"How was the once mighty Angels organization reduced to the likes of Paul McAnulty, Cory Aldrige, and Michael Ryan?" I've seen asked in the comment threads. "Where do they find these guys?" Trust me, Mike Scioscia isn't playing them because he wants to. Sometimes, when your organizational depth is suffering, you just have to put a warm body at first base. But five years ago, the Angels' farm system suffered only from an embarrassment of riches. Experts consistently rated it one of the top, if not the top player development program in the league.
While things are trending upward, Angels fans are becoming used to this formerly laudable system checking in near the bottom of the annual pre-season prospect rankings. What happened? Is this story a tragedy, a comedy of errors, or something else? I'm not qualified to assess the current state of the Angels' farm system (talk to rghan about that), but I can ask: How does the Angels' future of five years ago compare to the present? What could it mean for their future in another five years?
In this series, I'll take a look at the Angels' top prospects from 2005, where they are now, and where they might be going. The point isn't to pout over could-have-should-have-would-have alternate histories, but to add perspective to the baseball player development process, a process that rivals the dark arts in cruelness and inscrutability.
We're going to start with two players whom we've all watched struggle in search of their identities: Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick.
Note: Those of you who pay attention to such things realize that the media typically ranks prospects before a season, so that 2005's top prospects were actually the best minor-league performers of 2004. I've obscured that convention. I'm considering anyone who either began 2005 as a hot prospect or ended it as one. Most of the press evaluations are actually from pre-2006 prospect rankings, but I've marked the few exceptions.
Erick Aybar (SS)
Where He Was
Erick Aybar was a highly touted prospect ever since the Angels signed him as an 18 year-old in 2002. The early returns were good, and they got better as he moved up in the system. Aybar followed up a .330 / .370 / .485 performance at High A Rancho in 2004 with a similarly exciting .303 / .350 / .445 campaign the following year in AA. He stole a total of 100 bases in those two seasons, and scouts praised his glove and arm as well. He looked like a younger Orlando Cabrera, with more speed and a higher batting average. The fact that he wasn't even the most highly regarded shortstop in the Angels' system spoke to its incredible strength.
What They Said
Still putting the finishing touches on his game, but still a fine prospect. #5 organizational prospect, Grade: B+ -- John Sickels
Overshadowed by fellow shortstop Brandon Wood, Aybar's nothing to sneeze at. He's got plus speed both on the bases and in the field and could help out this year if needed. #49 overall -- Jonathon Mayo
"He's one of the most exciting players I've had to manage against, offensively and defensively. He loves to play and is just fun to watch." #46 prospect overall -- Baseball America (quoting a minor league manager)
How many good-fielding, switch-hitting, 22-year-old shortstops can hit .300 every year while showing plenty of power and top-notch speed, yet not be a household prospect name? As far as I can tell, only Aybar, which is why he's one of the most underrated prospects in baseball. #32 prospect overall -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
Aybar has had mixed success in his major-league career. He put in two unremarkable seasons as a part-timer in 2007-2008 before finally getting a full-time job in 2009. He didn't disappoint, hitting .312 with good gap power while playing an excellent shortstop. He was pretty much the player everyone thought he was going to be, except that for some reason he wasn't very good at ripping off bases. That was perhaps the only refinement we hoped to see, and expectations were high heading into 2010.
Instead, Aybar seems to have become confused as to what kind of player he is, perhaps as a result of being asked to replace Chone Figgins in the lead-off spot. Light hitters who can work counts are very rare, yet Aybar appears to be trying to learn patience on the job. His walk rate has improved slightly (though it is still below average) at the expense of every other skill at the plate. He lets too many hittable pitches go by while still swinging at ones he shouldn't. UZR claims that his defense has taken a tumble as well; he does appear to make the occasional spectacular play but botch a fair number of routine-to-moderately-difficult plays. To top it off, he's not much better at stealing bags.
It's not clear what to expect from Aybar going forward. He's gained a reputation around here as a five-star talent with a ten-cent head, and that may be an unfair attribution earned from the ill-fated Game 4 of the 2008 ALCS. Only time can tell if the real Aybar lives in 2009 or 2010. He still has two more years of arbitration with which to redeem himself from this forgettable season, but I think the Angels were expecting four or five great seasons from Aybar instead of two or three. He really needs to do something special next year to fight off the creeping expressions of disappointment.
Howie Kendrick (2B)
Where He Was
If expectations were high for Erick Aybar, they were positively stratospheric for Howie Kendrick. A sleepy 10th round pick out of junior college in 2002, Howie simply torched the Pioneer League during his first pro-season in 2003. Kendrick recorded ridiculous batting averages of .368, .363, and .367 as he hacked his way through the lower- and mid-minors. His swing-first-ask-questions-later approach at the plate raised a few eyebrows, but the furious rate at which he launched supersonic line drives into outfield gaps and corners was pretty hard to argue with. By 2005, the season in which he destroyed the Pacific League with a .369 average, he was one of the top pure hitting prospects in baseball. Somewhere, sometime, someone suggested that he might win a major-league batting title, and as we all know too well, the meme stuck.
What They Said
An excellent all-around hitter with improving defense. Could win batting titles. #2 organizational prospect, Grade: A- -- John Sickels
"I just love his bat. He gets the barrel into the zone very quickly and it stays there for a very long time." #12 prospect overall -- Baseball America (quoting a scout)
You get the feeling Kendrick could hit .300 with one arm tied around his back. He's a batting champion waiting to happen. #12 prospect overall -- Jonathan Mayo
In 292 minor-league games, Kendrick has an incredible .359 batting average...while he rarely walks his ability to consistently make contact in nearly 90 percent of his at-bats is a good sign. Plus, if you were a .359 career hitter would you be trying to draw a walk? #8 prospect overall -- Baseball Think Factory
Where Is He Now?
I'm sorry to say that those batting titles are probably never going to happen. His first partial season in 2006 produced only a .286 batting average with no plate discipline to speak of, but he roared back to hit .322 / .347 / .450 in 2007. He was nagged by injuries both that season and the next, the latter of which he finished "only" hitting .306. Still, no one expected Howie Kendrick's demotion to AAA in June of 2009. A few weeks as a Bee seemed to set Howie straight, however, as he hit a spectacular .351 / .387 / .532 after rejoining the team in early July. Seeing Howie Kendrick hit like he was expected to hit for an extended period of time generated cautious enthusiasm for 2010.
Instead, Howie has slipped into comfortable mediocrity. His first four seasons were a roller-coaster of brutal slumps and injuries punctuated by occasional streaks of thermonuclear intensity. This year he's consistently hit about .270 with middling power. That's not good enough to make him even an average hitter, as his near total inability to draw walks requires a batting average north of .310 in order to sustain an acceptable OBP. Unfortunately, it's really hard to hit .310 when you strike out 15% of the time and hit line drives at a sub-average rate.
It turns out that Howie's impatience is just too much to overcome at the major-league level. He's helpless against a good breaking pitch, and he has an uncanny ability to hit sharp liners squarely at the other team's right fielder. His solid glove at second (which UZR disfavors this year for some reason) does make him a moderately useful player overall, but in an age of unusually strong offensive second basemen, Howie is a disappointing afterthought. His best value to the Angels at the moment may be as trade bait, as his natural skill, which shines so brightly on occasion, is sure to entice scouts like bees to a rainy day picnic.
To be continued: If Part 1 wasn't gloomy enough for you, just wait for Part 2 tomorrow.