Does it seem like forever since you’ve heard news of the progress of Angels farmhands? Yearning for small-ball and lowercase prospect action, in hopes of a better MLB future for your Halos? Feeling disconnected from the greenshoots of organizational talent?
Well, it’s not just you. Hell, it’s not even us. It’s literally been eighteen months since professional baseball has had organized competitive minor league games in play – the result of a cancelled 2020 season, and a 2021 season postponed by a month.
But that’s all about to change…beginning today. Each of the Angels new and current minor league clubs, save one, holds its first contest tonight. And their AAA club, the Salt Lake Bees, begins action Thursday night. After too much quiet, the farm-hound has returned, sneaking in the mudroom door like an awkward just-vaccinated relative, inviting himself to dinner, on uncertain terms and with unforeseeable results, ready to pass the hotdogs and soda down the bench. It’s all happening, fam!
It’s plenty weird though – and not quite what we knew even two years ago, when leagues were already barreling toward the future with automatic strike zone experiments and extra inning rule tinkerage.
Well, what’s changed?
Well, what hasn’t? The 2021 season represents the biggest transformation of farm baseball in my lifetime, and Baseball America has downed acres of digital forests to account for it all – more than is reasonable to elaborate in this space – but if you want a primer, I’d suggest starting here and here.
If you want the thumbnail version, it’s this: the MLB owns and operates it all now. Nice of them to care, eh?
They’ve simplified and restructured the leagues, essentially getting rid of all short-season ball and dis-affiliating 45 clubs in the process. This means a lot fewer MiLB franchises in rural communities and “flyover” country, especially the Mid- and Mountain West. There are four league levels (AAA, AA, High-A, Low-A), and a 120 game season for each, distributed across roughly 20 weeks of play. Teams see each other for much longer at a stretch – a six-game series followed by a Monday travel day. Players are likely to get sick of each other over a week of battle, but are also likely to appreciate cutting their bus and plane travel basically in half (something MLB owners also have hungered for, to cut one significant expense in talent development).
For the Angels, it means saying goodbye to our Iowa-based club(s) in the Midwest League, along with the Orem Owlz (and the always-fun pinball machine ballparks in the Pioneer League). The Inland Empire 66ers are still with us, but they’re a low-A ballclub now (formerly high-A). Our high-A team is a new franchise in a tiny six-team league that was formerly the short-season Northwest League. And we finally see the debut of our much-anticipated AA Trash Pandas in “Rocket City” (Huntsville) Alabama, courtesy of the Southern League.
One positive here is the Angels have another club situated on the West Coast now; one negative is that it’s in bumf*ck rural Washington (forgive me, Pasco, I’m sure you have fans!) – well off the flight-paths of most Southern Californians (and hell, even most PacNorthwesterners).
To visualize all this in one handy table, along with newly posted rosters, I present you this:
|Salt Lake Bees||AAA||Pacific Coast League||Roster|
|Rocket City Trash Pandas||AA||Southern League||Roster|
|Tri-City Dust Devils||A (High)||Northwest League||Roster|
|Inland Empire 66ers||A||California League||Roster|
What to watch for as an Angels fan
Inland Empire 66ers
The outfield roster is a bit of mess, and I’m not sure where the Bahaman duo of Knowles & Deveaux are (not on the current roster! maybe at a ’90s R&B reunion concert?), as this is where they were rumored to be targeted. The infield, on the other hand, features three notable top-30 Angels prospects in Jeremiah Jackson, Kyren Paris, and Jose Bonilla. Jackson and Paris have serious power potential (Jackson set a Pioneer League HR record in 2019), and Paris has strong defensive chops, so these guys are worth tracking. This is also where we’ll see the pro debut of top-ten organization prospect Jack Kochanowicz (RHP), the return of intriguing two-way player Erik Rivera, and last draft’s fifth-rounder, command lefty and former Dirtbag Adam Seminaris.
Tri-City Dust Devils
Outside of #3 Angels prospect Jordyn Adams in centerfield, this is a pretty depleted offense, full of minor league free agents and late-round organizational soldiers. The rotation, however, is chock-full of a lot of below-the-radar types who performed surprisingly well in the Midwest League in the final pre-pandemic season of 2019. Of these you probably know Hector Yan, but may be less familiar with Robinson Pina, Cristopher Molina, and Luis Alvarado. Some of these guys will become relievers, but who knows? Another name to watch here is Davis Daniel, a 2019 TJ value pick who was getting noticed at the alt site for his high spin rates and a solid three-pitch mix that played well against established talent.
Rocket City Trash Pandas
I have to confess – this lineup is one of the saddest I’ve seen at any Angels affiliate in the past decade. A lot of free agent cruft averaging age 26 or so, and one potential fourth-outfielder in Orlando Martinez. It’s an inauspicious bunch that really earns the name “trash pandas”. I have to say – the front office really scrounged for its dinner here. The rotation does, however, feature 2020’s first-round draft selection Reid Detmers, and three stretch-possibles in Packy Naughton, Oliver Ortega and Denny Brady – most likely taxi squad talent eventually, but we hope for the best!
Salt Lake Bees
And speaking of taxi squads.. The Bees again will be the source of many taxicabs-cum-ambulances throughout the season, and there are planty of familiar characters here to reckon with. Ward, Thaiss, Rengifo. Barria, Suarez, Sandoval and Peters on the mound. And, well, of course, Jo Adell, and eventually fan-favorite Brandon Marsh…that is, when Marsh arrives there, ETA mid-May. As ever, the Georgian gent is nursing a labrum issue and working out in Arizona, hoping for full health and a window (any window!) to show what he can do absent his many bandaids and tourniquets.
“State of the Farm”
Ah geez, I’m supposed to be a booster here, right? This is an Angels superfan site after all. But I’m also an unreformed truth-teller, so I have to be straight with y’all and say it’s not quite what they’ve told you. After a messy falling-out with former GM Jerry Dipoto mid-decade, the Angels’ PR machine went into overdrive and it seemed you couldn’t read an article about the farm system without hearing about its rapid renaissance under developmental wunderkind Billy Eppler. Athleticism, speed, ceiling – all were in great supply, and a top-five system was just around the corner.
The reality is, uh, I dunno. You feelin’ lucky? Eppler’s drafts were top-heavy and aimed young and frisky (read: high-variance). When the draft-room picked from the collegiate ranks, they went after high-floor, low-ceiling types (eg, Thaiss, Wilson). They made precious few selections from available pitching talent. Of 14 top-100 selections across five Eppler drafts, only four were pitchers, and only two of those chosen in the top two rounds. The result is one of the most pitching-poor talent pipelines amongst the 30 MLB clubs. MLB Pipeline ranks the Angels farm system at #25 overall, and Baseball America ranks it at #22. Once Fangraphs updates its 2021 rankings and Jo Adell falls off the list, that #21-25 range is likely where it’ll land. (BA meanwhile ranks Dipoto’s Baby Mariners at #2, and well, aw shucks, Job must have saved some tears for the rest of us, no?)
The key attribute of the current Angels system is an astonishing lack of depth – there’s just not a lot of high-ceiling prospects in terms of sheer number. It’s a trio of promising outfielders (Adell, Marsh, Adams), a trio of starter candidates with mid-rotation ceilings (Detmers, Rodriguez, Kochanowicz), and a lot of raw material and lotto tickets. Much of the latter takes the form of up-the-middle infielders (Arol Vera, Kyren Paris, Jeremiah Jackson). The Angels could really use some deep drafts, tilted toward collegiate pitching and catching, and a reboot of its international programs, which have had a very modest yield during the Eppler-Moreno years.
So for 2021, we watch for the maturation of a handful of key players, and monitor any movement or breakout performances among the young starters of ambiguous ceiling at the lower levels of the system. Something has to tilt our way eventually, right? If we’re looking toward our Halos, we have to be looking up, amirite?