)
But don’t let the smog and Amazon warehouses fool you: the Empire is still full of treasure. If Rodriguez is fully healthy after last year’s back surgery, he could become a top 50 national prospect for the Angels by summer. His repertoire is that deep, and his stuff that good. (See here.) Behind Rodriguez, you have Hector Yan and Robinson Pina (#9 and #19 Angels prospects, per Baseball America). Both saw measurable increases in fastball velocity last season, and both come with significant reliever risk due to inconsistent or unorthodox deliveries, and subsequent command and control challenges. A few months with the 66ers should clarify the picture on what they may become.
Three deeper cuts at high-A, each of whom have tended to avoid top prospect lists to date but merit observation: Cristopher Molina, Luis Alvarado and Kyle Tyler. Molina and Tyler each intrigue me for their mature control at this stage of development – and Molina had a couple stretches where he was virtually unhittable last season – and Alvarado for an improving fastball that anchored high K rates across three levels since he was plucked out of Darin Erstad’s Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2018. Each arm had qualified success in Burlington’s rotation last year. We are also likely to see the Angels’ fifth-round selection from the 2019 draft, Garrett Stallings, finally premiere at this level. (Interview between CtPG’s Jeff Joiner and Stallings here.)
Now, I don’t want to oversell this group or give you the impression that national prospect evaluators are willfully underrating our arms. There are as many bullpen pieces among the names above as not. But this is also the largest cluster of MLB-possible hurlers we’ve seen at any minor league level in the Angels’ system in a half-decade, and that’s worth monitoring for a system as pitching-poor as ours has been over the past decade.
Raw Dynamite in Burlington: Will it go off?
The Angels farm is chock-full of what prospect hounds call ‘high variance’ prospects. These are prospects that, due to athleticism or one or two prepossessing tools, have a reasonably high ceiling, but also a high risk of failing to reach that ceiling. They may have a low probability of attaining to the Major Leagues, but also may achieve great things should they thread the needle to get there. Again, the Angels arguably have more of these prospect types than other systems do, as a part of a concerted drafting strategy under Eppler, and that has resulted in both fewer homegrown talents in number bubbling up to the Majors, and longer developmental paths for some of the young athletes in the system.
The result of this drafting strategy is that the Angels have collected a number of these intriguing ‘projects’ at the lower levels of their farm, and several of them are making their way to the low-A Burlington Bees this spring. While the rosters have not yet been finalized, this is where we should expect to see Jeremiah Jackson and D’Shawn Knowles land in April. Jackson showed prodigious raw power in the Pioneer League last fall, while striking out in a third of his at bats. The pitcher-friendly Midwest League should be a tough test of how much the high-elevation park factors of the Pioneer League played into his HR totals last season. We’ll also see what the Angels are planning for him positionally; he was drafted as a shortstop, but most scouts think he’ll end up at 2b or 3b sooner rather than later. Knowles, meanwhile, is likely to join Jackson, slotted in toward the top of the Bees’ lineup, where he will be encouraged to apply his 70-grade speed toward roadrunning ’round the diamond and stealing the extra bag. It’s a little unlikely, but we may see the debut of Kyren Paris, Angels’ 2019 second-rounder, as the season advances. He broke his hamate bone in Rookie ball last season, but depending on health and looks in extended spring training, the Angels might be aggressive enough to test him in A ball.
Likewise, there are new toys to watch in the Burlington rotation this season as well. Two I’m keen to see are Stiward Aquino and Sadrac Franco. Aquino is a tall (6’6″!)) stringbean of a thrower with mid-90s fastball and a power curve. Some scouts think he’s a very projectable rotation piece, and others think he’s destined for the backend of a bullpen, where his velocity, deception and downward plane could make for a potent late-innings weapon. Franco was a Pioneer League surprise last fall – an under-the-radar Panamanian draftee who made significant advances in FB velocity and showed an advanced changeup that gave even some of the more mature college hitters fits, even as he struggled to hit his spots at times.
I’m unsure at this point who the other stable mates will be to fill out the Burlington staff. This is where trading arms like Kyle Brnovich and Zach Peek for Dylan Bundy hurts, as they would have been likely to debut on the Bees this spring, and make a ‘beeline’ (sorry, had to do it) to the 66ers. There are some additional collegiate signs that were shut down after drafting in 2019, pursuant to the new Angels rest-and-develop approach to juniors and seniors who carried full loads for their respective universities.
But the most exciting thing to look out for here – well, Burlington may be the ultimate destination for two of the team’s interesting two-way prospects, William Holmes and Erik Rivera. Holmes was given a small taste of Orem in the fall, so it would not be surprising to see him turn up. Rivera is younger, and may need additional refinement in extended spring training, but we’ll see. Needless to say, this will be an interesting season in the midwest, as we get to learn which of the Angels’ raw materials may prove fissile or explosive, and which turn out to be duds out of the box.
Best in Show at Salt Lake: Can they pass Go?
Of course, everyone knows where the meat is in 2020. Utah is not known for BBQ, but Salt Lake is where the Angels are keeping the prime cuts.
Barring injury (and injuries are near-certainties in this organization), we’ll see no fewer than five prospects who the Angels drafted in the top two rounds in the PCL this April. That includes Jo Adell, Brandon Marsh, Jahmai Jones, Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward. Thaiss, Ward and two-way lefty Jared Walsh are apt to be frequent shuttlers on the OC-Salt Lake flight path, but when in residence, they’ll contribute to a dynamic AAA offense that was top-4 in most offensive categories in 2019. We’ll see who stays healthy through the spring, and who sings the best redemption song come summer. Jones in particular has a lot to prove. The Angels screwed with his swing continuously for a year, then allowed him to revert to his natural stance in summer, whereafter he put up a very fine second half, hitting .313/.412/.469 in August, and .302/.322/.509 in the AFL. There is every reason to believe that this 22-year-old’s story is not yet done, and Luis Rengifo has more than the recently bungled Angels-Dodgers trade as reason to keep looking over his shoulder in 2020, too.
Next cometh the arms. And don’t we need ’em?
Suffice it to say that the 2019 Salt Lake Bees pitching staff was what white-collared wizards tend to call ‘not good’. Indeed, they had a league-worst 6.77 staff ERA, and surrendered more runs than any other PCL club by far. But that doesn’t mean that the 2020 staff will lack talent, or that this will be an equivalently savage year for the buzz boys. In 2020, the Angels will be six deep in backend starters at AAA (Patrick Sandoval, Jose Suarez, Felix Peña, Jaime Barria, Dillon Peters, Matt Ball), each of whom might otherwise make a compelling alternative to one of the backend starters (Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy, Matt Andriese) that the Angels big club picked up in free agency this offseason. And before folks write off many of those names based on their 2019 results in an epic juiced-ball PCL, it’s worth remembering that Sandoval and Barria are still a mere 23 years of age, and baby Jose turned 22 just last month. There’s plenty of development ahead for each of these kids, and we’re bound to see them in Anaheim this season, improved over last year’s models.
Despite a change of scenery and a sneaky-awesome new fan-selected club name, the AA Rocket City Trash Pandas look to be this year’s answer to the 2019 66ers placeholder club – fill-ins, MiLB free agents, and organizational straw, with no high profile farmhands anchoring the rotation or the lineup for our Southern League club. Until a C-Rod or Adams is promoted to the next level, we’re likely to see arms like Oliver Ortega and Aaron Hernandez (who rebounded somewhat in last year’s AFL) working on command refinements there, and maybe a fourth outfielder type like Orlando Martinez working on recognizing offspeed and breaking stuff in a tough circuit. Increasingly in recent years, AA is where other clubs have collected and polished their key prospects, as the AAA park environments exaggerate offense and can lead to bad habits (or depressed confidence). The Angels AA talent gap speaks to the uneven drafting and development pipeline in the Eppler era, one that has prioritized boom-or-bust athletes over a more balanced portfolio of talent. It’s resulted in a handful of exciting players to watch, but often leaves fans hungry for promising storylines to buoy our hopes of vaulting the languishing MLB club back into contention.
In the meanwhile, spring’s almost here. Nature is at work. Keep an eye on the kids!