Yesterday, the Angels released their list of 20 non-roster players who would be getting invites to this year’s Spring Training. The NRI(Non-roster invitee) announcement is an annual tradition that signals to the rabid fans that baseball is getting closer, and Cactus or Grapefruit league action is almost upon us. It’s always fun to see what new prospect or minor league contract is getting a chance to head to Arizona and represent the Halos; some of them are still fairly green from a draft that happened less than a year ago, like the Angels’ #1 prospect Taylor Ward, who was given an invite to camp. Others are names we’ve seen for awhile now, but may just be working their way up the organizational road map, like Halos Heaven favorite Sherman Johnson. The bad news is that there are upwards of 250 guys in the Angels’ minor league system, and they’ve only got room for 60 players, so no matter how much we champion someone, they may be left twisting in the wind.
Then, every so often, there are just odd question mark players...guys who seem to be held in decent favor with the club, and have some minor league experience, but don’t receive a coveted invite. This year, that player is Roberto Baldoquin. Is there a decent reason why he’s not going to be in Tempe?
Robert Baldoquin is the young, Cuban infielder that the Angels gave a whopping $8 million signing bonus to back in December of 2014, and who was expected by many to move through the system at a brisk pace and be with the big league club in 2016. Hey...it’s 2016 now! Still no Baldoquin. Considering that hefty price tag that then-GM Jerry Dipoto put on the highly touted prospect, and their need for decent infield depth, you’d expect him to have been given an invite, for sure. So what went wrong? That is a question that could spark a bunch of gossip or speculation, but I have a feeling the answer isn’t so deep or nefarious.
The first issue with Baldoquin is the success he’s had in the minors so far; or rather, lack thereof. While he was projected to start his pro career in High-A or Double A, he found himself in not only a totally new game, but a startlingly new culture, as well. Writers Taylor Blake Ward and Vanessa Armas, of Inside The Halos, had a great piece on Baldoquin late last year, and it shined a little light on what his troubles may have been, as well as how he may have already corrected them and put himself back on an upward trajectory.
After beginning the season 0-for-17 with nine strikeouts, it was evident that baseball in America was a culture shock for the 21-year-old Cuban prospect. Since those first five games though, Baldoquin has turned things around, and is batting .258 with a .612 OPS, and is beginning to show the tools and talents the Angels paid for when they signed Baldoquin for $8 million in December.
Over his last 30 games, Baldoquin is batting .315 and has cut his strikeout rate in half, from nearly 30% of his plate appearances to just under 14%. He's been given praise from his coaches, particularly his manager, Denny Hocking of the Angels Class-A Advanced affiliate,Inland Empire 66ers, for his work ethic both offensively and defensively.
That piece also mentioned that he fixed a problem in his swing late in the season, and saw immediate results, which is more good news for the youngster’s state of mind. The Baldoquin train was back on the rails it seemed...so again, why no Spring Training invite?
You’d think a team a team that is so bereft of young, talented prospects would want the few good prospects they have(Baldoquin made the Top 10 Angels prospect list for Baseball Prospectus, and the aforementioned Taylor Blake Ward is still REALLY high on him) to get some time with big league coaches and players; a chance to learn and grow, get their feet a little more wet in those MLB waters, all in a practically-no pressure environment. That’s the main point for many of the NRIs you’ll see in Tempe, after all. Again, the more you think about what good these invites for young players can achieve for their budding baseball careers, coupled with how hard the Angels were in on this guy from the start, you begin to scratch your head at the fact that he wont be with the team this Spring.
As juicy and gossipy as these Spring Training tea leaves may be, I have a feeling the reason the Angels didn’t invite Baldoquin to camp is fairly simple: they don’t want to rush him. Baldoquin is not only young(a mere 21 years old!!!!), but he’s made a huge leap in going from Cuba to the USA, and they may have gotten a little gun-shy while looking at his numbers from the beginning of his pro campaign. Then, he gets settled in, makes adjustments, and things begin to click, even if only a little bit. There is precedent for this sort of thing, anyway: Josh Bell is currently the Pirates’ #3 prospect, and is #49 overall, according to MLB.com. Yet he wasn’t one of Pittsburgh’s NRIs. And why? Because they are taking it SLOW. A few years back, when C.J. Cron was a top Angels prospect, he also didn’t get an invite to Spring Training(although, to be fair, he was fresh from getting healed up from an injury so the Angels were understandably wary). It happens quite often, really; a player may be a top prospect, but these teams have organizational steps they like to take in developing prospects, and when you throw in an $8 million price tag, you can’t really blame them for busting out the kid gloves.
Would I like to see Roberto Baldoquin get some more experience working with big league coaches and players this Spring? Totally. Do I think it would benefit him? Totally. Is it necessary in his path to contributing to the Angels? Nope! In the end, with some of these young players, it seems the slow and easy approach works better than trial by fire, especially with a guy like Roberto Baldoquin: 21 years old, in a foreign land, and facing some of the best competition he’s seen in his baseball life, thus far.
The Angels are tapping on the brakes this Spring, but we haven’t heard the last of Roberto Baldoquin. For right now, i'm happy with him continuing his current trend of improvement via hard work, and giving him some breathing room while more and more he's figuring this whole MLB thing out. I don't think the Angels are giving up on him, and I don't think we should, either.