ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Rocket City Trash Pandas are nearly 2,000 miles from Angel Stadium physically and about eight years ahead of their major league club spiritually. The first is obvious every time the Los Angeles Angels recall a player from their Class AA affiliate. The latter was on display one Sunday last month, when the Trash Pandas in Madison, Ala., celebrated their Southern League first-half victory over the Northern Division by spraying champagne.
Even with superstars like Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels haven’t popped the champagne cork since winning the American League West in 2014.
“The celebration was amazing. Our minor league coordinator is down,” pitcher Chase Silsett said, referring to Joey Prebinski, who is in his second season in the position after spending two years as the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen coach. “After spring practice, they were telling us, ‘This is what we’re trying to do.’ We are trying to win here.”
But the hapless and traditionally starved Angels, in free fall again this season, aren’t just paying lip service to changing the culture of their minor league system. They executed a draft strategy last summer that hadn’t been tried at any point since the draft began in 1965: They picked every pitcher.
From the first round to the end, the Angels went 20 for 20. Right-wing, left-wing. Most of the projects are for beginners. Some figures landed in the bullpen. Tall pitchers (eighth-round pick Nick Jones and 15th-rounder Glenn Albanese are both 6-foot). Short pitchers (20th rounder, Marcelo Perez, is 5-foot-10). Heavy pitchers (first round pick, Sam Bachmann, weighs 234 pounds). Lightweight pitchers (fourth round, Luke Murphy, weighs 175). Nineteen of the 20 were college pitchers, indicating the Angels’ relevance: College pitchers are older than high school pitchers, generally more advanced, and as such have faster paths to the majors.
The early signs for the Angels are promising, even if things continue to go south in the big leagues: Nine pitchers from last year’s draft made up the bulk of Rocket City’s staff this season, including Silsett, Bachmann, Jones, Murphy. , Key Bush, Brett Kerr, Eric Torres, Braden Olthoff and Mason Erla.
And Silseth became the first of 612 players selected in last year’s draft to reach the majors, picking up a victory on May 13 in his debut at Oakland.
“Pitching was obviously a priority for us, something we really wanted to attack,” said Perry Minassian, the Angels’ second-year general manager overseeing his first major league draft in 2021. “We thought it was really cool. The harvest of weapons last year and, obviously, the previous year was reduced not only in quality, but also in quantity.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 draft was shortened to just five rounds, which helped secure that number. This year’s draft, which will begin on July 17 and last three days, will also consist of 20 rounds, down from 40 in previous years as a result of a new collective bargaining agreement between players and owners.
Whether the Angels’ philosophy of buying in bulk could lead to a trend in an industry in which pitching is always in short supply is something other clubs have discussed in their own internal conversations.
“That’s a great question,” said Joe Delicari, Pittsburgh’s director of scouting since 2012. “We could go on for hours discussing what happens in a game and how pitching is used in major league baseball if you have horses to go six innings versus how many pitchers go only four or five innings.
“The gridiron with 13 pitchers, how that plays into our case, that’s going to be interesting,” he added. “Every team has a lot of dialogue about it. We are.”
Delicarri was the Pirates’ assistant director of scouting in 2010, when the club opened its eyes and took right-handed pitchers with nine of its first 10 picks. Their first pick that year was Jameson Taillon, a right-hander who had been plagued by injuries for a few years but pitched well after last year’s trade to the Yankees. Only four others have moved on to the majors — Nick Kingham, Jason Hursh, Brandon Compton and Zach Weiss (who faced just four batters in 2018, didn’t reach an out, and has an ERA). Of the nine pitchers, only Taillon made an impact.
Although the Pirates needed pitching at the time, Delicari said the club wasn’t making a concerted effort to target righties. It just so happened that the Pirates thought those pitchers were the best at the time. Like Mike Chernoff, Cleveland’s general manager, said the Guardians weren’t necessarily focused on all pitching in last summer’s draft, even though 19 of their 21 picks were pitchers. Only the angels made up more.
“Believe it or not, it was more just a function of who was on the board at the times we were picking,” Chernoff said. “We didn’t come in with a strategic approach to take a ton of pitching. We feel our system is deeply positioned with player talent. But we tried to get the best player on the board given the places we were in.
“I think it was a very strong draft.”
The Angels, relievers and San Francisco Giants, who selected pitchers with 14 of their 20 picks last year — including 13 of college age — are hoping time will prove that it was indeed a strong pitching effort.
Overall, however, the vagaries and unpredictability of amateur talent pools make matching a particular skill set with an organizational need in a given year exceptionally difficult.
“I can only speak for us, but every year is different, every draft is different,” said AJ Preller, San Diego’s president of baseball operations. “For several years, there is power in the catch. For several years, there has been a strength in high school position players. For us, we are still the best players available in every round. “
Even in an era with a dearth of pitching in the majors, most scouts see this as a light year for top-level amateur pitching.
“There is no pitching anywhere,” said one American League team official who was not authorized to discuss the draft publicly. “Planet Earth is not pitching.”
Perhaps, if that proves accurate, the Angels — and the relievers and the Giants — did well to buy pitching in last summer’s draft. But no project comes with guarantees. In 2018, Kansas City selected 26 pitchers among 43 picks, and in 2021, five of those pitchers started at least one game for the Royals — Brady Singer, Chris Bubic, Jackson Kovar, Daniel Lynch and John Hasley — to make history and raise expectations. . It was the first time five pitchers from the same draft class started in the majors in the same season for the team that drafted them.
But time will tell: Singer, Bubic and Lynch are currently in the Royals’ rotation, Heasley has made 11 starts but is on the injured list with a sore shoulder, Kovar is in their ballpark, and Kansas City has played so far. expectations. As measured by ERA, WHIP and total runs allowed, the Royals’ rotation is the worst in the AL. Whether pitchers go through the usual developmental hiccups or whether these starters become busts won’t be known for several years.
As for the Angels, the first-inning title in the Rocket City was a moment to celebrate, but like all minor league moments, it comes with caution.
“We were really encouraged,” Prebinski said. “The maturity of the group, the overall competitiveness and also in terms of personnel. “Most of these guys came from places where they competed at a high level, so we felt good.”
Just like Angel, who was regularly shut out of the playoffs in his career and whose biological baseball clock ticks louder every day.
“I think we looked at the pitchers last year and thought this would be a huge upgrade for us, and obviously it’s paid off,” said Trout, who turns 31 on Aug. 7. “Look at the Double-A team, it’s unbelievable. .”