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Brandon Wood Memories


Brandon Wood turning a double play with Provo in 2003. That’s Howie Kendrick as his double-play partner.

 

(Windows Media Player and a broadband Internet connection required to watch the video clips in this article.)

I met Brandon Wood in July 2003.

I was in Provo to do a few days of photography and videography of the Provo Angels, the Rookie-A affiliate in the Pioneer League. (The franchise moved six miles west to Orem to start 2005.)

I was at the far end of the team dugout working on my equipment, when a reed-thin teenager sat down on the steps in front of me and said, “Hi, I’m Brandon Wood.”

Brandon was the Angels’ first round pick (#23 overall) in the June 2003 draft, taken out of Scottsdale High School in Phoenix. Everyone wants a piece of the #1 pick, so I try to give them their own space and don’t bother them until they’re used to my being around. But Woody took the initiative to come over, introduce himself, then sit down on the steps and ask about FutureAngels.com.

That was typical Woody. Polite, humble, unassuming.


Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood at Rancho Cucamonga in 2005.

 

Wood was shortstop to Howie Kendrick’s second base at Provo that year. The duo were promoted together to Cedar Rapids in 2004, and then to Rancho Cucamonga in 2005. The two were close on and off the field, and in those days observers speculated which pair of “Siamese twins” would be the Angels’ future middle infield — Wood and Kendrick, or Erick Aybar and Alberto Callaspo who were a year ahead of them.

(It turned out to be Aybar and Kendrick.)

2005 was a magical season for Wood. He hit 43 homers for the Quakes that year, breaking the Angels’ minor league single-season record of 42 set by Dick Simpson with San Jose in 1962.

Woody’s home run record chase became a running joke between the two of us. It seemed that almost every time I showed up to film him at Rancho Cucamonga, he homered. After returning to the dugout and receiving high-fives from his teammates, he’d looked towards me, I’d shrug, and he’d smile.

I sprained my foot at Orem in July, and was unable to work games for about a month. Sure enough, Woody went cold. Between July 25 and August 17, he hit only one homer. I finally limped into The Epicenter on August 18 — and he homered. Click here to watch.

The Quakes were due to play at High Desert on Sunday, August 21. I told Woody I would be there to fix his slump — and swore he’d hit three homers.

I was close. He hit two homers and a double. Click here to watch.

“Told ya,” I said as we left the ballpark.

I was there, of course, on September 1, 2005 when Wood hit home run #43 in his final at-bat of the season to break Dick Simpson’s record. Click here to watch.

Brandon worked his way up through the system, considered the top power-hitting prospect in the organization.

In spring training 2008, he was playing in a Triple-A game at the Tempe minor league complex. This was the year he was expected to challenge for the Angels’ third base job, so I gave him his space and didn’t say a word.

Around the fifth inning, playing third base, Woody dove to his left for a ground ball. He skinned the palm of his bare hand as the ball got by.

At the end of the inning, I made my way through the dugout to reach the field so I could shoot photos. In jogged Woody. He saw me, came over and said, “Hi Steve.” Then he raised his hand. “I’d shake your hand but …” and showed me his dirty, bloodied palm.

Typical Woody.

I scowled and said, “Don’t worry about me! Go play!” But, of course, it was meant with affection.

Brandon was never able in the majors to replicate his minor league success. He’s certainly not the first prospect to fail reaching for the top rung on that ladder, and he won’t be the last.

On April 20, he was designated for assignment, which means his Angels career is probably over.

I consider Woody to be one of the two most humble, polite and professional prospects I’ve known in my thirteen seasons covering Angels minor league baseball.

The other? Nick Adenhart.

My heart aches for his failure, as I’m sure do all those who knew him in the minors. But baseball has no tolerance for failure, so now Brandon will ply his trade elsewhere.

Whereever he might be, I will root for him.


Brandon Wood’s banner hanging at The Epicenter in August 2007.

 

Splitting the Spring


Mark Trumbo led the Angels with six homers in spring training.

 

Hope springs eternal, so in the spring hope is eternal for the fans of thirty major league baseball clubs.

Some tend to take spring training stats as an accurate barometer of what will happen during the regular season. There’s no relationship, of course, between the spring and the subsequent 162-game schedule. In the early weeks, veterans play only a couple innings and focus on shaking out the rust. The late innings of spring games are filled with minor leaguers, and the lineups in some road games feature mostly names that only a Baseball America reader might recognize. And the thin dry Arizona air causes fly balls to carry further.

If anything can be gleaned from spring training stats, it might be in the last two weeks, when veterans play more and major league pitchers throw the bulk of innings.

With that thought in mind, here’s a look at what certain Angels players and prospects did in spring training overall, and within the last two weeks.

Mark Trumbo — Mark was the camp sensation, leading the Angels with six homers. A groin pull on March 16 cost him a couple games, but he was back in the lineup on March 22. Mark’s AVG/OBP/SLG overall were .297/.316/.662. But if you look at his numbers starting with his March 15 game, he hit .226/.250/.548 in 31 at-bats. He had ten strikeouts and walked once. Kendrys Morales will open the season on the disabled list, so Mark will play first base most nights.

Brandon Wood — A one-time top prospect who, if he were a cat, would be on his ninth life, Brandon came into spring with little expectation that he’d be on the Angels’ roster come Opening Day. His overall spring numbers were .242/.286/.530. But March 15 and later, Woody was .333/.412/.800 in 30 at-bats. He had seven strikeouts and three walks. Brandon made the Opening Day roster.

Jeff Mathis — Jeff is another Angel whose career so far has failed to live up to expectations. As an example of how meaningless are spring stats, in 2009 he had a spring line of .340/.429/.717 (53 AB), but in the regular season hit .211/.288/.308. This spring, Matty hit .391/.429/.522 (46 AB); since March 15, it was .440/.481/.600 (25 AB).

Howie Kendrick — In his minor league days, some suggested that Howie might win a batting title some day. By that measure, his career so far has been a disappointment, with a line of .295/.327/.425. In spring 2011, his overall numbers were .364/.413/.439 (66 AB). On/after March 15, his numbers were .361/.390/.472 (36 AB).

Erick Aybar — Nagging injuries and a bad plate approach plummeted Aybar’s 2010 numbers to .253/.306/.330. This spring, overall he’s .317/.359/.417 (60 AB). On/after March 15, he was .333/.394/.467 (30 AB).

Peter Bourjos — The words “Gold Glove” seem to have attached themselves to Pete’s outfield defense, but the question is will he hit enough to justify an every-day spot in the linup? In 2010, he hit .204/.237/.381 (181 AB) in his rookie season. This spring, he hit .364/.471/.564 (55 AB). On/after March 15, Pete hit .400/.514/.700 (30 AB). The Angels will gladly take a high OBP out of Bourjos and put him in the leadoff spot.

Scot Shields Memories


Scot Shields with his mother Ida in the cornfield at the Field of Dreams in July 1998.

 

According to the movie Field of Dreams, the only ballplayers in its cornfield are ghosts, but I met a real live one there.

In July 1998, shortly after I started the FutureAngels.com web site, I made my first road trip to an Angels affiliate — the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Iowa.

While in Cedar Rapids, I planned to make the pilgrimage to Dyersville, where Field of Dreams was filmed on a farm just outside the town. The site welcomes visitors, honoring the adage, “If you build it, they will come.”

I issued an open invitation to the Kernels players to go with me, to bring their jerseys so I could take a photo of them in the cornfield. Reliever Jaymie Bane, the son of future Angels scouting director Eddie Bane, accepted so in the early morning we picked up his jersey and cap at the old Veterans Memorial Stadium and headed off for Dyersville, about a 90-minute drive.

When we arrived, we found Scot Shields and his mother Ida were already there. As a group, we headed out to the cornfield. I took photos of Jaymie in his uniform, then Scot borrowed Jaymie’s jersey and cap to pose as well.

At the time, Scot was considered a non-prospect. He was a rubber-armed reliever scout Tom Kotchman (Casey’s father) spotted pitching for tiny Lincoln Memorial University. The Angels selected him in the 38th round of the June 1997 draft, another in a long line of college seniors Kotch has drafted over the years to bolster the bullpen of his short-season teams. He appeared in 30 of the 76 games the Boise Hawks played that year, finishing with a 2.94 ERA in 52 innings, all in relief.

With the Kernels in 1998, Scot remained in that role, appearing in 58 of their 140 games, posting a 3.65 ERA in 74 innings.

Scot was promoted to Lake Elsinore in the High-A California League to begin the 1999 season, and there was every reason to think he’d remain in the bullpen perfecting his setup reliever specialty. But a rash of injuries to the Storm starting rotation during April forced Scot into the starting rotation by May.

And sent him on a fast track to the big leagues.


Scot Shields (left) being introduced at the 1999 California League – Carolina League All-Star game held in Lake Elsinore.

 

Scot pitched so well that he was named to the California League All-Star team. In nine starts, he had two complete games, including a shutout on July 7 at Stockton. His ERA in those nine starts was 2.08.

I’d just bought a camcorder, primitive by today’s standards, and decided to try it out filming Scot’s July 12 start against Rancho Cucamonga. Click here to watch. (Windows Media Player and a broadband Internet connection required). After that game, Scot was promoted to the Angels’ Double-A affiliate in Erie, Pennsylvania. In ten starts for the SeaWolves, he had a 2.89 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings. At season’s end, he was named the Angels’ minor league pitcher of the year.

So confident were the Angels in Scot’s abilities that they moved him up to Triple-A Edmonton for 2000. He finished the year with a 5.41 ERA in 27 starts, but this was the Pacific Coast League where high-octane ERAs are the norm. In 163 innings, Scot struck out 156, which led the PCL and set an Edmonton franchise single-season record.

A trip to Edmonton was beyond my pocketbook, but my wife and I planned a drive up north to intercept the Trappers on a road trip to central California. We saw Scot pitch at Fresno on June 8, then followed the team north to Sacramento.


Scot Shields pitches for Edmonton at Fresno on June 8, 2000.

 

The Angels’ Triple-A affiliation changed to Salt Lake for 2001, so Scot opened the season with the Stingers. He had 24 starts, but got his first major league promotion on May 25 and made his major league debut the next day in his home state at Tampa Bay, with his family in attendance.

In 2002, he returned to Salt Lake and also to the bullpen, as the Angels groomed him for the role he would have during most of his major league career — a rubber-armed reliever who could also spot start. He returned to Anaheim on June 14 and never looked back, playing an important role in the Angels’ world championship season. Scot in 2002 had a 2.20 ERA in 49 innings.

In those early years, there was still some sentiment that the Angels were better off with Scot in the starting rotation, and in 2003 he started 13 games, although after that the Angels kept him exclusively in the bullpen.

Scot announced his retirement on March 18 at age 35. He was only the third Angel with more than ten years of major league service to spend his entire big-league career with the Angels; the other two were Tim Salmon and Gary DiSarcina (the latter appeared briefly in the Red Sox’ minor league system before he retired). Sports Illustrated named Scot the “setup man of the decade” for 2000-2009.

I’ll always remember Scot as an easy-going fan-friendly young man who was a bundle of superstitions and rituals. He had a thing for McDonald’s hamburgers, never with any lettuce or pickles or any other condiments. When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released in May 1999, I remember sitting with him on the Lake Elsinore bench talking about the movie. Scot was excited because, “I’ve never seen Star Wars in the theatre before,” only on VHS, and I felt very old because I was part of a generation that never saw the films in first-run other than in a movie theatre. He swore he’d never give an interview until he reached the big leagues; but once he did, Scot was a regular chatterbox on Angels pre-game and post-game interviews.

Hopefully the Angels can find a place for Scot in the organization. He was a major part of Angels history in the 2000s and I can’t imagine him anywhere else other than with a halo on his cap.


Scot Shields pitching in Anaheim on March 30, 2002, the end of spring training.

Mark Trumbo Steps Up to the Plate


Mark Trumbo at fall instructional league in September 2008.

 

Mark Trumbo may be the Rodney Dangerfield of Angels prospects.

Mark has always been on the fringe of Baseball America‘s Top 10 Angels prospects. This year, he ranked #9. In the three years before, he ranked #29, #8 and #11.

In their 2011 review, BA analyst Matt Eddy wrote:

He doesn’t chase offspeed stuff away like he once did, but he swings and misses too much to hit for a high average. Detractors question whether he has the bat speed to hit the very best fastballs.

The more statistically inclined John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com wrote in 2010, “Trumbo looks like a guy who will get buried as a minor league slugger,” but this year says, “I still see him as a ‘surprise season’ candidate in the next couple of years, but keep in mind that it is easy to put up gaudy numbers in Salt Lake.”

Having been an occasional observer of Mark’s career since it began in Orem in 2005, I’ve been more enthusiastic about his potential than other analysts. On the FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects lists, Mark was #3 in 2008, #7 in 2009 and #6 in 2010.

Everyone learns at a different rate, in baseball as well as everywhere else in life, so many on fan boards over the years have dismissed him as a prospect because he didn’t instantly arrive in the major leagues and hit 40 homers. I think people tend to forget he was profiled more as a pitcher prospect out of high school than a hitter, although his high school hitting numbers were impressive. It was an audition by scouting director Eddie Bane in the spring of 2004 at Angel Stadium that convinced him to draft Trumbo as a hitter, after watching Mark hit some balls into the left-center field fountains. Mark was drafted in the 18th round of the June 2004 draft yet received a $1.425 million bonus, because he was already ticketed for a college education at USC.

Mark is 25 now, a bit old for a top prospect to emerge from the minors, but my observation has been that it’s taken him longer because he tends to want to test and experiment and think things through. In this March 8 MLB.com profile, reporter Lyle Spencer describes Mark as “soft-spoken and analytical,” and writes that Mark is “more focused on fundamental elements — pitch recognition, controlling his aggression, improving his glove and foot work at first base — to dwell on how far balls travel off his bat or how much fear his line drives create for pitchers.”

When I read that passage, I thought, “Yep, that’s Mark.”

I’ve flashed my own cautionary lights about Salt Lake numbers. In the FutureAngels.com Top 10 reports, when I analyze Salt Lake hitters I break out not just their home/away numbers but their numbers in the five Pacific Coast League super-hitter friendly parks (Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Reno) versus the rest of the league, which shows a more accurate picture of the hitter’s performance.

Trumbo’s 2010 numbers:

OVERALL AVG/OBP/SLG: .301/.368/.577 (595 TPA)
HITTER-FRIENDLY AVG/OBP/SLG: .334/.403/.614 (395 TPA)
NEUTRAL/PITCHER-FRIENDLY AVG/OBP/SLG: .236/.300/.505 (200 TPA)

The batting average number dropped significantly in the neutral/pitcher-friendly parks, but the slugging percentage was still more than respectable.

Mark is the “hit,” so to speak, of spring training. His AVG/OBP/SLG in 27 at-bats are .370/.393/.815 with three homers and three doubles. Spring training numbers are meaningless, especially early in the month when pitchers have yet to round into shape, and many of the pitchers are actually minor leaguers filling the back-end of a nine-inning game.

Yet he’s in the spotlight now because it appears that Kendry Morales probably won’t be fit enough to open the season at first base from the Angels. Kendry is still recovering from his broken leg and has yet to run on the field. A March 5 Orange County Register article quoted manager Mike Scioscia as saying it’s possible for Morales to open with the Angels, but the article notes that Kendry still runs in harness on a treadmill to carry some of his weight while running. That’s not a good sign less than a month before Opening Day on March 31.

So the door appears wide open for Trumbo to fulfill a lifelong dream and play first base for the Angels to start 2011. If and when Morales is ready, Mark probably returns to Salt Lake. The Angels have exposed him to right field the last two seasons, and it seems logical to play him in the corner outfield positions as much as possible to groom him as a backup for Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter. Along with Morales, those are three very large road blocks for Mark’s career, but one never knows when an opportunity will present itself — such as Kendry breaking his leg celebrating on home plate after a grand-slam.

Chuck Tanner Memories


Chuck Tanner with the Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers in 1962.

 

Former major league manager Chuck Tanner passed away on February 11 at age 82.

Perhaps best known for managing the 1979 world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, Tanner’s playing career ended with the Angels and his managing career began with the Angels.

Credit for Tanner’s Angels connection goes to Roland Hemond, who was the Angels’ original farm and scouting director.

I interviewed Roland in June 2007. Click here to listen. Roland said that he and Angels General Manager Fred Haney knew Tanner from their Milwaukee Braves days. Tanner was with the Braves’ organization from 1946 (when the team was still in Boston) through 1957, when he was claimed on waivers by the Chicago Cubs. The Angels purchased Tanner’s contract from the Cleveland Indians on September 8, 1961 and had ten plate appearances with the original Halos before season’s end.

Tanner appeared in 114 games with the Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers in 1962. The Rangers were the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate, but shared their affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies. Among his teammates were Angels Jim Fregosi, Fred Newman, Bob Lee and Phillies Pat Corrales and Cookie Rojas.

Hemond told me that as the Rangers neared season’s end, Tanner told him of a desire to begin a managing career. Haney and Hemond released him as a player during the winter and assigned him to manage the Angels’ minor league affiliate in Quad Cities, Iowa.

Over eight years as an Angels minor league manager, he had a cumulative win-loss record of 561-537 (.511).

During the 1970 season, Hemond was hired as the general manager of the Chicago White Sox. Roland hired Tanner as his manager. In 1972, the White Sox finished 87-67; Hemond was named Executive of the Year and Tanner was named Manager of the Year. But the Sox never posted another winning season under Tanner, and he was fired after the 1975 season.

Tanner was one of three D-FW Rangers to go on to a major league managing job. Jim Fregosi, Bob Rodgers, Cookie Rojas and Pat Corrales all went on to managing in the majors, the first three had stints with the Angels.

More Mike Marshall


1974 Cy Young Award winner Mike Marshall, who now resides near Tampa, researches the physics of pitching mechanics.

 

A year ago, I interviewed Dr. Mike Marshall, the 1974 National League Cy Young Award winner who later became a controversial advocate for a radical overhaul of pitching mechanics. You can learn more at his web site, DrMikeMarshall.com.

Since then, Dr. Marshall has contacted me from time to time for advice about video editing. He let me know yesterday that his first newly edited video is now available on YouTube. Click on the arrow below to watch the video.

 

 

I found particularly interesting how Mike put stripes or dots on a ball to make it easier for you to see in slow motion the rotation on a pitched ball.

Blue Jays Trade Mike Napoli to Rangers


For the second time in five days, Mike Napoli has been traded.

 

MLB.com reports that the Toronto Blue Jays have traded recently acquired Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco and cash.

I posted this blog on January 22 looking back at Napoli’s Angels minor league career.

Hank Conger’s New Gag Reel


Hank Conger’s high school video, “Hank for President.”

 

Back in his high school senior year, before he was drafted by the Angels in June 2006, Hank Conger made a government program class gag video that wound up on YouTube (see above). Once discovered, it rippled through Angels fan boards. In May 2007, I recorded an audio interview with Hank in which he explained the video’s origins.

Now Hank has a sequel of sorts on YouTube, as discovered by the Halos Heaven web site:


Hank’s new video, “Domingo Ayala: Catching with Hank Conger.”

 

The video was produced for the Domingo Baseball Academy, which appears to be a gag. (Click “About” on the menu bar.) It also has Mark Trumbo in a video. Conger and Trumbo, both from Orange County, have been pals since both joined the Angels’ organization.

Mike Napoli Memories


May 10, 2002 … Mike Napoli (center) poses with Tommy Murphy (left) and Justin Turner (right) when the three were playing for Cedar Rapids.

 

There was little reason to think Mike Napoli would have a major league career when the Angels selected him in the June 2000 draft. In its 2000 draft preview, Baseball America listed Napoli as the #22 prospect in Florida. Described as a catcher-first baseman, Napoli’s BA review stated:

Napoli is a dominant offensive player who can hit with power to all fields. He led his county in almost every department this spring, ranging from home runs to stolen bases. Scouts aren’t sold on his ability behind the plate and see him as a corner infielder. He’ll go as far as his bat will take him.

BA predicted that Napoli would be selected in the second to fifth rounds. He was chosen in the 17th.

Napoli was sent to Rookie-A Butte in the Pioneer League (the same league as today’s Angels affiliate, the Orem Owlz). He appeared in only ten games — three as a catcher, six as a first baseman, one as a pinch-hitter — before he was disabled for the season due to a lower back strain.

He spent the next three seasons primarily as a second-string catcher, and in 2003 was the backup to Jeff Mathis at Rancho Cucamonga when he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

At that point, it seemed like Napoli was doomed to spend his remaining professional baseball days as a journeyman minor leaguer. Other than the occasional show of raw power, nothing was extraordinary about the skills he’d shown.

While he rehabbed during the off-season, Napoli dropped 20 pounds and set his mind to stepping up his game. Returning to Rancho Cucamonga for 2004, he quickly became one of the top hitters in the California League, and was named to the mid-season All-Star Game.


Mike Napoli signing autographs at the 2004 California League All-Star Game.

 

I interviewed Mike on June 5, 2004 to ask what he’d done to turn around his career. Click here to listen to the nine-minute interview. (Windows Media Player required.) He said his off-season workout involved five-days-a-week sessions at a Phoenix sports clinic, but he’d also learned how to keep his mechanics consistent.

Napoli finished 2004 with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .282/.393/.539. The next spring, he debuted in the Baseball America Top 30 Angels Prospects list at #29. BA Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli has a polished, professional hitting approach and obvious power … The biggest question surrounding Napoli is whether he’ll be able to catch at higher levels.”

Mike moved up to Double-A Arkansas for 2005, posting an AVG/OBP/SLG of .237/.372/.508. As you might expect with such an unusual line, Napoli didn’t hit often, but when he did it was for power. He also took a lot of walks — 88 bases on balls, which led the Texas League. Napoli also lead the league in homers (31), RBI (99) and strikeouts (140).

In spring 2006, BA ranked Napoli as the Angels’ #11 prospect. Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli’s lone plus tool is tremendous raw power … He’s not much of an athlete or runner, but he has improved behind the plate. His arm strength is average and he has smoothed out his footwork and exchange, allowing him to lead the Texas League by catching 47 percent of basestealers last year.”

Every year since 2001, I’ve written in November an annual FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Report. As impressed as I was by how Mike had turned around his career, I just couldn’t find myself believing in it enough to rank him as a Top 10 prospect. I worried about his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, about the relatively low batting average and all those strikeouts. I figured major league pitching would eat him alive.

Mike turned out to be “the one that got away” in my prospect lists. He made his major league debut in 2006, after just 21 games with Triple-A Salt Lake. The 2008 season was arguably his best, posting a line of .273/.374/.586 with 20 homers in 78 games. But his shoulder problems returned; he was placed on the disabled list for a month in July with “irritation” in his right shoulder, and returned to Rancho for five rehab games in early August. After the season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder.


Mike Napoli with the parent club in spring training 2008.

 

Although Jeff Mathis was always considered the organization’s top catching prospect and Napoli projected as a backup, Mike and Jeff eventually settled into a routine where they somewhat evenly split the Anaheim catching duties. Mathis never hit as expected, but justified his starting role with “plus” defense. That changed in 2010, as Jeff threw out only 20% of baserunners. Mike wasn’t much better, nailing 27% of runners. After Kendry Morales broke his ankle on May 29, Napoli played first base in 70 games, while Mathis assumed most of the catching duties. Bobby Wilson was called up to provide catching depth, suggesting that the Angels might be concerned Napoli couldn’t catch every day any more.

Hank Conger reported to Anaheim once the Triple-A season ended and impressed in limited duty, so going into the winter it seemed likely the Angels might try to move Mathis or Napoli. Mike seemed the more attractive option because of his power bat, so when the Angels traded Napoli and Juan Rivera on January 21 to Toronto for Vernon Wells, it cleared the logjam behind home plate. The Angels will open 2011 with Mathis the starting catcher, Wilson the backup, and Conger in the wings playing every day at Salt Lake.

The Blue Jays have their own catching logjam as Napoli joins veteran Jose Molina and prospect J.P. Arencibia. It would seem that Napoli provides some depth and insurance should Arencibia flop, otherwise he’ll spend most of his time at first base and as a designated hitter.

I’ll always remember Mike Napoli as the non-prospect who willed himself into a major league regular. When critics and cranks dismiss a minor leaguer as “not a prospect,” I’ll point to Mike Napoli as an example of what’s possible if you work hard enough.

2011 Begins


Mike Trout will face high expectations in 2011.

 

After a somewhat somnambulant winter, the Angels enter 2011 with more questions than answers.

The bullpen was strengthened by the signing of free agent lefty relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, but didn’t flush hundreds of millions of dollars into a “name” like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre.

In 2009, the Angels led the American League in batting average (.285), were fourth in total bases (2,482), second in runs scored (883) and third in stolen bases (148).

In 2010, the Angels were 12th in average (.248), 11th in total bases (2,142), ninth in runs scored (681), and seventh in stolen bases (104).

What went wrong?

Many fingers are needed to point the blame, but in summary it boils down to several players had disappointing years. Their failure to produce anticipated offense was one major factor in the Angels’ decline from 97-65 in 2009 to 80-82 in 2010.

Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis failed to produce as projected. Kendry Morales broke his left ankle on May 29 when he leapt onto home plate to celebrate a home run. Juan Rivera had a down year.

If they all rebound in 2011, no one will care about Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre. But that’s a big “if.”

On the mound, Jered Weaver delivered a Cy Young Award-caliber season, and Ervin Santana pitched to expectations, but after that the pitching staff was somewhat disappointing. 2009 free-agent signee Joel Piniero missed about ten starts due to injury. Joe Saunders had a 4.62 ERA in 20 starts, then was shipped to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal. Haren had a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts. Scott Kazmir, now the lone lefty in the rotation, had a nightmare year with a 5.94 ERA.


Loek Van Mil was acquired from the Twins in the trade for Brian Fuentes. Van Mil is listed as 7’1″ tall.

 

The bullpen was another disappointment. Brian Fuentes had a 3.52 ERA in 39 relief appearances before he was sent to Minnesota in a September 1 trade for minor league pitcher Loek Van Mil. Fernando Rodney appeared in 72 games but had a 4.24 ERA. Scot Shields was 5.28 in 43 appearances, unable to recover effectively from a 2009 injury. The rest of the bullpen was a mix of young relievers — Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Trevor Bell, Bobby Cassevah and Rich Thompson — who offered future promise.

Nothing is certain in life, nor in the baseball universe. Splashy free-agent signees don’t guarantee anything.

They also siphon off a lot of money that could be invested into player development.

Years ago, Baseball America did a study where they concluded it cost about a million dollars to develop a major leaguer. I’m sure that number is much higher today, but it illustrates the impact on the budget when signing a player for a mega-buck contract. Using as an example Beltre’s six-year $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers, that’s $16 million a year that could have been invested in future talent.

The flip side of that argument is that an established major leaguer is more of a “sure thing” than a prospect. The failure in the last decade of the Angels’ minor league system to produce a hitter that lived up to expectations underscores that reality.

So can the Angels rely someone in the mix of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Mathis to step it up?

If not, the focus will shift to the next generation of prospects. Peter Bourjos arrived in early August and showed off his plus-plus defense, but only hit .204 in 181 at-bats. Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo had token appearances, but will probably return to Salt Lake.

After them, everyone awaits the arrival of the savior, Mike Trout.

But fans need to temper their enthusiasm. Let’s not forget he’s only 19 and has only a half-year of experience at advanced Class-A. For every prospect, there comes a time where he experiences failure for the first time. Can he adjust? That’s the true test, because for every professional baseball player his career is a series of adjustments as opposing pitchers seek out flaws and weaknesses. So let’s give the kid some breathing room, okay?

I look forward to a full healthy season for Randal Grichuk. He injured both hands in 2010, but during his last month of play with Cedar Rapids after his return he hit .366/.385/.645. As with many Angels minor league batters, Randal didn’t take many walks, but in that month he showed an improved knowledge of the strike zone, which is a good first step.


Charitably listed as 5’8″, Alexi Amarista hit .400 in 70 plate appearances during his late-season audition with Triple-A Salt Lake.

 

Two middle infielders are on the prospect radar. Jean Segura may switch to shortstop or remain at second base. He reminds me of a cross between a young Alberto Callaspo and a young Erick Aybar, but neither of those has produced the stellar numbers hoped for earlier in their minor league years. Diminutive Alexi Amarista may be the “feel good” story of 2011. He’s likely to start the year at Salt Lake, and the PCL is always generous to hitters, but he too draws few walks and tends to chase bad pitches.

If Aybar and Kendrick have another disappointing year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels have Segura at shortstop with Triple-A Salt Lake by season’s end as half of a double-play tandem with Amarista at second base.

The pitching prospect depth shallowed significantly in the last year, due to the Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren trades. The Angels sent Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith to Kansas City for Callaspo. Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez went to Arizona for Haren.

I’ll be watching closely the progress of three pitchers — Tyler Chatwood, Trevor Recking and Garrett Richards.

Chatwood was the Angels’ 2010 minor league pitcher of the year. With High-A Rancho Cucamonga, he had a 1.77 ERA in 14 starts (81.1 IP), averaged 7.7 strikeouts per 9 IP and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.91. Promoted mid-season to Double-A Arkansas, his ERA climbed to 3.82 (68.1 IP), his strikeout rate dropped to 4.7 per 9 IP, and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.3:1. At age 20, he would have been one of the youngest starters in the Texas League, where he should resume in 2011.

Reckling was the 2009 minor league pitcher of the year, but at age 21 couldn’t handle Triple-A Salt Lake (8.53 ERA in 69.2 IP) and at mid-season found himself back in Double-A with Arkansas (4.56 ERA in 79.0 IP). Trevor is pretty much the only significant left-handed starting pitcher prospect left in the system, so the Angels need him to mature past his growing pains.

Richards will be 23 on May 27, and will probably start the season with Double-A Arkansas. Between Low-A Cedar Rapids (19 starts) and High-A Rancho Cucamonga (7 starts), Richards averaged 9.4 strikeouts per 9 IP. He has a mid-90s fastball, slider, changeup and curve ball. The curve could be a “plus” pitch but he seems reluctant to use it.

It’s possible that the Travelers’ opening night roster could include Chatwood, Reckling and Richards in what might be the elite starting rotation in the Texas League. Of the three, I think Richards has a chance to move up the fastest due to his age and overall repertoire.


Will Smith pitching for Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League championship series.

 

Oh, one another pitcher I’ll be watching — from afar — is Will Smith. Traded to the Royals, I’ve always thought his ceiling is underestimated by many observers. Prior to the trade, he had a strange odyssey that saw him move up from Rancho to Salt Lake as an emergency after the Bees’ rotation was decimated by promotions. He’d been sent down to Arkansas when he was traded. He finished the regular season back in High-A with Wilmington in the Carolina League, where he had a 2.80 ERA in eight starts (54.2 IP). Always stingy with the base on balls, Will struck out 51 and walked four.

Those numbers are not a typo.

The Royals then assigned him to their Double-A team’s post-season roster. Smith started the Northwest Arkansas Naturals’ title game against Midland, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings. I wasn’t surprised, because I saw him on the mound for Rookie-A Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League playoffs. In a pressure game, Will goes into a higher gear.

If Smith returns to Double-A for 2011, it’s likely he will face his former Angels teammates for the first time since the trade. In a year or two, it might happen again at the major league level.

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