These were the best performers in the Angels' minor league organization last year, according to a simple performance to age metric that I put together. Again, the list is all about their '08 numbers, so it incorporates none of the long term performance considerations or scouting projections that go into a best prospect list.
1) Will Smith, 19, LHSP, Rk – 1.04/12.67/1.30
Walden and Adenhart are just the tip of the iceberg; behind them is a mass of teenage arms ascending through the Angels’ system. Now, it’s true that my scoring system overvalues the performance of the youngest pitchers because the better ones often strike out an ungodly number of opposing hitters for every one they walk. This ability steadily declines as a player advances levels until reaching the majors, where truly elite k/bb ratios begin somewhere around 3.5 to 4, and only rarely climb above 5. But at the lower levels, where great raw arms face inexperienced hitters, that ratio rockets to oh, say, 12.67. Because these ratios tend to foreshadow high performance down the road, I chose to keep them as a variable in my scoring system, even it means that nine of the thirty highest scoring prospects in my system are teenage pitchers. Undoubtedly, some will succumb to injuries and others to just plain attrition; but by including the ratios we draw attention to potential, and as it turns out, the Angels have a great deal of potential at the lower levels, beginning with 2008 seventh round pick Will Smith.
Smith struck out nearly 13 batters to every one he walked last year. This was not quite an unprecedented feet in the Pioneer League, but it was striking enough for Baseball America to rank him the best pitching prospect of the league this year. Not bad for a seventh round pick. He struck out over a batter an inning and induced an above average number of groundballs. Like fellow 19-year-old lefty Trevor Reckling, his size provides room for further projection beyond his already impressive performance. Will Smith may not be the most valuable prospect in the Angels’ organization, but the bottom line is that he pitched extraordinarily well in his professional debut, and therefore accumulated the highest score in my system by a wide margin.
2) Sean Rodriguez, 23. SS/2B/3B/CF/LF/RF. AAA - .306/.397/.645 MLB - .204/.276/.317
Sean had an outstanding year as a 23-year-old straddling AAA and the Majors. He spent two months in Salt Lake, where he set a pace for 45 homeruns over a full season while pushing the Bee’s to their historic twenty consecutive win start. In the majors, he managed to push his batting average over the Mendoza line, set a pace for 47 walks over a full season (which doesn’t sound important until you notice that our other non-Izturis middle infielders combined for just 30 walks in almost 900 plate appearances in 2008), and played well defensively. Tellingly, he outperformed the man who has overshadowed him since the 2003 draft, Brandon Wood: despite the latter’s well-publicized improvement at the plate in the second half, S-Rod still compiled a better major league OPS over the season due to working three times the walks. In AAA, the difference was even more pronounced, where Sean’s 1.042 OPS trumped Brandon’s .945 by nearly a hundred points. Though he lacks Brandon’s bat speed and leverage, Sean has shown consistently better plate discipline throughout his minor league career, a factor that may help him to adjust more quickly to elite pitching. He may never have the same raw power, but right now he’s the more balanced hitter.
Sean also provides more defensive value than Brandon. While he did not play shortstop much last year, Sean’s traditional fielding stats, like fielding percentage, indicate that he has consistently been able to make the routine plays at the position at a higher than average rate. Moreover, PECOTA and CHONE defensive metrics both indicate that he got to more balls than the average shortstop (and both Wood and Aybar) in 2006 and 2007, despite what scouts’ have consistently labeled as “mediocre range.” I suspect that this accusation stems more from Sean’s stocky build than his level of performance, which scouts grudgingly attribute to “a good first step,” and “inherent feel for the game.” In addition to the middle infield, Sean has also played a strong centerfield and third base. For me, Sean’s development at the plate and his quiet competence in the field suggest that he will make valuable contributions to the next five or more Angels’ clubs – perhaps more contributions than any of the Halo’s other current shortstop options. He did well in the Dominican Winter League – 6 homeruns and an .882 OPS through 74 at bats. Could you imagine what sort of publicity a power hitting shortstop/centerfielder who posted a 1.042 OPS in AAA at age 23 would be getting anywhere else but in Brandon Wood’s shadow?
3) Baudilio Lopez, 17.5. RHSP. DSL. K/9=1.24 K/BB = 4.65 GO/AO = 1.45
Baudilio Lopez began his professional career this season before turning eighteen in the Dominican Summer League. He posted a 1.24 k/inning rate while inducing lots of groundballs, both of which bode well for his long-term future. If he can maintain his numbers stateside in the coming season, his ceiling is as high or higher than any of our teenage pitching prospects. He’ll probably pitch in the rookie Pioneer League by midseason next year, though a jump to Cedar Rapids isn’t out of the question.
4) Brandon Wood, 23. SS/3B. AAA - .296/.375/.595. MLB - .200/.224/.327
With just 183 major league at bats to his name, I’m still going to count Brandon Wood as a prospect. Over these past two seasons, he has shown steady improvement in both AAA and the major leagues. Even if the results weren’t immediately evident from his disappointing stats, Brandon made significant strides over the ’07 season in improving both his contact rate and line drive rates, both indicators that he was developing into a more complete hitter; he simply suffered bad luck from a low average of balls in play. Early this season, his production further improved after he lowered his hands in his batting stance to shorten his swing path. Most recently, the number of fly balls off of his bat jumped after the all star break, fueling a power surge that foreshadows the potentially hundreds of round trippers to come. I think we all also noticed how he finally began to leave the low and outside breaking stuff alone in the final weeks of the season. If he continues making adjustments to minimize empty swings and keep the ball in the air, he will be a very good player for a very long time. That said, the comparisons to Evan Langoria just don’t stack up: Evan’s pitch recognition and contact skills are far more advanced, and likely represent the difference between a potential hall of famer and a “second tier” star. Brandon Wood will pack the offensive punch of either an exceptional major league shortstop or an above average third baseman. People have different opinions about his defensive value, but he’s played an average, if unspectacular, shortstop everywhere he’s been, and it’s hard to see how those skills wouldn’t translate into above average or even great performance at third base. Regardless, his maximum contribution to the Angels might be as centerpiece in a Jake Peavey, Matt Cain or Roy Halladay blockbuster trade this winter (just saying…). His performance in winter ball thus far has been dismal (sure enough, the Estrellas de Oriente gave him the boot earlier this week).
5) Eduardo Soto, 17. 2B, U. Dom - .323/.394/.472
Our as-of-yet under the radar teenage prodigy. As a 17-year old, he led the DSL Angels in nearly every offensive category. When I first began thinking about this list in August, he ranked among the DSL’s top 20 in homers, average, OBP and slugging, easily outpacing all other 17-year-olds. Sadly, an end-of-season slump dropped him to 22nd in OPS in the league, behind equally young Yankee centerfielder Eduardo Sosa’s strong finish. Nevertheless, the kid plays second base, shows tools across the board, and his performance at such a tender age indicates a very, very high ceiling. In a system thin on potential superstar talent (though not talent!), Eduardo stands out. Who knows which level he will play at next year, since the Halos could choose to be very aggressive with him - all I know is that he’s a guy I’ll be watching very closely in March.
6) Jordan Walden, 20.5. RHSP. A & A+ – 0.90/2.52/2.11
He throws hard, generates groundballs at more than a 2 to 1 rate, and made a smooth transition to the offensive minded California League. His size and demeanor match the big Texan hurler archetype perfectly. He’s probably got the best raw arm in our minor league system. Thinking about it, these qualities all make him an interesting candidate to step into a late-season bullpen role in 2009, ala Justin Masterson. Nevertheless, he’s still working to establish consistency with his slider, is searching for a serviceable third offering, and his k-rate has yet to touch elite status. Until he shows success at AAA, I remain only warily optimistic that he will become that number two starter that we’d all like to see, but he has already established himself as the Angels’ most valuable minor league commodity.
7) Hank Conger, 20.5. C/DH. A+ .303/.333/.517
Despite loosing almost half the season to injury, Hank stepped into the California League as a 20 year old and ripped high A pitching. What’s more, he made an end-of-season leap into the AA playoffs and continued to hit the ball hard when it counted. Even as just a switch-hitting DH, he is valuable. That said, his offensive ceiling is still constrained due to lackluster plate discipline and an often-ineffective right-handed swing. Moreover, this year represented a complete mulligan in his defensive development – he spent far too few games behind the plate – but he does have decent agility for a big guy and a solid arm. If the defensive side of his game shows any development in the next year or two, he will rocket to the top everyone’s prospect lists.
8) Manuarys Correa, 19.5 RHSP. ASL, Rk. K/9 = 1.08 K/BB = 5.60 GO/AO=1.09
Tracking the progress of this Angels’ Dominican Summer League team alumni is interesting both because of Correa’s own potential as a pitching prospect, and also because it might hint at the trajectory of the cohort of Dominican pitching prospects following him stateside in 2009. As a 19-year-old, Correa manhandled the summer Arizona League, striking out more than a batter an inning (something that he had failed to do in the Dominican a year before) while issuing only one free pass for every five plus of those k’s. However, Correa was oddly hittable given his strong k rate, which didn’t hurt him until hitters teed off upon his arrival in the final stages of the Pioneer League playoff run. His ability to miss bats and limit walks foreshadows continued success in the Midwest League, but his tendency to give up his fair share of flyballs may mean a tough transition when he hits Rancho Cucamonga, possibly as soon as the mid-2009 season.
9) Nick Adenhart, 22. RHSP. AAA – 0.74/1.43/1.33. MLB – 0.33/0.31/1.38
I remain committed to the view that Nick will find major league success in his early 20’s. The performance-to-age metric that I used to make this list supports my inclinations, though admittedly this is because a 22-year-old corpse facing AAA competition could have made this list. True, Adenhart had an abysmal year – a rushed promotion to the majors brought his fine start in AAA to a screeching halt, and following his demotion he never regained his mojo, suffering through a painful summer and an endless fall. All that said, reports grade his sinking fastball, curve and change as major league caliber. Like Ervin Santana before him, he will spend the next few years journeying through baseball purgatory, that stretch of time and space that separates AAA from the majors, searching for his confidence, composure and command. Like Ervin, he will find them. The man remains a mere 22, or two years younger than Clay Buchholz
10) Mark Trumbo, 22.5. 1B. AA - .281/.325/.540
Mark Trumbo finally mashed the way the Angels had been waiting for him to mash since they drafted him in 2004. He was the cornerstone of the Quakes’ lineup until a midseason promotion to AA, where he continued to hit for power and decent average through the Travellers’ successful playoff run. There’s even been a lot of talk of Trumbo as the long term solution at first base for the Halos should Teixeira head northeast for some unmatchable contract offer. While I’m happy to see Trumbo get his due after a great season, I just don’t see him as our every day first basemen, whether it be 2010 or ‘12. His offensive output and play at first recall too much Mike Jacobs - the high power, decent average, low OBP, leaden-gloved first base man whom the Royals recently traded for last week; I’m guessing no one on this site wishes that that guy had instead come to So Cal. Then again, Jacobs posted comparable or better OBP and BA numbers than Trumbo at younger ages throughout his minor league career, so he might not even serve a valid comparison. Mark makes lots of contact and belts homeruns, but he has never hit .300 in three years as a professional in the lower levels; in of itself, that isn’t a huge concern, except that he manages to walk just once or twice a week. Odds are he will not develop into an above average offensive first baseman, and he doesn’t have the glove to support anything else.